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Dynamic Disability Support

Assistant Professor Jamin Rowan recognized at University Accessibility Center Annual Awards Banquet.

How can professors help students with disabilities thrive? It’s a daunting question, given the variety of disabilities that many BYU students live with. Associate Professor Jamin Rowan (English and American Studies) has recently found unique ways to help his students, and was honored for his efforts at the Twenty-Second Annual University Accessibility Center Awards Banquet on March 9.

A nominating letter from one of Rowan’s students said, “Jamin Rowan is someone who understands and wants to engage his students to whatever their level of ability may be. This has given me and my colleagues with physical or emotional disabilities the opportunity to still participate in class in a meaningful way. He has blessed my life and the lives of my classmates immensely."

Rowan tailors his teaching to the needs of his class, whether those needs be based on physical disabilities, neurodiverse disabilities, or other extenuating circumstances. For example, he has altered the class reading in response to student needs.

Rowan says, “When we began discussing this novel in class and it became clear to me that several of my female students who had survived sexual assault were having a very difficult time with it, I decided to change the reading assignment not just for those students who were struggling with the novel but for the entire class. If there were students who wanted to continue reading the novel I had originally assigned, I made that novel the alternative reading assignment and agreed to meet with those students outside of class. I wanted the sexual-assault survivors in my class to feel like their experiences were significant enough to determine not just what they read but what the majority of the class read; I wanted to signal to them and to their classmates that I was really listening to them and wanted their experiences, which are marginalized far too often, to shape the dynamics of our classroom community.”

Accessibility has permeated Rowan’s entire teaching style, which he attributes to his mother’s example and to his more recent experiences learning how to support his autistic son. When asking a neighbor about how to cope with the everyday struggles of autism, he learned the phrase, “If he could, he would.” It became a new way for him to view the world.

Rowan says, “I've found this mantra to be a very useful way to think about students in my classroom who are struggling in some way: if she could show up to class, she would; if he could turn that assignment in on time, he would; if they could speak up in class more often, they would. In the past, I thought it was my job to hold students accountable to meet deadlines on time and to be in class no matter what because that's the way the ‘real world’ works. I find myself less interested in using my classroom to prepare students for the harshness of the world and more invested in finding out how to support students who are struggling and expressing confidence in their abilities to think and communicate. I still expect excellent work from my students but am much more willing to give them the support they need to meet those expectations.”

The award came with a grant of $6,000 to the College of Humanities, which Rowan recommended be used to help support neurodiverse students. Drawing from his own experiences helping his autistic son, Rowan spoke with Dean Miller about ways to use the money to help these students. Rowan and Bruce Haraguchi (Director of the Diversity and Inclusion Office) recently put together a panel of neurodiverse BYU students to discuss their experiences at BYU and answer faculty questions so they could learn what they need to better support these student’s studies. Advice for faculty included being patient with neuordiverse students, pre-publishing all assignments for the semester so they can plan ahead, and keeping the steps in an assignment very literal so they are easily followed.

We all struggle with obstacles to our learning, though some require more specific assistance than others. BYU honors its students’ commitment to learning by offering them the tools needed to learn. Supporting the teachers, such as Rowan, who are already working toward that goal is just one more way BYU is helping all its students thrive.