In the Spotlight
Volunteer, Usher Syndrome Coalition (USC) and the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind (MCB)
Needham, MA Member Since: 2016
About: Mani G. Iyer is a deaf-blind poet, born and raised in Bombay, living in the United States. He earned a master’s degree in computer science and pursued a career in software engineering. He recently earned an MFA in poetry from Lesley University. His poems have appeared in The Helikon Poetry Journal (translated to Hebrew) and Poems2Go.
Poetry Faculty, MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University
Arlington, MA Member Since: 1994
About: Teresa Cader is the award-winning author of three collections of poetry, History of Hurricanes, The Paper Wasp, and Guests. She has won the Norma Farber First Book Award,The Journal Award in Poetry, the George Bogin Memorial Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College, the MacDowell Colony, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her poems have appeared in Slate, Poetry, AGNI, The Atlantic Monthly, Harvard Review, Harvard Magazine, FIELD, Plume,and many other journals.
This month, In the Spotlight will feature Mani Iyer, a deaf-blind poet, and Teresa Cader, his mentor at Lesley University, who worked together during Mani’s education to address challenges of accessibility and to ensure a successful MFA experience.
What were some of your first thoughts and considerations when you began your work together?
MI: I suffer from a rare genetic disorder called Usher’s Syndrome, which is the leading cause of deaf-blindness in the world. I’ve been severely deaf since the age of four, and I gradually lost my eyesight until about five years ago, when I became blind. During the first interview with my mentors, I explained the nature of my disability and we came up with a method for communicating responses, as traditional handwritten edits would not work for me. Teresa Cader was keen on understanding my issues first-hand; she visited my home to observe my work environment. She wanted me to demonstrate how I read and write poems on the computer using the screen reader software. Despite my hearing aids, I am unable to hear some words clearly and have difficulty comprehending in a noisy environment. Teresa was sensitive to my hearing issues, and she went above and beyond to communicate patiently over the phone or in person.
TC: I had met Mani at a residency gathering of poetry students and faculty before I started working with him. He explained his disabilities to our group and mentioned the special device he uses to communicate in workshops and seminars. I had read faculty evaluations of him and studied his application essay, and I knew that he was extremely intelligent and articulate. I looked forward to working with him. I was concerned about the mechanics of the process. Mani uses screen reader software on his computer that helps him read and write text. The screen reader speaks out the entire interaction with the computer, including reading lines of the poem. Every character or word can be read individually as well. He directs the audio output to his hearing aids for better clarity. My responses and feedback had to be in digital format. Mani and I agreed upon a format for edits/comments that would make it easy for him to read via the screen reader. That is the primary way we worked on individual poems, his thesis, and his craft essay and seminar. We worked together for two semesters. Once I caught on, it was quite simple. During Mani's second semester, he received improved hearing aids and we were able to talk on the phone about his work in addition to our monthly written exchanges. The phone greatly improved the speed with which we were able to work and enabled more nuanced conversations about the fine points in his poems and my commentary.
What were your expectations for the MFA program when you began at Lesley University? In what ways were these expectations met or not met?
MI: I developed a love for poetry in my college years. During my career as a software engineer, I found writing poetry to be cathartic. A few years after going on disability due to blindness, I decided to pursue an MFA in poetry to get more intimate with the creative process.
My expectations were simple: get an academic grounding and learn as much as possible from faculty and colleagues. I was concerned that I would have a difficult time following along in group conversations and workshops. The director of the program met with me several times before I joined the program to assess my needs and explore options for working together. My colleagues and faculty at Lesley were amazing. Steven Cramer, the MFA director, along with the other administrative staff at Lesley, contributed a lot to make my journey as smooth as possible. The one thing I was disappointed about was the lack of poetry books in digital media that were accessible to me. Perhaps the best thing the MFA program did for me was bring me in contact with a wonderful poetry community, help me come out of isolation, and introduce me to Teresa, who believed in me and encouraged me to write poetry for the love of writing.
What advice would you give to MFA students, or to writers who are considering applying to MFA programs, who are facing issues of accessibility?
MI: Students who are facing issues of accessibility should take the initiative to explain their disability and needs to the school and the MFA program director. They should do this as early as possible to give the school enough time to assess and accommodate them as best as possible. It is important to remember that all accommodations may not be met due to logistical issues or financial constraints. Exploring other accessibility resources, like nonprofit organizations or state agencies, will help. In my case, organizations like Bookshare, Learning Ally, and Massachusetts Commission for the Blind provided me the additional support I needed.
What advice would you give to schools and instructors who are working to improve the accessibility and accommodations of their MFA programs?
MI: In general, I would advise schools and programs to look closely into the needs of the disabled community, in order to better understand their needs. Speaking from the point of view of my disability, I would like the school to make available the books recommended by the different mentors, in accessible electronic formats like PDFs, text files, Word documents, etc. This needs to be done in advance of the semester by contacting the publishers, resources for the blind, or if need be, scanning the books into electronic formats. I would also recommend that the MFA mentors make themselves available more frequently for consultations and questions to students with disabilities. In my case, Teresa was very generous with her time, and I could reach out to her without hesitation any time I had a question.
Technology keeps getting better at a rapid pace, and schools need to keep pace with it. One way to do that is to consult a technology expert or, even better, hire one. Lesley had one and he was of immense help to me. In short, schools need to be proactive about understanding disability issues and solutions. They also need to collaborate with the local state agencies to work out a plan that best meets the needs of the disabled student.
TC: I can't stress enough how much an institution needs to support its students with disabilities. Mobility can be a problem for students trying to make it from one seminar to another. Students at Lesley were wonderful to Mani (he also had many devoted friends!) in many ways, but the MFA Program in Creative Writing provided escorts on a regular basis and made sure that his transportation needs were coordinated with The Ride. Using his device, he was able to hear readings and performances in our auditorium.
Mani and I contacted the technology expert for Lesley University, Craig Garland, and he kindly explained the technology that enables hearing-impaired people to access all performances in our theater (and to give performances themselves). I'll repeat his explanation, as I think it is important for all public performance spaces to have this service. “The T-coil system is part of the assisted listening system in Marran Theater. There is a wire that runs under every chair in the theater that gives off a signal that your hearing aids can pick up. It's something that every public presentation space should have installed. There is a symbol that represents when it's available and should be posted wherever it can be found (a picture of an ear with the letter T in the corner). When Mani was on stage for graduation, we used a portable version; the wire that gave off the signal was a loop around his neck.”
Can you talk about the availability of literature in accessible mediums for the deaf/blind communities? How did you work to navigate this issue in your program?
MI: Most of the books recommended for reading by my mentors were unavailable to me in digital formats (PDF, text, Word). Since I have hearing issues, audio formats were not of much help to me. I needed to be able to access the books interactively on my computer via the screen reader software. The school managed to get me some books in PDF format from the publisher directly but it was often too late into the semester. As for poems, I could access a sufficient number of them online, and my mentors made sure they were available online. Bookshare and other resources had few books on poetry. One way to get more books available on Bookshare is for publishers and schools to donate scanned books or books in digital formats for a wider distribution.
Will you talk a little about the workshop experience, particularly regarding any challenges or structural considerations that needed to be made?
MI: In workshops, I used my FM system, which transmits sound from the microphone directly to my hearing aids. I heard best when the microphone was close to the person talking. This meant passing the microphone around the room, and being disciplined about waiting to receive the microphone before talking. In the beginning, it was a daunting task. Teresa reminded the workshop participants to follow the “talking rules.” Over time, my colleagues and faculty members got so good at it that it felt seamless to me. Of course, it was a lot of work on their part, moving around to hand the microphone and reminding those who started speaking to wait for the microphone. I handed printed workshop feedback to my peers on their poems ahead of the workshop. As for critique on my poems, during the workshop, Teresa would take notes in a format that was convenient to me and email them to me. It was a lot of work, but my peers and faculty members were happy to cooperate.
TC: Special care must be taken in workshop situations. All students need to speak into Mani's device. In a fast-paced discussion, it's easy for people to forget to do this. At Lesley, students are asked to provide peers with written comments. This involves sending the comments to Mani before any given session. I found students to be very cooperative. In seminars, Mani generally sat close to the faculty member leading the group.
In workshops, did you find yourself needing to spend time explaining your perspective to your peers, in order for them to be able to comment critically on your work in a way that was useful to you?
MI: Yes, I did spend time explaining the nature of my disability—how much I could actually hear and see. Before the semester began, I emailed them a document detailing how I wanted them to make their comments on my poems on the files directly, the same format I would use to workshop their poems. I requested specific comments on lines to be made next to the line, prefixing them with markers so I could tell the beginning and end of their comments. General comments on the poem could go at the end of the poem. During the semester, my mentors followed the same process of relaying their responses on my submissions. My software read the comments to me.
How do you feel that your work with Mani has influenced your teaching perspective?
TC: Working with Mani certainly reinforced for me that the quality of the relationship with a mentor is crucial in influencing how a student discovers the multiple sides of his or her talent. Written comments from faculty are essential, but so is the kind of verbal conversation that leads to discoveries and breakthroughs and increases risk-taking. I look forward to seeing more of Mani's poems in print, and to seeing his thesis work hopefully evolve into a book.
Unique challenges exist for writers with disabilities when they enter the post-MFA world. How are you preparing to navigate these challenges, and how do you feel your work with Lesley and Teresa has left you better prepared?
MI: I continue to stay abreast of the technologies available to me by visiting blind forums on the web that discuss accessibility-related issues. I also listen to books on tape and my iPhone to train my ears. The MFA program has provided me with a strong foundation in the craft of poetry. Having a supportive mentor like Teresa, who understood my needs intimately, has given me the much-needed confidence to pursue my passion further. I recently read one of my poems on Deaf-Blind Awareness Day at the State House in Massachusetts.