When a blind undergrad wanted to take Surgery 101, Stanford’s resources were there
Tyler Dumm, ’05, who is blind, gives Stanford a large part of the credit for the fascination with the human body that now drives his practice as a physical therapist in University Park, Washington.
He traces much of his passion to his innovative Stanford anatomy course, Surgery 101, which teaches through human cadaver dissection, much as medical students learn. In 2005, Dumm became the first blind person to complete an undergraduate dissection lab in anatomy.
As Dumm points out, “The physical structures that make up the human anatomy are palpable. They can be taken in through the fingers, not just by sight.”
Still, his enrollment in Surgery 101 was “a very big ask,” observes Shelley Hou, ’00, MA ’03, who was hired as Dumm’s lab assistant for the course through Stanford’s Office of Accessible Education.
More than targeting resources to a particular student, it involved examining the course objectives and whether a blind student given reasonable accommodations could achieve them.
Yet part of Stanford’s story of diversity and inclusion is its commitment to its students with disabilities.
Today, the Office of Accessible Education (OAE) supports more than 1,800 Stanford students with disabilities ranging from mobility impairments to depression. It provides a range of services, accommodations and programs that remove barriers to full participation in Stanford life. In addition, the Schwab Learning Center, an important part of the OAE, offers services that are above and beyond what is legally mandated to students with learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The OAE provided Dumm with the accommodations he needed and worked with Professors John Gosling and Ian Whitmore to find nonvisual ways to test Dumm’s knowledge of the material.
“Accommodations provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act can’t make fundamental alterations to a course,” says Hou, now director of operations for the OAE.
“So we had to ask, what is the surgery class teaching? Is it teaching dissection techniques, or is it teaching anatomy using dissection as a manner of learning?”
In Surgery 101, Gosling and Whitmore – who, with others, still teach the class – test students by placing numbered pins into anatomical features on the cadavers. Students rotate through each station at 60-second intervals to identify the pinned structure by sight and answer written questions.
For Dumm, the instructors replaced visual assessments with tactile ones and written responses with verbal ones. They placed his hands and gave Dumm an orientation point before asking, “What vessel is this and what does it supply? Which muscle attaches here?”
Hou and the OAE rendered readings and lecture notes into alternate formats. Text was translated into Braille, while Hou rendered anatomical drawings into raised formats, using techniques ranging from heat-sensitive embossing to delineating nerves with pipe cleaners and blood vessels with ribbons.
When Dumm needed to wield a scalpel in dissection, Hou guided his hand.
“The flexibility of the professors was remarkable,” Dumm says. “They were a bit hesitant at first.
“But Stanford is so excellent at creating and attracting people who are passionate about the learning process that they were willing to accept disability as a means of exploration.”
As for Hou, “I can’t credit her enough,” Dumm says. “She embodies the spirit of accessibility of the learning process that I encountered at Stanford.”
He earned an A+ in the class toward his human biology major, and says it prepared him well for his later doctoral studies in physical therapy.
The experience helped inspire Hou to support students with disabilities as a career.
“I still have Shelley’s drawings,” Dumm says. “I take them every place I’ve moved, though I don’t refer to them much anymore.
“They represent the person who made that physical impact on my life.”