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By Daniela Sirtori Cortina

April 8, 2014

Gina Ceylan, a doctoral student in science education, is confident with her identity as a blind person. And she wants others with diverse abilities to feel the same way.


Gina stands between two students, who are  all standing before a table with different computer peripherals on it.

Gina leads a class teaching students and faculty alike to better optimize their learning experience for differently abled students. Michael Cali/Staff photographer


Gina Ceylan’s students didn’t expect to find the classroom turned into a playground when they came to class one Tuesday morning.

The middle row of chairs had given way to a large table. Enthusiastically, Gina asked her pupils, a group of faculty members and graduate students, to approach it and explore the objects on it.

Some students in Gina’s Inclusive Design for Learning class examined a door handle that wasn’t attached to a door. Others picked a pen holder that looked like a bird. Some students studied a keyboard that was half the size of a typical one but left out no letters or commands.

Gina brought these items to her IDL class, a course that aims to challenge perceptions about human ability and improve inclusion, to help her students learn about adaptive technologies. Differently abled people use these tools to facilitate everyday activities, such as opening doors, writing and reading.

These technologies were nothing new to Gina. She has been legally blind since she was 12.

“The things that don’t work for me, or for all the other students who are different, actually don’t work well for many students,” Gina said. “A lot of how we teach simply doesn’t work and isn’t effective.”

Her condition, called Atypical Clumped Pigmentary Degeneration, causes Gina’s retinas — a light-capturing structure within the eye — to decay over time. The genetic disease can lead to total blindness, and both Gina and her twin sister, Andrea, have it.

IDL aims to provide teachers with the knowledge and skills to improve the learning experience for all students, not just those with evident diverse abilities, Gina said. By uploading her classes to the Internet and using closed captioning, Gina reaches not only deaf students, but also students who would like to review class concepts on their own or those whose native language is not English.

“The things that don’t work for me, or for all the other students who are different, actually don’t work well for many students,” Gina said. “A lot of how we teach simply doesn’t work and isn’t effective.”

Gina is not disabled. Nobody is, she said. Gina prefers the term “diverse abilities” because it describes people in terms of what they can do, not what they can’t.

Through her own life, Gina challenges stereotypes of people with diverse abilities. She practices martial arts, runs regularly and plays the guitar.

Christina Thebeau, one of Gina’s students, said she is inspired by her instructor every day.

“I think it’s amazing how she does everything she does without her sight,” Thebeau said. “You forget that she’s blind.”


Rather than reading and writing braille, Gina prefers to use her computer's built-in voiceover system when communicating with others. Kevin Mathein/Staff photographer


Gina listened in disbelief as the words came out of his mouth.

It was 2009, and Gina had just come to MU to pursue a master’s in geology. By chance, she overheard her adviser’s husband casually mention how it was too bad Gina was blind because she would make a great scientist.

It made her angry that someone would dismiss her as useless.

“When it comes to people with diverse abilities, and what is classically called ‘disabilities,’ in the geosciences and many sciences, the reaction is, ‘Oh, they just can’t do it,’” Gina said. “They see the superficial constraint, rather than the possibility.”

Today, Gina still faces questioning from people who challenge her ability to be a geologist based on the idea that if she can’t see a map, she can’t learn about the discipline. But Gina knows that’s not true.

“Being in the field (might) seem to others as a really visual experience, but it’s a full experience,” Gina said. “It’s rich. It is not just a piece of paper or a screen or a chalkboard; it’s the real thing at its proper scale, and you’re in it.”

Gina practices a kick at the martial arts studio.

Gina practices martial arts regularly and is already on her third belt level. Michael Cali/Staff photographer


Just like the molten rock Gina studied in college, the sciences are viscous; they’re simply resistant to flow. Sometimes, without even noticing, the sciences perpetuate a classic and exclusive perception of ability by building labs that are inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs, or by relying purely on visual approaches to teaching.

These barriers extend outside of the classroom environment, Thebeau said. Ellis Library has only one entrance for students who use wheelchairs, and the configuration of the floors makes it difficult to move between areas.

“It’s that moment when I walk into a room full of people who are supposedly there to improve teaching and learning, and no one takes the trouble to talk to me. It’s that ‘This is too different, and we’re scared, but we’re not even aware of it’ kind of vibe.”

Thebeau assists Gina with some visual aspects of technology use, such as drafting presentations on Prezi and adding closed captioning to class recordings. After working with Gina, Thebeau has gained more experience in identifying challenges to inclusion.

“Everywhere I go, I see barriers to accessibility,” Thebeau said.

But for Gina, physical barriers are only symptoms of the wider issue — the mistaken perception of human ability. To Gina, it’s that awkward silence that invades any space when nobody knows how to interact with a person with diverse abilities.

“It’s that moment when I walk into a room full of people who are supposedly there to improve teaching and learning, and no one takes the trouble to talk to me,” Gina said. “It’s that ‘This is too different, and we’re scared, but we’re not even aware of it’ kind of vibe.” In graduate school, Gina committed to improving inclusion for students with diverse abilities. While she was working as a teaching assistant for the Geology Department, she also discovered how much she enjoyed learning and growing alongside her students.

She combined her two passions by pursuing a doctorate in science education, which she is now completing. Her inclusive design class is part of her thesis. Gina considered obtaining her degree from another university, but when she married Savas Ceylan, who was pursuing a doctorate in seismology at MU at the time, she decided to stay in Columbia.

It took Gina years to gain the awareness about human ability she has now. Barriers, the exclusion of diverse abilities and even her own blindness were the least of her concerns for most of her life.


After calling around Columbia to find a martial arts studio that would be a good fit for Gina, an acquaintance referred her to Hockman's ATA Martial Arts, which offers taekwondo classes. Master Jeff Hockman made it his goal to include Gina in his classes. Kevin Mathein/Staff photographer


Gina was hiding in her closet when her mother, Natalie Applebee, came into the room. Without much consideration, Gina said, Natalie declared what she thought to be her daughter’s fate: She would never make anything of herself.

The 14-year-old was hurt and disheartened, but she didn’t feel defeated. She was confident enough to know she could do more than her mother ever imagined.

Things weren’t easy at the Applebees’ home in Summerville, S.C.

Gina’s relationship with her mother was always tense. Her family didn’t have a lot of money. Her father would work more than 60 hours a week as a UPS driver just to feed his wife and his twin daughters. They always got their clothes from thrift stores, and they didn’t eat at restaurants very often.

Although Natalie held a degree in pharmacy and could have worked to help the family, she decided to quit her job and stay at home, Gina said.

It wasn’t because she wanted to take care of her young girls, Gina said. It was because her addiction to prescription medications had taken over her life.

“She studied pharmacy so she would know what pills to take,” Gina said.

Natalie never acknowledged her daughters’ condition, Gina said. She sobbed and screamed in the waiting room of the Storm Eye Institute in Charleston, S.C., after learning her 5-year-old girls would eventually become blind. Natalie wanted her kids to understand how bad becoming blind would be.

The news didn’t seem to affect the young girls. Sitting in the waiting room on the third floor of the clinic, Gina and Andrea looked through the window down to the street, trying to guess the color of the car they would see next. Their condition had not progressed very far, and their vision was close to normal.

As the girls’ retinas deteriorated over the years, so did their situation at home. One day in third grade, without previous notice, Natalie pulled Gina and Andrea out of school, deciding she wanted to home-school them.

It wasn’t because the girls were being bullied or because she was concerned about their education. Natalie had other plans in mind, Gina said.

“It was like being on the inside of a jar with a fake picture painted on the inside. But there was a little window: the library card, and we could get to the whole world through that.”

“She was really kind of brainwashing us into what she thought was best: how to teach these girls to grow up and marry rich,” Gina said. “It embodies so much of what is wrong with parenting and society.”

Day after day, Gina and Andrea would go to the room on top of the garage, sit opposite each other and complete math and reading exercises. After they finished, there was no watching TV, no listening to music unless it was Christian or classical, and no playing with other kids. Their mother would not allow it, Gina said.

The girls’ only escape was a library card, their key to Summerville Public Library. Gina used to read more than 14 books per month — everything from spy novels, to medieval adventures, to historical fiction. It was her only connection to the outside world.

“It was like being on the inside of a jar with a fake picture painted on the inside,” Gina said “But there was a little window: the library card, and we could get to the whole world through that.”

Whenever he was home, Gina’s father would read to his twin daughters and share some of his old books with them. Gina remembers receiving “The Hobbit” from her father and telling him that she didn’t find the beginning very interesting.

“Just keep reading,” he said.

Gina said she cherished every single minute with him. Whether it was reading the Chronicles of Narnia together, or sharing a simple dinner of beans, rice and cheap cheese, any activity with her dad brought peace to Gina’s life.

“That little bit of time we spent with him was so amazing,” Gina said. “He taught us so much.”


The decay of Gina’s vision did not stop.

“I was raised — most of us were raised — in a society that tells us disability equals bad, weakness, that you should be fixed or dealt with separately. I had that mentality that it was a negative thing, and I didn’t want that package deal of disability.”

Gina hardly noticed it, but her nose started getting closer and closer to her books. She could still read and write with her special glasses, but her vision was becoming fuzzier.

Because of complications at birth, Gina’s vision degenerated faster than her sister’s. At the doctor’s office, Gina would memorize the letters Andrea enumerated as she read the exam chart. Then she would recite them, deceiving the doctors about the true state of her vision.

“I was raised — most of us were raised — in a society that tells us disability equals bad, weakness, that you should be fixed or dealt with separately,” Gina said. “I had that mentality that it was a negative thing, and I didn’t want that package deal of disability.”

By age 12, Gina decided she couldn’t pretend anymore. She sat on the exam chair and read the letters she actually saw.

Immediately after, the doctors told her the truth she had been avoiding for so long: She was legally blind.

She could still hide her condition from outsiders, but she could feel her vision becoming blurrier every day.


Gina looks through vinyl records at a store.

Gina loves vinyl records because of their physicality. "I can't see so it helps make it real for me," she says. Michael Cali/Staff photographer


Only one year later, when the Applebee sisters were 13, their mother decided to send them back to public school.

The sisters entered 10th grade. They were ahead of their classmates because their mother had made them skip sixth grade.

After six years of being home-schooled and sheltered, it was difficult for Gina to adapt.

“I remember I was crying and looking at something like a tree, that should be very stationary, and it started shimmering. I would look at the moon, and I would get two moons, one in each eye.”

“It was horribly awkward,” Gina said. “But it was still better. At least we could get out and interact with people.”

Her vision continued to decay. About one year later, there was a turning point in how she would see things for the rest of her life.

“I remember I was crying and looking at something like a tree, that should be very stationary, and it started shimmering,” Gina said. “I would look at the moon, and I would get two moons, one in each eye.”

She struggled. She couldn’t see the board, not even with her thick glasses. Her eyes and head hurt constantly, and her grades were suffering.

But she still didn’t say anything.

Despite the oppression from her mother and the insecurity about her diverse ability she experienced back then, Gina has used her past to push her forward.

“As angry and angsty as I was as a young person and as a teenager, I look back, and I say, ‘It wasn’t that bad,’” Gina said.


For Gina, music is not only auditory but also an experience that stimulates all the senses. Kevin Mathein/Staff photographer


By the time Gina entered college at age 16, enjoying books became almost impossible.

The letters shimmered and seemed to be swimming on the pages of her books. No matter how close she came, she couldn’t distinguish any words among all the blurriness. Her vision had decayed so greatly that she went from reading 14 or 15 books a month to none.

But losing her vision wasn’t Gina’s main concern at the time. All she cared about was her survival.

Gina’s Pell Grant, a need-based financial aid grant through the federal government, covered about 75 percent of her tuition, but she still had to cover the remaining portion and any extra fees, as well as purchasing her books. With no monetary support from home, Gina also had to cover her housing and food expenses.

“I was always working and always worried about how am I going to pay the rent, where am I going to get my next meal from,” she said.

Back then, Gina worked as model for art studios in town and as a dishwasher at restaurants. She lived with 15 other people in an apartment meant for seven, and she often had to skip meals.

Gina sits at the bar at Uprise Bakery while talking to another person.

Today, Gina says she is comfortable with her blindness. She uses it to show others that diverse abilities are not impairments. Michael Cali/Staff photographer

For her first two years of college, Gina managed to hide her condition from those around her. She quickly realized that as soon as she disclosed the state of her vision, her job applications would get dismissed.

But Gina couldn’t afford that. She needed the money to make it through the day.

“It was a rocky start,” Gina said. “I was still at that point where I had enough usable vision where I could kind of pass as ‘normal.’ I wasn’t telling anybody about my vision, including my teachers.”

Her desperation would often lead her to scavenging and stealing snack foods like peanut butter crackers from convenience stores. She said she usually went for small items because all she wanted was to fill her stomach.

But on an occasion, in preparation for a visit from her father, Gina went for bigger treats. She wanted to give him the impression that she was financially stable, so she decided to steal shrimp and cocktail sauce.

“I was always working and always worried about how am I going to pay the rent, where am I going to get my next meal from,” she said.

Halfway through her mission, she heard the noise of handcuffs approaching her. A police officer had spotted her.

Gina sprinted out of the store. The police officer chased her for a few minutes, but Gina managed to flee. It was her only close call.

“I was cocky,” Gina said. “I had been doing this for a while, so I went overboard.”

The times were rough, but the College of Charleston community was always supportive. Gina’s group of friends became her family.

Smoking marijuana was one of her crutches, Gina said. Back then, she smoked nearly every day.

“Smoking really helped me keep a positive attitude through all that crap,” Gina said. “ It helped me let go of some things.”

“It was a rocky start,” Gina said. “I was still at that point where I had enough usable vision where I could kind of pass as ‘normal.’ I wasn’t telling anybody about my vision, including my teachers.”

Gina’s teachers joined her network of support as soon as they found out about her financial struggles. One day, a teacher saw her pull a breakfast sandwich out of her sleeve.

Instead of reprimanding her for stealing, Gina’s professor said she could grab snacks from her office at any time. She said she would leave the door unlocked for her.

The positive environment gave Gina confidence to disclose her blindness. After failing one of her geology tests, she approached her professor, Mitchell Colgan, and told him she simply couldn’t see.

Colgan didn’t ask Gina for a letter from the Center for Disability Services. He gave her a CD with all the class slides, so Gina could enlarge them as much as she needed to study. He encouraged her to get more involved in the field.

Shortly after, Gina declared geology as her major. She was fascinated by volcanoes and midocean ridges, and she couldn’t wait to discover the stories fossils and rocks have to tell. But ultimately, it was the sense of community and her teachers’ efforts to include her that made her fall in love with geology.

“It was a very educational experience for me,” Gina said. “People think of going blind and say, ‘That must be so hard,’ but, really? Being poor, getting out of poverty — that’s hard.”

“They took me out into the field, took me to highly interesting places where I could experience those landscapes and processes for myself, and I was done. I was hooked,” she said.

In retrospect, Gina still believes struggling to pay her bills was a far bigger obstacle than going blind. Not knowing if she would be able to have a meal at the end of the day was scarier than slowly losing her vision.

“It was a very educational experience for me,” Gina said. “People think of going blind and say, ‘That must be so hard,’ but, really? Being poor, getting out of poverty — that’s hard.”


Nobody gets left out in Gina’s classroom.

Gina organizes debate and elevator speeches for the more extroverted students, but there’s also small group discussions for those who don’t feel comfortable speaking to many people. If a student wants to explore types of impairments and adaptive technologies more in depth, they can visit the course’s Blackboard site and find additional resources.

Flexibility is key to inclusive design for learning. In her class, Gina hopes to encourage her students to remove rigidity from their classrooms and create a welcoming environment where all students can thrive.

“Once they realize people with obvious diverse abilities like me are not the only ones that benefit from that, they want to do it for their other students too,” Gina said.

Gina learned about flexibility from both positive and negative experiences. The support of her geology professor from her undergraduate years made her realize that inclusion is possible.

But she also knows what it’s like to feel unwelcome.

In 2006, it seemed that the rejection letters would not stop coming. One after the other, the seven universities Gina had applied to for graduate school told her she wasn’t useful for the geological sciences.

“Even though my grades were good, my GRE scores were good and I had done undergrad research and had good recommendations, I was blind,” Gina said. “I was honest about my situation, and I didn’t realize how much of a perceived disadvantage that was.”

It was also in 2006 that she was recruited to come to MU. She was desperate to keep studying and did not hesitate to pack her bags and move to Columbia, more than 900 miles from Charleston. She had no idea what to expect.

Slowly, Gina realized her adviser at MU would not give her the same support as her teachers at College of Charleston, she said. Often, Gina would find herself investing her time into projects her adviser would end up dropping.

But if Gina’s adviser didn’t support her, MU’s Office of Disability Services did. Back then, MU measured poorly with other schools in terms of adaptive technologies, but the personnel in that department was willing to search, experiment and start over to provide Gina with the tools she needed.

Gina’s personal experiences pushed her to become more interested in the inclusion of diverse students.

But it took a drastic event to get her to act.


Gina does work while sitting at a table in Uprise Bakery.

Uprise Bakery is Gina's favorite spot to hang out and study. "I bounce around to different places around town but I always preferred here," she says. Michael Cali/Staff photographer


Gina was supposed to take her students to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park for a field visit. It was 2009, and Gina was working as a teaching assistant for the Geology Department.

But when Gina opened her eyes that morning, her vision was gone. Without warning, Gina went from low vision to completely blind.

The initial shock wore off quickly, and Gina adapted in very little time. She completed the first level of braille within two weeks. She started using her cane more. She donated her books, her two extra record players and her old grand piano. She wanted to get rid of unnecessary objects that made her apartment difficult to navigate.

Gina also realized her time had come to become an advocate for people with diverse abilities.

“I really woke up to a larger scale challenge of trying to include people who didn’t have this sort of common typical ability side in what we were doing,” Gina said. “Not just myself or other blind students, but all kinds of people of all kinds of diverse abilities, whether we see them or not. Often if you’re too far outside of that typical range, you get rejected.”

In 2012, MU joined the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, an organization that seeks to prepare professors in science, technology, engineering and math fields to more effectively reach all their students. One of the core pillars of the organization is learning through diversity.

Angela Speck, the CIRTL institutional leader for MU, knew Gina was passionate about improving inclusion, and she suggested Gina take the lead on the course.

After months of planning, Gina taught MU’s first inclusive design course in the Spring 2013 semester. Some of her students have enrolled because they want to be teachers. Others have come because they already are, and they want to learn how to make their classrooms more inclusive. But they all walk away with something valuable.

Renee Jiji, a professor of chemistry at MU who is in Gina’s class, said the class has helped her learn about more resources to make her classes more inclusive. She didn’t know, for example, that MU had an Adaptive Computing Technology Center that makes PowerPoint presentations more descriptive, facilitating understanding for some students.

“It informed the way that I think,” Jiji said. “It changed my thinking from disability to varying ability.”


“If you can change the way people see human ability, if you can get them to see it as something that’s diverse and valuable and dynamic and good instead of ‘There’s something wrong with you,’ it influences the way people make decisions and the way they design things.”

Thebeau’s final project captured the essence of inclusive design.

Each part of her 3-D model of an amino acid had a distinctive shape. The carbons were plastic blocks with four holes in them, and the oxygens were red balls with two holes. The holes represented the number of chemical bonds each molecule can make, and the triangles stood for nitrogens.

Through this model, students can understand chemical bonds either through feel or through touch. It benefits all students, not just those with diverse abilities.

“That’s fun for a lot of students, not just to your (attention deficit disorder) students and your blind students,” Gina said. “A lot of students would enjoy that and get a lot out of it.”

The model wasn’t elaborate, but inclusive design implementations don’t have to be complex to be effective, Gina said.


Gina takes a puff from a cigarette while standing outside Uprise Bakery.

Gina says she no longer has to chase instructors about accessibility. Instead, they are now coming to her to improve learning for students with diverse abilities. Michael Cali/Staff photographer


For instructors, inclusion can be as simple as uploading lectures to Tegrity for students to review later, or thoroughly describing slides on the PowerPoint presentations.

Gina has become a resource for professors who want to make their classrooms more inclusive. She doesn’t have to chase instructors anymore, she said. Now they come to her to improve learning for students with diverse abilities.

“I have seen an extremely positive change through the student groups, faculty members and administrators that really care about this stuff,” Gina said. “A lot of people have gotten really fired up about it.”

Gina doesn’t claim these changes as her own. But, according to Speck, Gina has been the driving force behind publicizing inclusive design initiatives and raising awareness on campus. Gina is simply unstoppable, Speck said.

“She’s not going to let anyone tell her she can’t do something,” Speck said.

Today, Gina feels comfortable with her blindness. It’s a part of her, and she’s going to keep using it to demonstrate a lesson to those around her: Diverse abilities are not impairments.

“If you can change the way people see human ability, if you can get them to see it as something that’s diverse and valuable and dynamic and good instead of ‘There’s something wrong with you,’ it influences the way people make decisions and the way they design things,” Gina said. “If you can influence that, you can influence reality.”


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