College instructor doesn’t let disabilities slow him down
By Jim Hook For Sun-Times Media
Teaching from experience: Thomas Bierdz, a vision-impaired special ed instructor at Governors State University, uses his cane to make a point during one of his classes. Bierdz deals with several disabilities but doesn't let them prevent him from his passion for teaching. | Supplied photo
Thomas Bierdz, a special education instructor at Governors State University in University Park, has learned to compensate for his disabilities in various ways to teach at a university. Bierdz talks about some of these methods:
Vision impairment - Currently I use screen reading software and a scanner to access items on the computer, read emails, student work and so on. I also use a device called a closed circuit TV (CCTV) which is basically a camera connected to a monitor. The camera allows me to zoom in on documents or books so I can see them. I usually have to wear exceedingly powerful magnifying glasses when reading a computer screen- which is much more often then I would like because not all of the computer applications I must use for my job are reasonably accessible via the screen reading software.
Hearing and auditory processing disorder - For both of these, the events are the same: I turn the volume up, listen intensely, ask people to speak up and clearly articulate. I was told at a hearing exam I needed a hearing aid, but I don’t find it necessary yet; It might be like using my long cane; when it became 99 percent necessary, then I used it.
Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder: Because ADHD impacts one’s executive functionings, (abstract thinking, judgment, organization, emotional control, planning, impulse control, time management, and switching tasks), I use several strategies to keep me on track, such as timers, checklists, organizational folders, reminders, routines, and trying to keep my mouth shut so I don’t blurt out something and then recognize what I said after the fact.
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Thomas Bierdz reels off his list of disabilities with the same matter-of-fact tone reserved for someone citing memberships to clubs and organizations.
There’s the degenerative eye condition that has rendered him nearly blind; there’s the auditory problem that requires hearing aids (which he refuses to wear), and the issue of overcoming his daily perturbations. Oh, and he also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“Hey, that’s life,” he says of his disabilities. “What can I say. I didn’t win the gene pool lottery.”
Forging ahead with passion
Bierdz, 45, of Chicago’s Beverly community, never uses his disabilities as excuses and asks for no sympathy. In spite of his disabilities, he’s been able to carve out a nice little niche for himself in the world of academia.
He teaches special education at Governors State University in University Park to future professionals (teachers, counselors, speech language therapists, social workers and others). Bierdz instructs them on different disabling conditions and the physical, psychological, emotional, and social impacts such conditions have on the individual, their family, and society.
“We cover various laws that have been enacted to promote equality for those with disabilities in and out of the school systems, and how to remove handicapping conditions in the classroom and other settings that would otherwise bar equal access to education and in other social rights,” he said.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in music and education at St. Xavier University in Chicago, he earned two masters’ degrees from GSU. One is in addiction sciences and the other is in special education.
Bierdz walks, uses public and “private transportation” to commute from his apartment in Beverly to GSU. He walks an average of five miles a day, with some days up to 12 miles roundtrip.
Asked if he was in pretty good shape from all that walking, he replied in jest: “From the waist down.”
While working on his second masters’ degree, he was offered a job teaching at the university. He jumped at the opportunity. That was seven years ago. Bierdz is still there, and he has the same passion for teaching now that he had when he first started.
“I love teaching and sharing information with my students,” he said. “Teaching is the best part of my day. I’d rather be teaching than go on vacation.”
Bierdz teaches two, three-hour classes each day. “I just love being in my classroom teaching.”
He said he doesn’t even think his students look at him as having a disability. His walking cane is parked inside the classroom near the door. “I don’t draw attention to myself and I don’t make it an issue.”
But it has been an issue he’s had to deal with.
Growing up the youngest of four children in Oak Forest, the disability became apparent in grammar school. “My older brother John has the same condition I have,” Bierdz said. “Unfortunately, for him, he was diagnosed later in life. Initially, teachers, and probably some doctors, thought he was just acting out for attention. But the reality was he was having difficulty seeing.”
The condition Bierdz and his brother have is called Stargardt Macular Degeneration. Both parents are carriers of the condition.
Overcoming being ostracized
Bierdz said he started facing the reality of his condition in grammar school where kids would pick on him because of his declining vision. That reality followed him to high school.
“I liked the academic part of school, just not the social aspects of school. I always felt ostracized,” Bierdz explained.
But he was determined to succeed in spite of his disabilities.
“I usually forget I have any. The way I approach life is that I only have a disability when it gets in my way.”
Unfortunately, his disabilities have been an impediment on a few occasions.
He says he was overlooked for a few jobs despite the fact that he had served internships in the same positions. Yet when the internships ended and he applied for the full-time position, he was not selected.
Bierdz struggles to maintain eye contact during interviews, a fact he believes has cost him more than a few jobs.
“I get the job interview and I walk in to talk to the employer and everything seems to be going well. Then I’m asked at the end if I can speak German or Spanish,” he said. “They know I can’t. But it’s their way of eliminating me as a candidate.”
He said the adversity and discrimination he has faced has helped shape the confident educator who loves sharing knowledge and ideas with his students today.
“I could feel bitter and angry, and there have been occasions where I have,” Bierdz said. “But it’s not worth the energy. It’s life. You deal with it or you don’t.
“I’ve never asked ‘Why me’?” he said. “Disability is just a term used to describe how people can be. That’s really all it is. And I choose not to be described that way.”