Law PhD Bas Tadema is visually impaired

Teaching without seeing

Visually impaired PhD candidate Bas Tadema teaches constitutional law and treks through jungles, all while relying on his other senses – and a distinctive white cane.
By Edward Szekeres

A throng of pre-master students waiting to take a class in constitutional law is is standing impatiently outside of a classroom. As the students jostle to get inside, one of them bumps into the tall, slender man who is making his way to the door. The student shoots him an annoyed look, but quickly apologises after spotting his white cane.

Bas Tadema (27), a constitutional and administrative law PhD candidate, is about to teach his first class of the year. Bas is visually impaired and can only faintly recognise large shapes. He is aware of people standing very close to him, but he can’t see their faces. Navigating a crowd is like trying to escape a blurry maze.

But Bas knows where he’s going. With his cane in one hand, he feels his way along the corridor wall to the door and into the classroom. When he steps inside, his senses process all the information he needs. He hears the steady hum of voices: the room is packed. He quickly taps his cane in a few directions: the desk and blackboard are right over there.

Lightening the mood

At first, the students seem oblivious to their teacher’s unusual movements. It’s only when Bas plugs earphones into his laptop that they notice something is off. Why would a lecturer listen to music seconds before the start of class?

Students almost never ask me about my impairment in class

But that’s not what Bas is doing. Because he can’t see what’s on the screen of his laptop, his device reads it out to him. It tells him all he needs to know about the lecture. When he stands up straight, the room goes silent. ‘Hello, I’m Bas’, he introduces himself. ‘This class is going to be slightly different. There’s no point in raising your hands. I won’t see it, so your hands will only go numb’, he says with a smile.

Bas likes to start his classes with a touch of humour, ‘to lighten the mood’. He knows students can feel uneasy at first when they see that he has a disability. Even when he jokes about it, students still hesitate to inquire about it directly. ‘They almost never ask me about it in class. But sometimes, when they linger around afterwards, or come to see me personally in my office, they are curious and want to know more.’

Talk out loud

In Bas’ classroom, there’s one important rule: if you want to say something, say it out loud. But that doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all. Bas is quick to catch on when students take advantage of the situation by whispering to each other or scrolling on their phones. It’s not that his hearing is better than the average person’s, as the popular myth goes. Bas just pays more attention to his other senses and his surroundings. ‘But it doesn’t happen all too often. These students are mature. And I can also be strict if needed’, he says.

His interactive teaching approach seems to be clicking with his young audience. ‘He was very perceptive and understood us very well. His disability had no impact on the class at all’, student Zahra says afterwards. ‘I thought it was going to be a bit weird that we had to talk all the time, but it turned out to be a very pleasant and interesting hour.’

Bas was diagnosed when he was three, but he has never let his impairment stop him from doing what he wants. In addition to his PhD work, he’s secretary of a public transport museum in Friesland. He goes skiing in the Alps. He fed bananas to orangutans in the Sumatran jungle. He toured around the U.S. with friends. ‘Travelling is not just about seeing the sights. I feel the atmosphere, I hear the sounds, I meet the people. I might not be able to see the Eiffel Tower, but when I walk up its stairs, I can still feel the cold breeze up high.’

Practical problems

Ask him about his fascination with the law, and he beams. ‘When you can’t see, language is all you have. The law is about words and relationships between people. It’s a good match.’ It’s not always easy, though: he can only work with digital documents and scanning a book sometimes takes as long as ten weeks.

I made my own braille stickers to mark my way around the building

Bas travels to Groningen by train from Zwolle, where he lives. He memorises the carriage order of the train he takes, so he doesn’t end up in first class by mistake. When he arrives at the Harmonie building, he takes the stairs to his office – equipped with a braille printer and keyboard – on the top floor. The elevators don’t have braille indicators and there are no guiding tiles outside of the building. But Bas found a way to make it work. ‘The Harmonie is simply too big. I made my own braille stickers to mark my way around the building.’

Practical problems like these fly under the university’s radar, Bas thinks, yet tackling them is of vital importance. ‘There are more visually impaired people at the RUG. I even had a student like that in my very first class here.’

Colleagues and students often try to give him a helping hand. He says he’s very grateful and knows people mean well, but sometimes they do more bad than good. ‘Someone once grabbed me at the train station and asked where I wanted to go. They took me to the wrong platform and I missed my train’, he says. Communication, as in many other facets of life, is key. ‘Just ask first and then help, if needed.’

Annewil Schippers contributed reporting.


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