Süleyman Ari memorized the voices of each of his students in his discussion sections because that was the only way he could distinguish them.
Ari, who graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree in political science in 2004, was the only blind teaching assistant on campus from 2000 to 2005. Ari said it was at UCLA where he first learned skills necessary to live independently, such as using a computer and walking with a white cane.
He is now a professor of accessible education at Anadolu University in Turkey, where he started a program called Blind Leaders. It offers training in computer skills, English and mobility with a white cane to students with visual impairments. Ari is also leading efforts to make Anadolu University more accessible by adding tactile paving units and installing wheelchair ramps.
“(UCLA) made me both an academic and activist in Turkey,” he said.
Ari said he chose to study political science because he wanted to help develop more programs to support individuals with disabilities in Turkey.
“I came to the conclusion that working with politics is one of the best ways for solving problems both for disabled and (non-disabled) people,” he added.
While Ari was at UCLA, he worked with the Center for Accessible Education, which matched him with readers for his course materials and introduced him to a computer lab where he spent every weekend learning to type and use tools to help visually impaired individuals, such as computer vocalizations for emails. He also trained with a white cane to cross streets and follow tactile paving units on the sidewalk.
Ari said working as a teaching assistant was difficult at first because his students wanted him to write on the board when teaching material. However, they eventually thrived off his style of verbal lectures, he added.
Michael Lofchie, a professor of political science who was department chair while Ari was at UCLA, said he admired Ari’s quick rise from starting formal education when he was 14 years old to getting into UCLA 10 years later.
“He was admitted to the graduate program; that’s competitive,” he said. “He was selected as a TA; that’s competitive within the graduate program.”
Lofchie added he admired Ari’s ability to connect quickly and deeply with students.
“(For) what comes instinctively and intuitively to you and me, he had to develop a whole second set of skills,” he said. “How would you teach a class with 20 (to) 25 students that you couldn’t see?”
One of the courses for which Ari led discussion sections was Political Science 40: “Introduction to American Politics.” Thomas Schwartz, a distinguished professor of political science who taught the class, said Ari lit up classes and the halls of the department with his good humor and easygoing personality.
Ari had to juggle his heavy graduate course load with the courses he had to teach, Schwartz said.
“He was under enormous pressure, but talking to him, you wouldn’t know it,” he added.
Schwartz said he thinks Ari’s good-natured personality made him approachable to the students, but it was his ability to clearly explain dense course material that made him so popular.
“This department has never had a better TA,” Schwartz added. “I can see now he was meant to be a teacher.”
Ari said he now encourages his friends and students, with and without disabilities, to pursue graduate work in the United States.
“One of my friends is doing a Ph.D. program in America and she was motivated by me and is doing great,” he added. “Students ask me for reference letters and they come to my office to make bigger plans for their lives and their futures.”
The bonds he had with UCLA students and faculty, as well as the campus’s diverse and open atmosphere, motivated him to encourage schools in Turkey to develop the same kind of support for students with disabilities, Ari said.
“I am always carrying the mentality of the vision that UCLA has given me,” he added. “I am a graduate of UCLA and I hope to live up to that.”