A Difficult Referral

An undergraduate student in my sophomore-level course has been periodically checking in with me during the semester about her class work. When she received a failing grade on her last out-of-class essay, she e-mailed me a complaint. I indicated that the paper had been a 70 percent or a C before I had to grade it down for being more than 500 words short of the required length -- in effect, her work had shown improvement, if only she had followed the minimum word or page count as indicated on the syllabus. Frustrated, she responded that she didn't know how to make her essay longer. I made a few suggestions, indicating that this was what we had been going over in class during these last six or eight weeks, and asked her to meet with me in person for help and clarification.

When she met me in my office the next day, she launched into a long list of vague complaints: that she should be doing better, that she'd gotten better than a C in high school, that a lot of what I was teaching seemed too difficult, and that she didn't see how her work was not a B level. When I asked her to be specific, she pulled out her last out-of-class essay, pointed to one of my comments and asked, "So, what's a single, unified, 'open' thesis statement?"

Dumbfounded, I realized that my student hadn't been able to comprehend simple, core concepts that had been reviewed many, many times in this course not only through lecture, but also with hands-on exercises that incorporated immediate feedback and a chance to rewrite. In theory, students were also required to understand this core concept as well as others in order to be passed in the course that preceded mine.

After explaining the concepts behind my comments, I gently asked, "Have you ever been tested for a learning disability?" Shocked, she mumbled something about never having such a difficult instructor before and that she didn't see why she would need to be tested. I replied, "Well, it just seems smart to rule out that possibility so we can focus on alternate methods to help you get this information more thoroughly." Listless, she folded up her paper, stuffed it into her backpack and mumbled something about having another appointment.

That evening, I received an e-mail message from the student, indicating that she had consulted a lawyer. Her reasons? Not only was I too hard in grading her work, but I had also insulted her by asking if she'd ever been tested for a learning disability.

I started to collect information about the process of referral to find that there is an interesting "gray area" that not only puts our professors at risk, but leave students who are suffering with undiagnosed disabilities in a state of confusion, unable to get help.

In short, although my university has many, many clear policies and procedures about what to do once a student has declared him or herself disabled, there are absolutely no guidelines for instructors who believe they might have a student in their classroom who exhibits signs of a learning disability.

In the case of my sophomore student, although she was passing with a C, she had always performed poorly in the classroom. Sometimes late, she always seemed disorganized and unable to collect her thoughts. The few times I called on her, she responded, "I don't know" -- no matter how many times I restated or simplified the question. Even if the textbook was in front of her, her eyes did not seem to focus on the area that we were studying, even if I held up my book up to the class with the area in question highlighted. During group work, she seemed to "ride on" other students' well thought out ideas-her participation limited to off-topic comments and whispered conversations about her personal life.

I wish I had linked these behaviors in my mind and alerted her sooner to the possibility of an undiagnosed learning disorder. I think I was distracted by her visits to my office; this seemed to indicate motivation on her part. If I had been sharper, or better trained in recognizing learning disabilities, I might have realized that professor-student conferences motivated by poor grades do not rule out underlying problems. Although it is heartening that this student could sense that she was not doing as well as she wanted, I hadn't yet been able to see that her inability to recognize areas that needed improvement and take suggestion was crippling her academic progress.

Her papers also fell short in every area: mechanics, structure, content and logic. No matter how much she revised these essays, her ability to produce sound writing was never realized. And with a university with very low admissions standards, a large percentage of my undergraduates equate time with grades. The ones who are willing to make the effort to improve their work often feel frustrated. Even when they spend hours reworking a major project, their final grade may not rate an A. In an instructor's mind, it simply is not A level work. At times I wonder if the high schools here are rewarding students for effort more so than the final product. Students coming out of these weak systems often think, "lots of effort equals an A" -- no matter how much their final work produced falls short of the grading rubric outlined and reviewed in core classes.

I sometimes combat this by making past student work available for current classes (with permission from the original authors, of course). Students are often shocked to see what garners an A or B in my course. Faced with an example that is far superior to their own work, they realize that the rubric does apply to their work-and the less than perfect grades are not to punish, but to motivate them to learn techniques and apply concepts that we've worked on all semester to produce a better end result.

After talking with my department chair, head of disabilities, compliance officer for the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the student's academic advisor, I've been told that as long as my intent was to help the student, I'm not at risk -- and the university will support my concern as stated. There is, however, an interesting implication here. I suppose that somewhere, at some college, a professor has referred a student to the disabilities office with the hope of pressuring the student to withdraw his or her request for a grade review -- but I have a difficult time imagining this. The idea that a professor would take something as difficult (and potentially embarrassing for the student) and use it against a student is shocking. I am hoping that my university is simply trying to avoid litigation and that this stance is not based on experience.

I will say that once identified, every university and community college I have worked for has done a wonderful job of supporting disabled students. After receiving documentation from the disabilities office on how to accommodate a student, I, like my colleagues, have always complied with enthusiasm. In one case, a student with low-vision needed to work at a front desk and used special lenses to see; I included her in projects without making her the topic of conversation. In one case, a student needed to bring her seeing-eye dog in class. Not only did I resist petting or distracting her service animal, but also made sure that she received all class lecture notes and learning materials in a format that she could review after class. We also scheduled a series of in-person consultations so she could review concepts integral to her success.

This semester, I have two students with learning disabilities in one of my sophomore-level English composition class. So that they are not "identified" in class as different, I not only make assignments available outside of class, but have created a two-tier system for specific work. They start timed writing assignments in class, I collect them as I do all student work, and then bring their materials to a private room in our academic skills center for completion. In some cases, they opt simply to do work privately outside the classroom, but this technique allows them to work alongside other students while in class. As they hand in materials, they enjoy swapping good-hearted complaints with other students, knowing that they will not be identified as "different" or "special" -- and know that their learning difficulty will not penalize their success in the class.

I recognize that some students feel stigmatized by their learning disability. Last year, I received a call from the father of a freshman student who was having difficulty in my class. Although I could not give his parent any information about his progress, the father shared with me that his son had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder -- which explained the 20-year-old's inability to focus in class, his tardiness, and ultimately his lack of attendance during the midterm.

I told the father that if his son could contact the disabilities office on campus, I could do much to him succeed in my course. When he indicated that his son was embarrassed to go to the disabilities office on campus, I suggested that the student simply bring me a letter from a doctor indicating his condition and what accommodations needed to be made. With the parade of students passing by my podium with excuses, questions and written notes from doctors and dentists, this would hardly be out of place. I even offered my address and e-mail information in case the student wanted the doctor to contact me directly. Still, the son resisted.

During a private professor-student conference in my office, the student simply told me that he couldn't deal with his disability. He hated being different. Even worse, he hated being treated differently in or outside of class. It was a heartbreaking case for everyone involved. In the end, I had to record a failing grade for this student. His father later called and thanked me for my efforts. I couldn't help but feel that I needed to do more.

I recently completed an online course on identifying different forms of disabilities. After reading through pages of information and examples, I finished a post-test to see what I had retained. Although I scored above 95 percent, I realized that on-paper learning and the ability to put into practice what I found out will be the real test. My hope is that I'll continue to make it possible for students with learning disabilities to succeed without making them feel plucked out of the crowd. And in a perfect world, the campuses where I work will help me draw the line between waiting for a student to identify a possible disability when it may be too late to recapture the learning experience, and the time when it may be appropriate for me to gently ask a leading question-with the intention of doing all I can to insure success not only in my course, but courses to come.

Shari Wilson
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Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.

Identity Politics and Invisible Disability in the Classroom

When professors interact with students, an unspoken rule dictates that we should avoid calling unnecessary attention to the bodies in the room. We follow this rule instinctively and, for the most part, with good reason. This rule works well particularly in regard to gendered bodily differences. De-emphasizing bodily differences -- most differences being clearly of minor or no importance in an academic setting -- between groups constitutes one way to foster tolerance for individual differences and American democratic ideals. In this regard, classrooms mirror national ideals of human equality.

In the case of disability, America values the benefit gained from de-emphasizing bodily difference so much that this benefit has become a national objective through law: the Americans With Disabilities Act. The central functions of the law include not only ensuring that people with disabilities are provided with reasonable accommodations in the workplace but ensuring as well that they receive accommodations without having to disclose their disability publicly. This latter legal right is, of course, considered a particular advantage for those who have invisible disabilities, such as minor hearing loss (like mine) and other minor to moderate sensory disabilities, chronic non-life-threatening disorders, and some kinds of psychological/cognitive disabilities.

Notwithstanding the potential benefits of retaining this right to privacy about one’s disability in our workplace — the college classroom — I would like to make a bold counter proposal to my professional peers who, like me, have invisible disabilities: let us as a group establish a common policy to come out as disabled in our classes each semester. My experience with both options of negotiating my disability — retaining privacy and coming out — has shown me that, although coming out is not a necessity for me to perform my job as a professor and has even brought about occasional awkward moments, coming out as a professor with a disability is more than worthwhile in so far as it fosters positive identity politics among my students with disabilities.

I had chosen to retain privacy at the universities, one in Rhode Island and one in Louisiana, I had taught at as a teaching assistant prior to being hired 13 years ago on the tenure-track at Angelo State University, in West Texas. However, to adjust to my new Texan students’ speaking style (for an exaggerated example of this style of speaking, think of Boomhauer on the Fox Network show "King of the Hill") and low-keyed body language, which limits visual communication cues I can usually rely on, I was prompted to disclose my right-side hearing impairment. I worried at first about causing unnecessary confusion for students about the extent of my impairment. But I found after that the results of the first experiment in coming out were so positive that such minor confusion, which was less difficult to dispel than I originally thought, was unimportant in comparison with what was gained in coming out as disabled.

In just the first couple of academic years out of the “able-bodied” closet, I was approached by more than a dozen students, including two hearing impaired students who had taken previous courses with me but whose hearing impairments I had not known about, who told me about their own invisible disabilities and sought me out as an academic mentor. I noticed that students with both visible and invisible disabilities exhibited a different attitude toward me and about their own identities as students with disabilities than I had perceived when I was passing as non-disabled. These students with disabilities to whom I had disclosed my disability were more self-assured than my students with disabilities had been with me when I had been passing as nondisabled. They participated more freely in class discussions and asked more readily and with less self-consciousness for appropriate disability accommodations. And in the decade or so since my first experimental semester coming out as disabled to my classes, I have found that these initial impressions were correct, as scores more students with disabilities responded in the same encouraging ways.

Of course, coming out with an invisible disability must be done carefully to avoid the difficulties often associated with any coming out process involving stigmatized identities. The disclosure must be performed so that one does not seem to be trying to elicit pity from students, either nondisabled or disabled. Nondisabled people confronted with another person’s disability tend to feel, often unconsciously, as Lennard Davis aptly asserts in Enforcing Normalcy, a “welter of powerful emotional responses . . . . horror, fear, pity, compassion, and avoidance," emotions that most professors would do nearly anything, short of a crime, to avoid evoking on the first day of class.

And, even more important for my argument here, many disabled people despise pity-inducing moments on a more conscious level, thinking of them in the same category as Jerry Lewis’s annual Labor Day pity fest, which achieves its financial end through the unjustifiable means of ritually parading Jerry’s “poster kids” in front of a nondisabled television audience so that this audience may collectively sigh in gratitude that they are not “crippled” too. To avoid this counterproductive evoking of pity, I have found that maintaining a matter-of-fact attitude, keeping explanations as brief as possible, and focusing on the impact of the disability on classroom dynamics specifically make the disclosure practically and ideologically useful for both disabled and nondisabled students. (Conversely, professors with invisible disabilities that do not impact classroom dynamics might need only mention that, like some students and faculty, they have a disability too, without specifying it, perhaps as a quick addendum to calling students’ attention to their university’s procedures for acquiring accommodations, which most professors include on their syllabi and refer to on the first day of class.)

In light of these experiences, I urge other professors with invisible disabilities to come out to students as well and to become more aware of the considerable number of faculty with such disabilities on their campuses. For instance, in the English departments at the three universities at which I have taught about 20 percent of faculty members have invisible disabilities (not surprisingly, far fewer than this percentage — less than 5 percent — have visible disabilities). Unfortunately, however, none routinely come out as disabled to their students, and none have given much thought to how many professors and students with disabilities exist around them. Further, all of those to whom I have advocated coming out as disabled have been concerned about negative repercussions in their classes, while none of these professors have thought about the negative repercussions to students with disabilities of such passing by professors.

Indeed, the choice to pass among professors with invisible disabilities prevents all of their students, disabled or nondisabled, from seeing an important facet of the diversity of American culture. Such passing particularly undermines the academic and career-related success of students with disabilities. When these students cannot find appropriate mentors among the faculty who serve them, they lose an opportunity to develop the identity politics necessary to collective social activism. Coming out, in contrast, provides an ideal moment to introduce disabled and nondisabled students to the growing interdisciplinary field of disability studies, and to direct them to research done in the field through the Society for Disability Studies and other resources that examine disability as a category of identity instead of merely as a medical construct. By coming out — refusing the less ethical choice of passing — professors with invisible disabilities can educate students to become truly democratic citizens prepared to explore individual identity from all perspectives.

Linda Kornasky
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Linda Kornasky is associate professor of English at Angelo State University.

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