Alyssa's blog

Which Resume Do You Want?

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Most people play more than one role. I'm a mathematician, a neuroscience student, a disability studies scholar, and a researcher in the areas of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and brain computer interfaces. I'm also an Autistic person who uses AAC some of the time, and sometimes I write poetry.

These roles overlap, but not everything I do is relevant to all my roles. Somehow, I doubt that my having poetry in the second and third Spoon Knife anthologies (and a memoir in the first) is relevant to people deciding whether or not I'm qualified to teach number theory. They'll care that I've taught number theory before, though. Or, my being a teacher usually isn't relevant to my AAC work. Even when it is, it's not the connection most AAC professionals would expect. (As far as I know, I've never had a student who used AAC, but I use it as a teacher.)

So, how do I decide what to include in any given CV, resume, or introduction?

Depending on how much space you’re given, the answer could be everything. I have a nice LaTeXed version of my CV with everything, including my online writing for any venue outside my personal blog. It's five full pages, and they are dense. Applying for an academic position, I could use that. I could theoretically post it online, too, but I probably won’t. When there's a length limit on the CV or resume, which happens sometimes, I can't use that. When we're talking about a short bio to go with a chapter or a conference presentation, I really can't use it.

So, what gets to stay?

It depends.

If it's a teaching job, I need to keep my teaching experience. If I list every class I have taught or assisted and when I did, that's over a page on its own. If I reserve this sort of listing for classes where I was the instructor of record, I can (barely) get my education and teaching experience onto the first page. Online writing can probably go, and depending on what I'm hoping to teach, I might chop unrelated publications.

If it's a speaking gig, I need to keep my presentations, and I should probably keep all my face-to-face teaching. I might be able to chop the list of classes from my online teaching, though, and publications can be trimmed. I really only need the ones with topics related to the speaking gig. I’ll also move my presentations sections ahead of the publications sections.

If I'm trying to get a job writing online, I'll want the online writing to stay. Other publications would stick around if they fit and would get cut by topic relevance if there were space issues. My teaching experience would be cut to a bare minimum level of detail, unless I was trying to write about education. Goodbye, list of classes taught!

The field I'm currently looking at matters too. Overall, the idea is to keep the information that's most relevant to the people who'll be reading this iteration of my resume, or this version of my bio. Things can matter because the work was done in a similar environment, or because it's work on a similar topic, for a similar audience. For example:

For an online AAC conference, my bio read: Alyssa is an Autistic PhD student in the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Rhode Island. Among other areas, they study Augmentative and Alternative Communication, both in the form of brain computer interfaces and as used by autistic adults. Alyssa hosted a United States Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication chat (#ussaachat) on AAC in the workplace and uses AAC part time.

In this context, AAC work, of any kind, was most relevant. My current position as a graduate student stuck around, but my audience didn't need to know ahead of time that I'm a math teacher.

Whereas, as a math teacher at the Art of Problem Solving, my bio reads: Alyssa first joined AoPS as a grader in 2010. They have an MS in mathematics and are working towards a PhD in Interdisciplinary Neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island, doing work on brain computer interfaces. Previously, they studied mathematics, mechanical engineering, and Mandarin Chinese. Alyssa placed 6th at Massachusetts State Mathcounts in 2006, and participated in both the AMC and AIME for all four years of high school. In their spare time, Alyssa reads (and sometimes writes) science fiction and fantasy, plays ultimate, and makes geometric art.

Teaching students who may be preparing for math competitions like Mathcounts, the American Mathematics Competition (AMC), or the American Invitational Mathematics Examination (AIME) is about the only time my middle and high school participation in those competitions remains relevant. And as a math teacher, my highest degree in math is at least as relevant as the highest degree I have or am working towards, if these aren't the same.

Neither of these bios mention my work for Disability in Kidlit, or any other publications, for that matter. But if I'm discussing disability and representation, or being a disability studies scholar in general, more of my writing matters.

No matter the context, it’s important to consider what accomplishments my audience is going to care about. I can claim to be a mathematician, a disability studies scholar, and a neuroscience student, but claiming them all at once definitely takes a lot of space and could confuse my audience.

When you're trying to squeeze your CV to fit within a maximum length, or write a short introduction for a presentation, how do you decide what to include?

[Image by Flickr user The Italian Voice and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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Learning Through Intentional Underqualification

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Imposter syndrome: if you have it, it means you're going to feel underqualified whether or not that's true. And there are plenty of ways to fight the feeling that you're an imposter, even when you don't feel like you know what you're doing.

That's one option. Here's another one: intentionally take on projects your only partially qualified for. This is the strategy I employ to fight the feeling of being an imposter. And I'm not being sneaky when I do this, by the way. When I threw ideas for a chapter on auto/biography studies at an editor, for example, I was very clear with her what I was and wasn't familiar with. I've done work on autism and representation. I've done autoethnographic work. I'm familiar with theory of mind theory and its effects on autistic narratives. But I had not engaged with auto/biography studies as a field.

Nevertheless, the editor liked the ideas I gave at her, even while I was completely open about not having applied the tools I needed in the context of her field before. So I wrote up a formal abstract. Then she asked me to write the chapter and to read at least some writing on auto/biography that is part of the formal auto/biography studies canon, which meant I could engage with the field. That was fair, and I did it, announcing to my friends that I had no clue what I was doing all the way.

About 7500 words later I had that clue (and a chapter about autistic auto/biography). I'd read about twice as many new-to-me books, chapters, and articles on auto/biographical writing than I actually cited, thanks to the book proposal’s bibliography and Google Scholar. I’d written about common ways of interpreting autistic auto/biographical writing, and suggested some unusual interpretations. The editor liked the chapter!

This is a pattern. By agreeing to do something where I only half know what I'm doing, I force myself to learn. This worked for the chapter I wrote this summer, and it failed to be a disaster for my first conference presentation. If imposter syndrome means I'm going to spend the whole research process feeling underqualified regardless, I might as well be somewhat underqualified and learn what I'm doing on the job. It's kind of the nature of research: no one knows the answer yet.

I still feel like I have no clue what I’m doing sometimes. But because I keep taking on projects where I actually don’t know what I’m doing (yet), I now have familiarity with topics I didn’t know before, like auto/biography studies, queer studies, neurodiversity and representation, brain computer interfaces, and probably some other things I’ve forgotten about. Some of those things might even help me with the next project I’m only half qualified for.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user COD Newsroom under the Creative Commons license.]

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Disabled in Grad School: Informal Accommodations

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

As a graduate student in neuroscience, I have formal accommodations. I also have things I do, don't do, or do differently for disability reasons which aren't formal accommodations, or are based on my formal accommodations but aren't exactly what my paperwork says I get.

I don't mean that some professors decide they don't need to see my paperwork before honoring my registered accommodation of text to speech for class participation when I can't talk, though that happens. I also don't mean professors take my accommodations letter the first time I take a class with them and then don't care about seeing it again in later semesters, though, again, this happens.

I mean, I fully understand why working from home isn't always a great idea. So do my major professors. However, my lab is currently sharing space with an off-campus company while the university builds new engineering buildings. There's a shuttle during the school year (but not the summer), so I can physically get there. But getting to my lab involves crossing a floor that's got exactly the wrong kind of noise, to the tune of my losing speech about half the time I go there. Even in the lab, the noise and lighting drain my energy pretty quickly. (Think of it like working while riding an exercise bike. You could, but you're going to run out of energy faster.) So, I do most of my work from home.

I should probably take more of the advice about building a home workspace, but it's tricky since I'm still living in what's basically an (undergraduate) program-specific frat house. I mean, I chose my living situation for disability related reasons, too. I think most people are familiar with the idea that some things (most things) are harder under stress. My skills get strained in a weird order, so speech and "how to make food happen" are usually the first two things to go. That means I need a meal plan and may need to arrange to get on a meal plan of some sort even when I'm not a student anymore. Oh, and sensory issues make the main dining hall inaccessible. The food is fine, I just can't be there. It's worse than it is in the lab. So my one place to consistently have food in front of me really should be smaller and quieter—ike the dining area for a frat house with a chef.

I mean that I work under the table. Literally. My lab mates know which table I'll be under with my laptop and headphones, with whatever I'm reading, with the wearable sensor I'm sewing back together because it got ripped up in testing this morning and we need it again this afternoon. The smaller space is more comfortable, the table over my head partially protects me from the glare of the fluorescent lights (but not from their sound), and no one can even accidentally startle me with my back to the wall and a lab table extending around me on either side.

Or I mean that my paperwork says I get to use text to speech when I can't talk, but text to speech is really my least used alternative to speech. If there's a side board I can reach from any seat, that's now my seat. I'm bringing a marker and an eraser to class. If I'm involved in a small group discussion, I'm using FlipWriter.

Formal accommodations are important. They're legally protected. I use them in all my roles and honor them as a teacher. But, especially when there's no rule preventing your disabled student, colleague, or teacher from doing something for a disability-related reason, think about the precedent you want to set. The accommodation of not being called on without a raised hand could help students working in a second or third language.

Would you want to out yourself and go get paperwork, just for a comfortable seating arrangement that didn't cost anyone extra? And if not, what options can you make available to everyone, as part of a universal design framework?

[Photo of the table Alyssa works under in the lab, taken by Alyssa.]

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Summer Work and Summer Rest

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Alyssa is an Autistic doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.


“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
Phdcomics.com

At this point, summer is here, and with it, a lot of unstructured time. So, we can work, right? We've all got to-do lists a mile long, largely populated with everything we didn't get done during the semester. (Or over winter break. Or the semester before that.) It’s nice to think that we can finally clear out our to-do lists.

Not so fast. If you're like me, there's something on your list for this summer that was unfinished from your list last summer. There might even be two things. I still owe revisions on a piece about disability and fanfiction. I never actually finished the review on sleep monitoring technology. In my partial defense, my thesis focus has almost certainly changed and I’ve got two other papers written and out for review. Even so: I thought I was going to get more things, or different things, done than I actually did.

There are a few ways I could approach this reality. I could look for advice on how to make the best use of my unstructured time. And I do — scheduling and pomodoro-like techniques have helped me get more done during my working time. I could look at which things on my to-do list are actually a strong yes, as opposed to a "well, OK..." and saying "no" to what is neither exciting nor strictly necessary to my degree. My major professor told me it would be important to say no to things so I could focus and finish — this seems like a good way to trim my list of distractions.

After this trimming, the important bits on my academic list for this summer are:

  • Revise the three papers I owe revisions on. The two papers I got out during the academic year have joined the piece on disability in fanfiction, all of which need revisions.
  • Figure out what my dissertation research is actually going to be on. Right now, augmentative and alternative communication looks likely, but with brain computer interfaces. I’m not studying the same systems I use.
  • Finalize my committee, because I can’t take the next steps in my program until I do so.
  • Arrange (and possibly take) my comprehensive exams. Once I have a committee, I can do this, and depending on their availability, that will either happen over the summer or at the start of the fall semester.

Just as important as everything on the list above (maybe more important), I am making time for rest. Summer means some free time, if that is I can accept that I have it while staring down the list of things I could be working on.

This means:

  • Despite all pressures to the contrary, the 40-hour work week is, in fact, my maximum, not the minimum or the goal. (This is 40 hours total, not 40 hours on research, just to be clear. And if I need to use a pomodoro technique, the break periods count.)
  • Even if I haven't hit that 40 hour maximum Monday-Friday (and the past few weeks, I haven't), I'm still not working over the weekend. If I want to spend the weekend re-reading (well, starting to re-read) an absurdly long Pokemon fanfiction or playing video games, then I can do that. Being completely unproductive is precisely the point.
  • I am working evenings, since the math classes I'm teaching over the summer are evening classes, but that means I take the morning or the afternoon off on class days.
  • I'm getting enough sleep — and not just because I'll get more done rested. It’s the best thing for me to do as a human.
  • I'm trying not to feel guilty about being human and needing rest while I'm in graduate school. Yes, my disabilities mean I burn through energy faster in some environments, but if I need to cite a disability as a reason to only work a standard week, something has gone very wrong.

How are you going to take time to rest this summer?

[Comic by Jorge Cham and used in accordance with the instructions in the about page.]

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Disabled in Grad School: Speaking as an Authority

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Alyssa is an Autistic doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

Of course, being seen as an authority figure isn't only a disability issue. For example, fellow GradHacker Alexandra wrote about cultivating authority as a female graduate student. Writing an article, she was told that she wrote with "too much authority." Did the reader know or assume her gender? (Someone who sees my name is likely to make the same assumption, and I doubt I'll fare any better if the reader knows I'm actually nonbinary.) Is it because of her feminist perspective? Is it the combination of the two? Looking back at my own teaching experiences, I suspect the combination. Sometimes my students know I'm autistic, and sometimes they don't. Most of them are under the incorrect impression that I am a woman. As a disabled grad student, though, I frequently run into this threshold issue, the one about my authority on my own experiences.

As a masters student teaching introductory college math, my authority was never really at issue. The department was good about backing up grad students when we had to tell our students, "No." And the topic was mathematics: everything I taught was a matter of fact, and I could prove it. I similarly didn't have difficulty demonstrating authority when I assisted in the electronics lab. My students’ circuits either worked or didn't, and my suggestions for how to fix them either worked or didn't.

There was some weirdness, however, about my writing on index cards when I couldn't speak. Though my knowledge on circuits was still a given, my students questioned the idea that being temporarily unable to speak could be normal or okay. How could it not be a big deal for me to need augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)? And that's the pattern I've run into. It's talking about disability, that thing where I actually have lived experience, where my knowledge is more likely to be questioned. Maybe it’s because I’m questioning the authority of what ‘everyone’ knows.

It's a pattern. Autism experts have been arguing that autistic people have a biased view of autism for as long as we've been writing about our experiences. On one hand, this is literally true. Everyone has biases about everything. And I'll be honest: yes, some of my autism-related writing, as researched as it is, is also activist: I'm highlighting issues that many professionals might like to ignore in favor of teaching us to act more normatively. How are Autistic people who are also Queer erased? What about AAC for people who technically could look more ‘normal’ by speaking instead? On the other hand, why is it that only our biases are called that? Pushing for indistinguishability as the primary goal is also a bias.

When I went and reviewed work about (and mostly by) Autistic adults who use AAC and can speak in order to argue that this is 1) a thing; 2) helpful; and 3) to be encouraged, I wrote like an outside expert to the extent that I could. That seemed like the best way to show that I wasn't writing about just my own experiences (see the chapter I wrote last summer - the book is out now). If there's even a whiff of that, and I'm saying something that isn't the usual practice or theory, I can expect to be reminded that "If you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person." Which, again, is literally true. So is, "If you've met or read writing by a few hundred autistic people, you've met or read writing by a few hundred autistic people." Guess which category I'm actually in.

Now, this obviously isn't something that happens 100 percent of the time. My major professor and my supervisor for my autism and AAC project both think that my autistic perspective on autism-related issues is valuable, because it gives me insights they can't have. There exist people who will consider lived experience to be a source of authority, rather than a detriment to it. Those are the people I try to work with, whenever possible.

[Image by Flickr user Jonathan, under a Creative Commons License.]

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Disabled in Grad School: Speaking as an Authority

Disabled in Grad School: Flexibility

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Alyssa is an Autistic doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

In grad school, students tend to have fairly flexible schedules, which can be both good and bad. For example, it can mean we have more time to get ourselves to conferences, which is nice. However, it's not unusual for graduate students to work (or at least be at work) more than 40 hours per week. That's neither efficient nor particularly sustainable.

Getting into disability-related issues, there are even more reasons that a flexible schedule can be both good and bad.

Advantage: If something goes wrong, I can probably just go home. I'm autistic, and I've got sensory processing issues. If there is construction going on next to my lab, I can't be there. I really, really can't. Thankfully, no one's going to argue if I go home early, as long as I get my work done when it needs to be done.

Disadvantage: That flexibility means there's less pressure to prevent future issues. I'm still going to do my best to avoid problems before they happen. Sure, I can go home if there's construction going on next to my lab. I can go home if there's explosion testing downstairs from the classroom where I'm teaching. Sometimes (not always), I can even get out before I'm completely fried. Then I'll get work done at home. This means, however, other people aren't seeing the full effects of whatever caused my problem, and they may not fully understand just how important it is to not expose me to inaccessible environments in the first place. They also may help me avoid the inaccessible environment rather than making it more accessible to me.

Advantage: If I can get the work done in shorter bursts, that's OK. No one really checks which hours we're working, usually. If I can maintain my focus for a few hours and get a lot done in that time and then rest, that's great! Being efficient with the time I spend working and therefore spending less time working overall is basically how I manage graduate school.

Disadvantage: There's less structure and therefore fewer checks on my executive dysfunction. Putting me in a situation where the easiest thing for me to do is work increases the likelihood that I'll get work done. So, stick me in a library where I don't have internet access for a couple hours between classes, and my homework will get done. (This is something that actually helped me when I studied in Tianjin.) Without this sort of structure, maintaining my focus for a few good hours is hard. It's probably hard for all graduate students, whether or not we also have executive functioning issues. I do, though, so if you don't, multiply your difficulties staying on task by needing several tries to make tea (which is a task they're apparently looking at as a measure of executive functioning now. Oops!) In any case, without classes to structure my day or deadlines to give me adrenaline-fueled bursts of good focus, I could be in trouble.

How has flexibility in your schedule made your life easier? Harder?

[Image courtesy of Raw Pixel under a Creative Commons license]

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Disabled in Grad School: Autism Month

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Alyssa is an Autistic doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

April is an important month in the world of autism. According to the UN, it's Autism Awareness month. To organizations like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, Autism Women's Network, and others run by actual autistic people, it's Autism Acceptance month. (Thanks Paula!) For me, like many other autistic people, it’s that month I’ve wanted to be over since... mid-March. However, if I hide under a rock for the entire month of April, I wont get any say in the kind of awareness that gets spread about me!

So, here I am, telling you all what I, as an autistic graduate student, would like you to know about autism.

Being visibly autistic is not, in fact, an emergency. In a university environment, I have had professors or administrators become very concerned when I rocked, flapped, didn't make eye contact, needed to type instead of talk, or even just disclosed that I'm autistic. A friend of mine got into trouble because a rock climbing teacher saw her flap her hand. That sort of reaction doesn’t help anyone, especially once you consider that we might be doing the characteristically and visibly autistic thing in order to be more able to work on our actual priorities, like classwork or research.

Talking about specific needs is helpful. Terms like "high functioning" aren't. Calling someone "high functioning" will lead to missing some of their needs. Calling someone "low functioning" will lead to missing some of their abilities. It's best to drop the ineffective shorthand and talk about whatever needs abilities are relevant at the moment. If you mean that someone needs to type to communicate some or all of the time, say that. If you mean that someone is able to live alone with the proper support, say that. If you mean that someone needs help getting food, say that.

Autism-related needs vary between people. One size does not fit all. Letting me work from home is actually a great idea, because I have more control over my environment. Some of us will need to work in the library, the lab, or some other consistent but structured location. I need a meal plan, because keeping myself fed is an issue when I have to cook for myself. It’s either that or consistently go acquire ready-made food without one. Other autistic people need to eat anywhere except the dining hall, because they can't eat the provided food, they can't deal with the noise and crowds, or both. Rather than assuming you know, "what autistic students need," ask us what we need. You can suggest some of the supports you've heard can be good for us, but be prepared for us to let you know what doesn't work.

Our needs and abilities vary between environments and over time. One size may not fit one. My ability to cook varies between needing three or more attempts to make myself tea in a kitchen that has a hot water spigot (no kettle required) and being able to make a three-layer chocolate cake with chocolate whipped cream frosting from scratch. My ability to feed myself varies between staring in confusion at the items on the buffet table at my dining hall, trying to remember how to serve myself, and making the aforementioned cake. My ability to speak varies between none and winning a class debate I hadn't prepared for by explaining on the fly why my opponents evidence supported my argument, not his. These abilities don't necessarily vary together, either. I once scored "Advanced" on a test of Chinese speaking proficiency while completely non-speaking in English.

This means our productivity is likely to vary over time. If it's taking me three tries to make tea, that's time I'm not spending on research. It could also be a sign that I'm having trouble concentrating, which isn't good for doing research. (Unless I'm wandering away from the attempt at making tea to scribble down "quick" ideas related to my research that then take so long my tea gets cold and over-steeped. That's just bad for keeping hydrated.) Over the course of a semester, this is likely to average out. Over the course of the week or two between meetings for research projects, it might not. This is especially true if I have multiple ongoing projects and have hyper-focused on one of them for the last week.

Meeting our needs is critical. Sometimes, our needs and abilities will vary for as-yet-unknown reasons or for reasons outside our control. Other times, speech will be gone and I'll stare in confusion at a pile of sandwiches in my dining hall, and there will have been a clearly avoidable cause for this. If I'm expected to work in an environment with construction or with lights where I can see the flickering, my abilities are very likely to take a dive. I don't actually care if my speech gives out, because I have access to other communication options. I do care if I have trouble understanding what to do with the food in front of me. Among other things, I'm not productive when I'm hungry!

[Image courtesy of Dr. Melanie Yergeau, used with permission.]

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Dr. Hawking’s Legacy and Disability in Grad School

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Professor Stephen Hawking died on March 14, 2018. From all directions, I've been flooded with reactions to his passing. Even people who don't usually post about disability topics or about science are sharing their reactions. As a disabled graduate student and scientist, I’m feeling the loss.

There is, of course, his actual scientific work. He argued for the possibility of what is now called Hawking radiation, through which a black hole can effectively emit particles due to quantum effects. He then helped explain how this was possible from an information perspective, losing a bet in the process. That wasn't his only scientific bet, either — he lost $100 when the Higgs boson was found, too. He advised graduate students in theoretical physics, leading them quickly into high-risk, high-gain projects. Basically, Dr. Hawking was a theoretical physicist as well as a mentor.

Dr. Hawking was also disabled. He started noticing symptoms in his final year at Oxford, and he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in graduate school. (This means he was disabled in grad school, by the way!) He used mobility aids — crutches, at that point, and later a wheelchair. He wrote about the barriers he faced in academia, even as a prominent scientist. And he even wrote about barriers to participation in his the 2011 World Report on Disability address.

In addition to using a wheelchair, Dr. Hawking was one of the most visible users of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) around. Quite a bit of development for communication supports and alternative access came from Intel working with him and sponsoring his devices. A graduate assistant even helped develop the cheek switch system he used to access his computer. As a scientist who uses AAC, if faster and less frequently than Dr. Hawking did, I look to him as proof that AAC users can be scientists and professors. He was a nice example to have.

Not all of this recent attention on Dr. Hawking’s life, however, has been positive. His disability also means that I get to see lots of people talking about how he's "free" of his disability (or his wheelchair) now, that death somehow frees him from the confines of his disability. Several people have written about why framing death that way is scary, and it boils down to this: if you take death as freedom, and assistive technology as what we need to be free of, what does that mean for our lives? From questions as big as life and death to those as mundane as whose classes I'll take, I pay attention to how people talk about disability. It's part of navigating the world while disabled.

This semester Dr. Hawking’s presence is felt in the work I’m doing, which involves brain computer interfaces. I'm reviewing the scholarship on one kind of brain computer interface in my physiological psychology class, and I’m presenting next week on an experiment with the same type of system. Dr. Hawking can be seen as a partial inspiration for this choice — these interfaces are being developed with people with disabilities, including ALS, in mind. One reason I'm specifically looking at work done with disabled participants is that a lot of the development has been done on subjects with no known neurological disabilities. Dr. Hawking, for example, didn't use brain computer interfaces partially because they couldn't get a good signal from his neural activity. If these interfaces are being designed for people with neurological disabilities, but the scientific community largely tests them on people without neurological disabilities, then we need to be aware of this shortcoming.

Have you ever been affected by the passing of a scholar, whether in your field or not? How might their work have affected yours?

[Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Arrhakis under a Creative Commons license.]

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Dr. Hawking’s Legacy <br>and Disability in Grad School
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Thursday, March 22, 2018
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Thursday, March 22, 2018

Disabled in Grad School: How 'Out" Do I Need to Be

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

I'm a graduate student in neuroscience, I'm registered with disability services, and I'm pretty out about being disabled... in certain circumstances. Did you notice that it's my first name alone on my byline? That's intentional. At the same time, I took a class last semester about augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), as a part time AAC user, and I've been known to wear a T-shirt announcing my neurotype while teaching.

The moral of that story is, disability disclosure is complicated.

We're often taught to be ashamed of our needs, and to believe that they aren't reasonable. Is it just that we shouldn't be here? Whether or not the shame holds, there are times when being openly disabled just isn't practical — proving disability discrimination can be hard, and encountering plausibly unrelated barriers as soon as we ask for accommodations is a common fear.

So, how openly disabled do I need to be to take your class?

If I need accommodations, then I need documentation, which I have to give to disability services. Then I have to make sure you get the disability services letter. You'll know I'm disabled, but you may or may not know what my specific disability is. In practice, you'll know what my disability is, because it can make things easier and it shouldn't be a big deal. Also in practice, I understand why people might want to keep disclosure to a minimum, because sometimes it is a big deal. In theory, you and I could be the only people who know I'm disabled, and you might not know what disability I have.

Now let's consider what happens when accommodations are implemented.

When the accommodation is extra time, other students might notice who's never in the classroom for exams. I guess that's possible? I certainly never noticed who was missing at exams. If everyone started together, and then students who both had extra time and needed it on this exam went elsewhere at the end of the time, that might be noticed. How noticeable this accommodation is depends on how it's done at the individual university.

When the accommodation is only being called on when one's hand is raised, I suppose other students could theoretically notice that certain people don't get unexpectedly called on. Honestly, I’m not going to catch on if someone else has this accommodation. I'll just notice if and when I get unexpectedly called on. Unless, of course, the professor normally refuses to call on raised hands. Then it's pretty obvious if someone only gets called on when their hand is up. Having never taken a class with that sort of policy, I have no idea if I've ever had a classmate with this accommodation. I’m told it’s a common option for selective mutism, anxiety, and similar disabilities. It's what I was initially offered I told disability services I can't always talk. I could have taken that option, rather than used augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which everyone notices.

When the accommodation involves the use of a device that is allowed in the classroom, or already used in the classroom for other reasons, it can be pretty subtle. If, for example, fidget objects are already allowed, no one's likely to notice or care that I'm using mine because I'm autistic. Or if I need to take notes on my laptop because I can't always read my handwritten notes, and laptops are generally allowed, my classmates aren’t going to know why I'm using it. You might not know either — why turn in paperwork to protect my ability to do something everyone is already allowed to do? (One could argue that it's a self-accommodation or not even an accommodation at all when the action or support is allowed by default, and we don't need to disclose in order to make use of it.)

It's when the accommodation involves the use of a device that is otherwise banned that I have to out myself in order to take your class. Fidget spinners are banned? I'm still going to need to fidget, so I can find a different way of meeting that need or I can out myself for an exception. Laptops are banned? I still can't consistently read my handwriting once I'm removed from the context, so I'm going to need to go without usable notes, get a note-taker, or out myself to my classmates as well as to you.

You'll notice that this isn't just about technology in the classroom. It's not just laptops. It's a question of how the university is designed: some spaces won't require me to request accommodation. My needs are met by the default design of most online courses, for example. In other spaces, I'll need to turn in my disability services letter, but other students might not know about my disabilities. In yet other spaces, my accommodations will be visible to everyone in the room. Which spaces are which varies with both individual needs and the design of the space, including its rules: what's normally accepted, and what's not?

For students who aren't out as disabled to their cohorts or classmates, having to out themselves is a barrier. How out do we need to be, in order to take your class? How out do we need to be, in order to make it through the door?

[Picture of their laptop, ear defenders, and assortment of fidget objects by Alyssa]

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Disabled in Grad School: <br>How 'Out' Do I Need to Be
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Sunday, February 25, 2018
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Disabled in Grad School: Mentoring

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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

Fellow GradHackers have plenty to say about mentoring as a graduate student, both about making sure we benefit from our relationships with our mentors and about being mentors ourselves. Building networks is a huge (and hard) part of graduate school, and mentoring deepens our communities.

Being an Autistic graduate student makes good mentoring even harder (socialization is hard!) and even more important. After all, I'm navigating a system that wasn't exactly designed for people like me. In practice, this means I have multiple support networks with varying levels of overlap and with varying types of relationships. They help me ensure I’m making progress on my research, working towards my other degree requirements, and not getting too burned out from the stresses specific to being a disabled person in academia.

My major professor is obviously one mentor. The senior grad students in my lab are some others. They teach me how things work in the lab, and how things work in the department. Since I recently started my fourth semester in the lab, at this point I am also serving as a mentor for undergraduates. I expect managing undergraduate students will be an educational experience!

Since my major professor is in biomedical engineering and affiliated with the interdisciplinary neuroscience program I'm in, I have yet another, overlapping mentoring network related to my program. For this reason, I speak to my program director regularly. I don’t see her as often as I see my major professor, but I have similar reasons to talk to her: I need to stay on track with my degree requirements. Neuroscience and biomedical engineering have some differing requirements, after all.

Finally, there's my disability-specific network. This is where mentoring relationships start to look less like informal but (loosely) hierarchical relationships and more like an Ewok village. I don't limit my requests for guidance to those who rank "higher" than me in their respective field. My friend who gets extra time because she doesn't need it is absolutely one of my mentors, and she's still working on an undergraduate degree. She's also been an activist almost as long as I've been alive. People I go to for advice may not even be in the same fields or hierarchies I am. Dani Alexis is a developmental editor and a freelance writer. She's also ten years my senior but calls me an "elder." The people I'm looking to for advice may also be looking to me!

As a graduate student, I need guidance for a number of different reasons. The people best equipped to keep me on track in the neuroscience program aren’t necessarily the same ones who can teach me how to do autism research while being myself autistic. The people who who understand biomedical engineering research might not be able to advise me on how and when to disclose a disability on the job market.

What issues do you need the support of a mentor for? Who is best equipped to help you with those?

[Image by Flickr user Brian Ujiie and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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