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Disabled in Grad School: (How) Do I Tell My Students?

Disclosing a disability is a deeply personal decision, even more so as a teacher.

By

January 18, 2018
 
 

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.

In the title to this post, how is parenthetical because the question really is: do I tell my students? The decision to disclose is complicated. There's literally an entire book about this.

Over the summer, while I was co-writing a chapter about teachers who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) strategies, I read quite a bit about and by teachers with disabilities. Some of us are "outed" the moment we enter a room. Others, like myself, can somewhat "pass" ...until we can't. Or we teach online – one piece I read was by an educator who experimented with the timing of her disclosure because online teaching gave her the option to do so.

So, do I tell my students? Autism, after all, has quite a bit of stigma attached. Disclosure can be scary and sometimes risky, even from positions of relative privilege. Some of us will only admit to how our brains are wired when we do so anonymously. It's not unusual for disabled graduate teaching assistants to be more willing to disclose (and request formal accommodations where applicable) as students than as teachers. As teachers, we're more likely to quietly self-accommodate.

The first year I taught in the math department, I was no exception. I had autistic pride buttons on my backpack, as a student. As a teacher, I kept it quiet. As a teacher, I remembered reading about Dr. Yergeau's involuntary commitment as a new faculty member, and the reactions to her autistic pride button. I removed the buttons from my backpack every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning before teaching 9:00 a.m., or I brought a different bag to class. I never told my students. (I did tell my supervisors, since my part-time AAC use is a formal accommodation.)

My third semester teaching in the math department, a student came to me with documentation from disability services. She was scared to have the accommodations talk, even with a letter in hand. I told her (and only her!) that I was disabled too, that I understood her worry, and that yes, I would make sure she got what she needed. She was surprised, but relieved that I seemed to understand. We talked about the process with disability services - we both had executive functioning issues, which made it tricky to organize the needed meetings and paperwork to secure accommodations even after getting past the fear of asking for help. There are so few “out” disabled people on campus - I think we were both glad of the opportunity to talk to someone who “got it.”

As a lab assistant in electrical engineering, I never had a discussion with my students about my disability or my accommodations. I did, however, finally have a day where I had to assist in the lab, and I couldn't talk. Other than one student who really wanted to tell me how sad it was, the lab went OK, and then my students knew. Some days I even started wearing my Autistic Party Giraffe T-shirt in the lab.

Now, my accommodations aren't subtle when I need them, which means my disability isn't subtle either. If a teacher stops speaking entirely, relying on writing or typing instead of speaking rather than mixed with speaking, students are going to notice. I risked them finding out about my disability only when it became impossible to hide. Eventually, I had to teach when I couldn't talk, and the students figured it out. Because the reactions I got were, by and large, supportive, I felt safe being more open about my status as an Autistic teacher. That doesn’t mean I always tell people, or that you should tell them for me. (Seriously. Don’t tell my students I’m autistic for me.) It just means that when the situation warrants it, I’m willing to say that yes, I’m Autistic.

What identities have you needed to consider disclosing? Do you tell your students? Why? Why not? What identities don't you need to think about disclosure for?

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

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