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

Considering different levels of disability disclosure in the classroom.


February 25, 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.

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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