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Disabled in Grad School: When You Tell Me a Disability Story

How not to talk about a student's disabilities.


October 11, 2017

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 the start 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.

Today, I’m starting with stories. Have you ever been told a story where you're clearly expected to relate to one perspective, but you don’t?

I'm a teacher as well as a graduate student. Thus, my fellow educators often expect that I'll relate to their teacher stories. Sometimes I do; I don’t think it’s unusual to shout at the pile of grading while figuring out what the common errors are and what misconceptions I therefore need to address in class. But other times, I don’t; I’m a disabled student. I may hear your tale and make a mental note not to take a class with you. I don’t want to be your next story, and I don’t want to deal with you saying that you “believe in me” while denying me the accommodation I need in order to live up to that belief.

So, here are two stories that I’ve heard from teachers, and one from a neurodivergent student.

Story the first:

I'm sitting in class and my professor starts to tell a story. Apparently, a former student of this professor had required extended test-taking time, specifically double time. He said that she had already failed the class once with time-and-a-half on tests. This second time around, he left her with an exam for a bit over double the usual time while he kind of forgot about the test. When he went to get the test back from her, she was still working. She passed the class this time around, but the story is somehow supposed to convince us that she didn’t really need extra time.

I don’t know why he's telling this story in class. I know it's not directed at me, because I haven’t turned in my disability paperwork and he doesn’t know I’m autistic. I won’t turn my paperwork in for this class.

Story the second:

I'm at lunch, at a table with several professors. For whatever reason, disability comes up. It's not that I don't remember the specific context, but that I get treated to this story every time disability is mentioned around one particular professor.

Every semester, there are some students who get extra time and a quiet room on exams. The professor telling the story thinks the need for a quiet room is a bit silly, because the room is quiet during an exam anyway. I have to assume his ears aren't as sensitive as mine. I can hear plenty going on during exams, even if no one is talking.

He tells the students that he will set up their extra time and the quieter room, but that he strongly encourages them to think about whether they can take the exam in the main room. They take the first exam with extra time. Many of them turn it in within the originally allowed time. The second exam proceeds much the same way, with a similar encouragement from the professor. Come the final, the students all "decide" they're going to try taking their exam in the main room.

I think about how much pressure a professor can exert on their students without explicitly requiring anything specific, and I worry for those students.

Story the third:

A friend of mine gets accommodations. One of them is extra time and a quiet testing room. Odd as this might sound, she basically gets extra time because she doesn't need it. Counterintuitive? Yes. Important? Also yes. The extra time is there to protect the accommodations she really needs. If my friend’s professors don’t know she’s fast on tests, they can’t use that knowledge as an excuse to deny her other needs. Unfortunately, professors who see how fast she finishes tests sometimes conclude that she can’t really need her other accommodations. I don’t know how they reach that conclusion - do they think that if a person is disabled in one way, they can’t be good at anything else? Do they think that if a person has one above-average skill, they can’t be disabled or require accommodation for anything else?

I don’t know where the presumption that her other accommodations aren’t needed (or that the professor knows better than the student does) comes from, because it doesn’t make sense to me. What I know is that people lose accommodations due to the assumption that they aren’t really needed, or have to spend energy they could be spending on the class fighting to keep those accommodations. That’s a problem. In this case, the student and her disability services office mutually decided they were sick of having that problem, so now she gets extra time and takes her tests in the disability services office.

The common thread in all of these stories is professors who think they know what accommodations a student really needs (or, more likely, doesn’t really need). As a disabled student with slightly unusual classroom accommodations, I’m scared of my fellow teachers who tell these stories like they should be proud. As teachers, we don’t live the lives of our students, disabled or not. When they tell us what does and doesn’t work, we need to believe them.

I guarantee that our disabled students have heard 99% of the suggestions teachers make about how not to “need” their accommodations, possibly 99 times each. If they’re not doing it, there’s a reason. We know our subject, not the balancing acts of other people’s disabilities, and we shouldn’t be like the professors from these stories. I worry for their students, and I avoid taking their classes - especially if they tell these stories when it's my need for accommodations that comes up!

[Image by Flickr user Michael Fötsch and used under Creative Commons licensing.]


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