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Natascha Chtena is a Ph.D. student in Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena.


A while ago, a struggling student (let’s call her Jane) walked into my office to discuss her performance in my German class. Jane was a shy student who rarely participated in class discussion, and her performance on the quizzes and midterm was below average. As I usually do with underachieving students, I asked Jane some questions about her goals, program and current commitments.

We were talking about her study habits, when Jane brought up dyslexia. She only mentioned it offhandedly, and wasn’t making excuses or apologies. I was surprised to hear about it, to say the least, as neither she nor the school’s disability counselor had gotten in touch with me to inform me of her condition and to request accommodations. When I asked her whether she was registered with our school’s disability office, she said that indeed she was. When I further asked her why she hadn’t asked for special accommodation, she said that she “didn’t want to be a problem,” and went on to give me examples of faculty who had questioned her sincerity or refused to take her seriously when asking for an accommodation.

Her feeling was, Jane said, that “many professors are more willing to accommodate students with ‘tangible’ disabilities,” such as those who are blind, deaf or use a wheelchair. Students with invisible conditions like learning disabilities, clinical depression or ADHD were often “put on the pile of ‘boutique disabilities,’” i.e. outright dismissed or begrudgingly accommodated.

There may be several students in your classroom like Jane. Like Jane, some of them will not share their condition with you or request special accommodation, either because of previous negative experiences or because they fear being seen as “lesser” or stigmatized as “pathological.” Some may be unaware that they have a disability in the first place or may be unaware that their condition qualifies as a disability. Most people I know don’t think of chronic illness, brain injury, neurological disorders, mental illness, or oxygen impairment as a “disability.”

The fact that invisible disabilities are in fact “invisible” poses a challenge for us TAs. If a student doesn’t reach out to us, an entire semester can go by without us noticing or providing the tools that student needs to succeed. So in a way, we are failing the students who need us most, even without intending or realizing it.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “invisible disabilities” aren’t obscure, rare or merely currently “en vogue.” In fact, they are the most common type of disability among college students. Since students whose disabilities are invisible far outweigh those with visible ones, if our goal is to create a truly inclusive classroom, we must do a better job of  understanding 1) who those students are, 2) what obstacles they face and, ultimately, 3) how we can support them to achieve their full potential.

Here are a few steps you can take to create a safe and welcoming environment for students with invisible disabilities:

1. Educate yourself. If you’ve never heard of the term “invisible disabilities” or are only marginally familiar with it, do some background reading to get an idea of what constitutes an invisible disability and what living with such a condition may look like. You may also want to contact your school’s disability office to inquire about campus resources for students with invisible disabilities, and potential training opportunities for instructors working with them. It’s also a good idea to talk to a disability counselor about the legally correct and ethically appropriate ways to work with such a student. If you’re thinking about going one step further, I recommend looking at research done by the Society for Disability Studies, which examines disability as a category of identity rather than purely as a medical construct.

2. Let them know you are invested in their success and committed to supporting them. Dedicate a few minutes on the first day of class to addressing students with disabilities (visible and invisible), and let them know that you are there to accommodate them to your fullest ability. Don’t just read the standard disability statement you copy and pasted on your syllabus, but use the knowledge from your research (see point 1) to ensure that they are feeling seen and welcomed. If you too have an invisible disability, consider coming-out to them. In my own experience I have found that students who feel accepted and/or understood are far more willing to request appropriate accommodations and to engage fully in classes compared to when they feel overlooked.

3. Be discreet, but don’t be afraid to ask questions. Many students feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about their disabilities and avoid talking about them. Students with invisible disabilities sometimes even more so, because the severity of their condition and/or their sincerity is often questioned. Some students may choose not to disclose the exact nature of their disability and/or may have their disability counselor contact you requesting an accommodation instead of doing it directly. While I do believe that student privacy is important, I also think it’s useful to know the nature of their disability and how it interferes with their work. Often these students need more support than a laptop or extra time on a test and that’s something disability offices usually don’t encourage. The only way we can provide that support is through direct and honest conversation with students. I wouldn’t encourage pushing students to disclose information they don’t feel comfortable sharing, but I would suggest explaining to them that a better understanding of their disability can help you improve their learning experience and, possibly, their performance.

4. Believe them. Sometimes we have our own ideas about how a person with disability should look like or what they should be able to accomplish for their condition to be “real” or “significant.” Don’t make judgment about what a student may be able to do based on how they look and don’t add to their stress by questioning their accommodation request. Appearances can be highly deceptive, especially among people with invisible disabilities. For some of them just staying upright can be a fight all day, everyday.

5.  Ask for their input. Part of offering an inclusive learning experience is meeting the needs of the individual learner, and there is no one who understands a condition and the challenges it poses better than the person affected directly by it. Without wanting to underestimate the value or significance of disability offices, I have found that they tend to have a rather specific idea of what constitutes an accommodation, which often isn’t enough or appropriate for a given student. Ask students which aspects of your course are working for them and which aren’t, and ask for recommendations on how you can better meet their learning needs. Their feedback will likely be eye-opening and make you reconsider the way you conduct lessons and deliver content.

There has been so much talk about campus diversity recently, but, so far, students with disabilities have been largely left out of that conversation. Invisible disabilities, meanwhile, are completely overlooked, much to the detriment of many students. I believe as instructors we have the responsibility of bringing these students out of the shadows, supporting them and even advocating for them, at least until they feel comfortable enough to advocate for themselves.

Additional Resources

Here at GradHacker we’ve thought and written a lot about disability over time, both from a student and educator perspective. If you’re looking for additional resources on how to make your classroom more accessible for students will all types of disabilities, check out Liz’s post on inclusive instruction.

If you’re interested in reading more on the topic of invisible disability specifically, you can check out Brianne’s post on navigating grad school with learning disabilities and ADHD Leslie’s post on navigating chronic illness.

Are invisible disabilities discussed at your school? What can we do as educators to support students with such conditions?

[Image by Flickr user ramos alejandro and used under Creative Commons.]

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