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Wrapping up the Disability in Grad School Series

Some things I'd like you to take away from this series.


May 29, 2019

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

My loose series about disability in graduate school has been running for a while now. I didn't realize quite how long it was going to get when I started it—I knew I wanted to tell professors that their disabled students and colleagues are paying attention when they talk about disability or about other disabled people. I also knew I wanted to explain why the accommodations talk can be scary as a student. My musings on how "out" I need to be in order to get and use my accommodations and how this depends on both my specific accommodations and the design of the class had been bouncing around in my head a while.

However, I didn't have ideas for the other posts in the series until later. My discussion of disclosure (and non-disclosure) as a teacher only exists because Patrick asked me about it while I was writing about accommodations! My augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and autism awareness month posts came up because the series was ongoing during the relevant awareness months.

Sometimes it's been fun, and sometimes it's felt more like sitting down at the keyboard to bleed. But now I'm wrapping up the series, so here's some things I'd like you to take away from it all:

Disabled people aren't a monolith: we're all different humans, whether or not we have the same labels. What worked for your one student with Condition XYZ 10 years ago might not be what your colleague with Condition XYZ needs today, and even if you’ve been teaching for 40 years, you may still encounter a student with an accommodation you’ve never heard of before. (That student might be me.) Supports, services, and accommodations aren’t stagnant either: some of the AAC options I use existed 40 years ago, like pens and paper, but others like Proloquo4Text, a text-based AAC application I used to give a recent presentation, are only 6 years old. The increased availability of screen readers has decreased (but not eliminated) demand for course materials in Braille, and similar technology helps many students with dyslexia.

Disabled people in academia aren’t just students. For example, I’m also a teacher. Whether or not I tell my students I’m disabled, I’m still a disabled teacher! When we talk about disability in the classroom, we tend to just think about students, but yes, teachers with disabilities exist. And we deal with a lot of discriminatory bureaucratic nonsense while trying to exist.  

Our conditions and abilities can vary over time. What we can do one day may not be the same as what we can do the next day, and how disabled we “look” at any given time may not correlate well with how much we can get done at the time. When it comes to important events (like comprehensive exams) it’s best to plan and accommodate for greater support needs, even if they turn out not to have been needed.

Flexibility is a double-edged sword. Yes, we need to be able to avoid or leave inaccessible environments. No, the fact that we’re allowed to leave inaccessible environments doesn’t make the inaccessibility okay, but that sort of exception does help systems get away without making structural changes.  

Even if you don't think you're talking about the disabled colleague or student you're talking to, we pay attention to how you talk about disability and accommodations. If, for example, you see someone else's varying abilities and ask if they're faking their bad days, we may wonder if you think the same thing about us!

The ways other people react to disability can mean we lose some autonomy, some privacy, or both. This includes situations when accessing our accommodations outs us as disabled. Frankly, this includes getting accommodations at all, which involves giving people some of our medical records. Universal design is a good idea, and maybe some accessibility measures can happen informally.

This isn’t everything. It couldn’t be. It just means I'm done writing articles for this site that are mainly about my being disabled in graduate school. Disability studies in education is a whole field and while I’m wrapping up this blog series, I’m not done writing about disability. I'm still disabled, so I'm still going to look for information about disability in my assistantship contract and ask my union for clarification. I still do disability-related research, which means I'm doing literature reviews (and finding gaps in the literature) in disability-related topics. I’ll still post occasionally about this topic on my personal blog and I promised AssistiveWare, the company behind one of my AAC apps, more blog posts about my perspective as an AAC user who also does AAC research. Oh, and there’s always my Academia.edu page. If you’ve found my discussions of disability in higher education interesting, there’s plenty more to be found.

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

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