Identity Politics and Invisible Disability in the Classroom

When professors discuss their conditions with students, the positive consequences extend well beyond a course, writes Linda Kornasky.

March 17, 2009

When professors interact with students, an unspoken rule dictates that we should avoid calling unnecessary attention to the bodies in the room. We follow this rule instinctively and, for the most part, with good reason. This rule works well particularly in regard to gendered bodily differences. De-emphasizing bodily differences -- most differences being clearly of minor or no importance in an academic setting -- between groups constitutes one way to foster tolerance for individual differences and American democratic ideals. In this regard, classrooms mirror national ideals of human equality.

In the case of disability, America values the benefit gained from de-emphasizing bodily difference so much that this benefit has become a national objective through law: the Americans With Disabilities Act. The central functions of the law include not only ensuring that people with disabilities are provided with reasonable accommodations in the workplace but ensuring as well that they receive accommodations without having to disclose their disability publicly. This latter legal right is, of course, considered a particular advantage for those who have invisible disabilities, such as minor hearing loss (like mine) and other minor to moderate sensory disabilities, chronic non-life-threatening disorders, and some kinds of psychological/cognitive disabilities.

Notwithstanding the potential benefits of retaining this right to privacy about one’s disability in our workplace — the college classroom — I would like to make a bold counter proposal to my professional peers who, like me, have invisible disabilities: let us as a group establish a common policy to come out as disabled in our classes each semester. My experience with both options of negotiating my disability — retaining privacy and coming out — has shown me that, although coming out is not a necessity for me to perform my job as a professor and has even brought about occasional awkward moments, coming out as a professor with a disability is more than worthwhile in so far as it fosters positive identity politics among my students with disabilities.

I had chosen to retain privacy at the universities, one in Rhode Island and one in Louisiana, I had taught at as a teaching assistant prior to being hired 13 years ago on the tenure-track at Angelo State University, in West Texas. However, to adjust to my new Texan students’ speaking style (for an exaggerated example of this style of speaking, think of Boomhauer on the Fox Network show "King of the Hill") and low-keyed body language, which limits visual communication cues I can usually rely on, I was prompted to disclose my right-side hearing impairment. I worried at first about causing unnecessary confusion for students about the extent of my impairment. But I found after that the results of the first experiment in coming out were so positive that such minor confusion, which was less difficult to dispel than I originally thought, was unimportant in comparison with what was gained in coming out as disabled.

In just the first couple of academic years out of the “able-bodied” closet, I was approached by more than a dozen students, including two hearing impaired students who had taken previous courses with me but whose hearing impairments I had not known about, who told me about their own invisible disabilities and sought me out as an academic mentor. I noticed that students with both visible and invisible disabilities exhibited a different attitude toward me and about their own identities as students with disabilities than I had perceived when I was passing as non-disabled. These students with disabilities to whom I had disclosed my disability were more self-assured than my students with disabilities had been with me when I had been passing as nondisabled. They participated more freely in class discussions and asked more readily and with less self-consciousness for appropriate disability accommodations. And in the decade or so since my first experimental semester coming out as disabled to my classes, I have found that these initial impressions were correct, as scores more students with disabilities responded in the same encouraging ways.

Of course, coming out with an invisible disability must be done carefully to avoid the difficulties often associated with any coming out process involving stigmatized identities. The disclosure must be performed so that one does not seem to be trying to elicit pity from students, either nondisabled or disabled. Nondisabled people confronted with another person’s disability tend to feel, often unconsciously, as Lennard Davis aptly asserts in Enforcing Normalcy, a “welter of powerful emotional responses . . . . horror, fear, pity, compassion, and avoidance," emotions that most professors would do nearly anything, short of a crime, to avoid evoking on the first day of class.

And, even more important for my argument here, many disabled people despise pity-inducing moments on a more conscious level, thinking of them in the same category as Jerry Lewis’s annual Labor Day pity fest, which achieves its financial end through the unjustifiable means of ritually parading Jerry’s “poster kids” in front of a nondisabled television audience so that this audience may collectively sigh in gratitude that they are not “crippled” too. To avoid this counterproductive evoking of pity, I have found that maintaining a matter-of-fact attitude, keeping explanations as brief as possible, and focusing on the impact of the disability on classroom dynamics specifically make the disclosure practically and ideologically useful for both disabled and nondisabled students. (Conversely, professors with invisible disabilities that do not impact classroom dynamics might need only mention that, like some students and faculty, they have a disability too, without specifying it, perhaps as a quick addendum to calling students’ attention to their university’s procedures for acquiring accommodations, which most professors include on their syllabi and refer to on the first day of class.)

In light of these experiences, I urge other professors with invisible disabilities to come out to students as well and to become more aware of the considerable number of faculty with such disabilities on their campuses. For instance, in the English departments at the three universities at which I have taught about 20 percent of faculty members have invisible disabilities (not surprisingly, far fewer than this percentage — less than 5 percent — have visible disabilities). Unfortunately, however, none routinely come out as disabled to their students, and none have given much thought to how many professors and students with disabilities exist around them. Further, all of those to whom I have advocated coming out as disabled have been concerned about negative repercussions in their classes, while none of these professors have thought about the negative repercussions to students with disabilities of such passing by professors.

Indeed, the choice to pass among professors with invisible disabilities prevents all of their students, disabled or nondisabled, from seeing an important facet of the diversity of American culture. Such passing particularly undermines the academic and career-related success of students with disabilities. When these students cannot find appropriate mentors among the faculty who serve them, they lose an opportunity to develop the identity politics necessary to collective social activism. Coming out, in contrast, provides an ideal moment to introduce disabled and nondisabled students to the growing interdisciplinary field of disability studies, and to direct them to research done in the field through the Society for Disability Studies and other resources that examine disability as a category of identity instead of merely as a medical construct. By coming out — refusing the less ethical choice of passing — professors with invisible disabilities can educate students to become truly democratic citizens prepared to explore individual identity from all perspectives.


Linda Kornasky is associate professor of English at Angelo State University.

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