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This is my CCCC presentation this year, part of the B.44 panel, “The Hidden and Emotional Labor of Disability Disclosure.”

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Asymmetrical Disclosures in the Classroom

In 2016, I presented at Cs in Houston about strategies for challenging and engaging with the demands for disability disclosures in writing studies research about accessibility. I’m still thinking about those issues of disclosure and research, but with my embodied and institutional positioning, I’m also thinking about how demands for disability disclosures take shape in the classroom. Disability disclosures exist within complex systems of “circulating narratives of disability and able-bodiedness, relationships among interlocutors, and institutional and environmental contexts” (Kerschbaum, 2014). People make sense of the different disability discourses that circulate around them in relation to their own experiences and goals for how they want to identify themselves and be identified by others. This is true when students make decisions about whether to disclose informally to instructors and advisors, formally to disability support services, or not disclose at all. Disability disclosures require a give and take of power that often results in asymmetrical labor and power relations between students and instructors; for example, when students are demanded to disclose in order for a professor to act upon an accommodations letter or when an instructor discloses to students—intentionally or not.

Today, I want to address navigating the asymmetrical labor and power relations that arise when students and instructors disclose disabilities in the classroom, and hopefully we can brainstorm some strategies for navigating these dynamics together.

Context

In 2015, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported that college students seek mental health services at 5x the rate of enrollment. Increasing mental health statistics indicate that a substantial percentage of college students—whether or not they identify as disabled—have mental (or psychiatric) disabilities like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc.

At my university, it is unlikely for a semester to pass without a student’s hospitalization. I incorporate self-care writing activities throughout the semester in my first-year writing classes, and first-year students overwhelmingly comment on feeling depressed, anxious, isolated. I also teach disability-themed writing courses, which means students are reading and writing about different rhetorical constructions of disability. Disclosures often fit in those spaces and appear to come naturally: an experience shared in class to connect with the readings, a critical reflection in a synthesis essay. I don’t encourage them—I’m just not as surprised by disclosures in those spaces that are more explicitly marked as “safe” spaces for disclosure. It’s also not surprising to watch these disclosures “bubble out at the seams” (Yergeau, et. al) because as Melanie Yergeau argues in “Multimodality in Motion,” the process of accommodation hinges on the understanding that normative student bodies are the default, and accommodating non-normative student bodies is “to deal with deviant bodily and spatial conditions as they bubble out at the seams.” That is, when students are overwhelmed and disclose in office spaces, when a student approaches an instructor halfway through a semester with an accommodations notice because the student didn’t want to go through the accommodations process until they have to. Sometimes, we don’t get help until our mental disabilities manifest physically because there is a lot at stake when it comes to disclosure.

1. Student Disclosures

In their introduction to Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education, editors Stephanie Kerschbaum, Lara Eisenman, and James Jones note that much of the discourse on disability disclosure in higher education focuses on disclosures as empowering and necessary for creating and maintaining accessible learning environments, but “it is necessary to also acknowledge that disability disclosures are complicated by the fact that disabled identities always intersect with other identities and that the risk-taking that accompanies disclosure is not experienced equally or in the same ways by all people” (1–2).

There are real benefits for students to disclose disabilities, but I want to focus on those asymmetrical moments where the scales of power tip against students when they disclose to instructors in order to receive accommodations—whether formally through their campus disability support services or informally through conversations with instructors. These disclosures are tenuous, particularly when students feel compelled to disclose a disability that they don’t identify with in order to receive appropriate classroom accommodations.  

In 2012, the National Alliance on Mental Illness published “College Students Speak: A Survey Report on Mental Health,” which details the survey results of 765 college students diagnosed with a mental health condition. Students’ choices to disclose their mental health conditions to their universities was split 50-50. In the report, the researchers synthesize the top five reasons students chose not to disclose:

  1. fear of stigma from faculty, staff, and other students
  2. no opportunities to disclose
  3. diagnosis doesn’t impact academic performance
  4. unaware of accommodations
  5. distrust of confidentiality

Many students transitioning from high school to college don’t know how to navigate the process to receive accommodations, and many fear disclosing to professors because of the stigma—even with a formal accommodations letter. Jay Dolmage describes this issue in Academic Ableism:

At many schools now, the process of distributing the letters to teachers has been outsourced to the student themselves, as a gesture to a kind of “self-efficacy” that seems pedagogical and intentional. It’s a paternalistic message to the student that they need to take control of their own accommodations, but the power differential between students and teachers is huge. If approximately two-thirds of U.S. college students with disabilities won’t disclose these disabilities to seek help, they certainly won’t do so if this disclosure now gets forced and repeated at the beginning of every class. (92)

In theory, students learn to advocate for themselves by proactively disclosing disabilities to instructors through an accommodations letter. And, in theory, this is good. It encourages self-efficacy and allows students rhetorical agency. But as Kerschbaum notes in “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing,” “invitations to disclose raise questions about the possibilities of rhetorical agency, particularly when disclosures are met with denial, resistance, or ignorance” (57). Kerschbaum’s discussion of rhetorical agency is grounded in the understanding of agency as a set of feedback loops, an emergent and recurring negotiation. However, for many students, the accommodation process is rarely one of feedback or positive negotiation.

Dolmage writes, “There is no feedback loop: if an accommodation is given, the student is expected to be fully thankful and happy, regardless of the fit of the accommodation or its efficacy. The affect of accommodation is just as tightly prescribed and prescripted as are its pedagogical or classroom parameters” (81).

Students disclose disabilities to their university’s support services and receive accommodations based on the diagnosis (nevermind that a students’ accommodations for extra time on a test aren’t applicable to many writing classes) and then disclose again to instructors, which may require a negotiation of whether or not the instructor will follow the accommodations and/or adapt them to be more useful if they are a “one-size-fits-all” accommodation.

That’s a lot to ask of a college student for every class, every semester—particularly for students with mental and chronic disabilities and particularly when those disclosures are not met with desired outcomes. There is a lot of labor for the student to navigate the process and power for the instructor who ultimately adheres to those accommodations. Another uneven element is when instructors who have substantial power over the classroom environment demand or prompt disclosures.

Demands for disclosure occur explicitly—like the above examples of instructors demanding to know a diagnosis before acknowledging and adhering to a students’ accommodations—and sometimes implicitly through inaccessible teaching practices. For example, another round of conversations about banning laptops made the rounds last fall, and many have noted the accessibility issues with banning technology from the classroom.

[tweet: @danielaRD_15, Jan 18: #EverydayAcademicAbleism is telling an entire lecture hall of students to put their laptops away cause “I wanna see everyone taking notes by hand” then calling out the ones who don’t in front of everyone.”

This is a seemingly simple issue about technology and paying attention, but many students—and faculty!—use their phones and laptops in order to process information. This example is a good one for thinking about how easily we can adjust our pedagogical practices to be more inclusive and not single out students who don’t wish to disclose.

pause What kinds of classroom practices can be more inclusive to students with invisible disabilities who choose not to disclose? How can we create space for students who do?

2. Instructor Disclosures

This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which instructors are the recipients of the asymmetrical balances of power. There are risks of disclosing to chairs, deans, and colleagues, but more specifically I’ve been thinking about how this power manifests in the classroom. What happens when instructors disclose a mental disability?

In “Disclosure of Mental Disability by College and University Faculty: The Negotiation of Accommodations, Supports and Barriers,” Margaret Price, Mark Salzer, Amber O’Shea, and Stephanie Kerschbaum detail survey results from 267 faculty members with mental health issues. Most faculty who disclosed mental or psychiatric disabilities did so to colleagues or department chairs, but rarely to top administrators or to their university’s disability support services. 20% (19.5%) of the 267 participants disclosed to students and, interesting, they found that “Of all groups, respondents felt students reacted most positively to disclosures (44 out of 49 disclosures; 89.8%).”

Overall, I’ve found that disclosing my disabilities has been a useful but labor-intensive form of community building in my classes. We read articles about mental health and accessibility. Students volunteer experiences, and I volunteer mine. This semester is the first time in the five years I’ve been teaching a disability-themed writing course that I question sharing those experiences because my disclosures are embodied. That is, my mental disabilities that I could often hide until I chose (or not) to disclose them are no longer invisible. From the first day of class, Q marks me, disclosing something about me to my class.

I teach in a small town in the Bible Belt, and many of my students don’t believe in mental illness—it’s just not part of the culture. I’ve heard them talk about how easy it must be to say you’re suicidal in order to bring a dog to school. This visible, immediate disclosure outs me from day one as not quite right mentally, which is risky for a professor.

In “Stigma, Stress, Fear: Faculty, Too, Need Mental-Health Help,” Emma Pettit highlights this risk:

Junior faculty members and adjunct instructors can be particularly vulnerable to mental-health problems because of the kinds of stresses they face, as they build their case for tenure or search for full-time work in a tough market. As they navigate high-stakes moments in their careers, some professors feel pressure to hide those problems out of a fear that admitting to them will sink their prospects.

Disclosures create risk for contingent and part-time instructors, pre-tenure instructors, and even tenured instructors who face a different kind of risk (stigma but not termination). In the classroom, these disclosures may prompt stigma (I’ve been called insane by students) or even affect tenure and promotion processes if those disclosures are documented in students’ evaluations, which often play a large part in the tenure process at a teaching institution (where I work).

Katie Rose Guest Pryal has written numerous essays about higher education and mental illness. Describing her experience working at a university, Pryal writes, “I feared I would be seen as unreasonable and irrational, and therefore unable to do the work required of a professor.” (4). The work of a professor involves intellectual, mental, and emotional labor. Why disclose something that may affect how others view your ability to work?

The work of a student involves intellectual, mental, and emotional labor, too. Why do we expect them to disclose disabilities that may affect how their professors view their ability to work?

In the studies by the National Alliance on Mental Illness of students and the studies from Price and Kerschbaum on mental disability in faculty, we see the complexities of disability disclosures: the attitudes, the stigmas, the ties to identity, the rejection of identity. In “Rough Accommodations,” Pryal argues that when you place disability at the core of your identity, “You risk becoming no longer you in the eyes of others, but rather disabled-you. And for many in higher education, that risk is just too high” (59). I wonder if my students view me as disabled-Dr. Allison instead of Dr. Allison, but it was a risk I had to take for my own well-being.

Students and faculty need safe spaces to disclose and/or access to resources because when we don’t have those spaces or resources for support, mental disabilities start to become visible: a panic attack during class, a series of unexplained absences, a hospitalization.

How do we create classroom environments that reduce the asymmetrical labor and power relations that arise from reluctant, involuntary, and often highly stigmatized disclosures?

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