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A Call to Professors with Invisible Disabilities
I spent ten years in university teaching before recognizing the unique benefits students with disabilities can garner from having mentors with disabilities. This long delay occurred even though I myself have an invisible disability (unilateral hearing impairment) and have always been committed to acknowledging other aspects of my students' identities, including gender, sexual orientation, race, and class. Better late than never, I now know (some twenty years into my career)--since never is when most professors with invisible disabilities come out. Although passing as able-bodied is a protected choice under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as it should be, I advise my peers that the advantages of passing are one-sided: they benefit professors, while students with disabilities lose out.
My first tense disclosure to a classroom full of students was eye-opening. When I disclosed my disability to students on the first day of class, some had strained looks on their faces. As the period ended, I found myself doubting whether coming out was a good idea. But as students filed out, an English major who had taken a course with me the year before approached with a wide smile and a proud expression. He told me that he, like me, is mostly deaf in one ear. Following me to my office, he described how he struggled to arrange appropriate accommodations with other professors. Near the end of our talk, he wondered if he could become one of my advisees.
In the decade after that first disclosure, dozens of students, some with hearing impairments and others with a range of visible and invisible disabilities, have followed this young man, confidently informing me that they too are disabled and seeking me out for mentoring. I have found that when students with disabilities know about my disability, they are far more willing to request appropriate accommodations, to engage fully in classes, and to participate freely in class discussions than they did when I passed as nondisabled. Although nondisabled faculty can and should serve as allies to disabled students, many nondisabled professors offer accommodations begrudgingly, if at all. These students need the haven of understanding that professors with visible and invisible disabilities can offer.
Since faculty members whose disabilities are invisible vastly outnumber those with visible disabilities, our united effort to come out would mean a significant increase in mentoring opportunities for students with disabilities. In the English departments at the four universities where I have taught, for instance, at least 20 percent of the faculty have had various invisible disabilities--based in congenital or environmental causes, age-related or not--yet sadly, none have identified themselves as disabled to their students.
If instead of passing we opt to come out, we can gain personal authority as we teach students about the active disability political movement and the field of disability studies. We can share with them, for instance, Simi Linton's Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998), in which Linton aptly articulates the movement's call to unite: "We are all bound together, not by [a] list of our collective symptoms but by the social and political circumstances that have forged us as a group" (4).
I urge my fellow professors with invisible disabilities who are currently living in the able-bodied closet to come out and magnify our presence in the academy. By sharing this part of our identities, we fulfill not only our moral responsibility to students with disabilities who need us as mentors, but our responsibility to nondisabled students as well. Both student groups need to recognize America's diversity and to witness the disability community's distinct identity, which surfaces when its members let themselves be known.
Linton, S. 1998. Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press.
Editor's note: For a more in-depth discussion of Linda Kornasky's experiences coming out as disabled, see her article "Identity Politics and Invisible Disability in the Classroom" in the March 27, 2009, issue of Inside Higher Ed.