All the ‘invisible disabilities’

The seminar “Recognizing and Embracing Cultural Communications and Sensitivity in the Classroom,” hosted by the Northern Illinois University Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center on March 2, supplied the opportunity to examine my own prejudices about classroom behavior. The self-examination did not come as a result of the seminar’s planned activities; rather, as I sat in the front row, my attention focused on a man also at the front, several seats away. He was bearded, square-jawed and tall, impeccably dressed in the mode of the upwardly mobile graduate assistant, with a distinctive nose like a rugby player’s. He kept his silver MacBook Air available; he typed frequently, manipulated a computer mouse on his lap.

As presenters from the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center, Disability Resource Center, and International Student and Faculty Office spoke, he seemed to pay little attention. He looked almost exclusively at his laptop screen. Labels formed in my head for him: “disrespectful,” “uninterested,” “arrogant,” “nonparticipatory.”

In the session’s final twenty minutes, each attendee was handed a colored star. At the center of the star we wrote our names. On the points we wrote the names of a friend, a family member, a colleague, important institution, career aspiration, and personal goal. I wrote the names of my best friends – former students from Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and Guerrero, México; of my church; my aspiration to be a writer and teacher; and my desire one day to live in a cramped house with a pet salamander. “Imagine that you are gay or transgender, and you are just now coming out to the people and institutions in your life,” the organizers said. Some of us had to tear off points of the star. We lost people. We lost our livelihoods. I lost my imaginary microscopic house.

When we shared personally about this exercise, I learned the truth about my front-row companion and about his connection to his computer. He needed the computer to communicate. He showed one of the facilitators what he had written on his screen. She read a moving description of his participation in this activity – in ripping one of the points off his star, he had lost his aunt, one of the few to support him in living with his speech disorder.

The micro-lesson – one I continue to encounter, and never seem to internalize – is that the world consists, as Debra Miller, director of the NIU disability office, says, of those with invisible disabilities. All of us – all of our students – live with them. And these challenges have unknown impacts.

The international student, for example – all her talents and capacities hidden, but her “flaws” on view – might be adjusting to a student-centered classroom culture and manifest anxiety that could be interpreted as rudeness. I might call a trans- or transitioning student by the wrong name, unintentionally “outing” them in a devastating betrayal. (“Do not use the class roster to read off names,” the Gender & Sexuality Resource Center advises.)

Students can internalize the deficit with which they are working. A depressed student, in one hypothetical case, might choose to define themselves by their depression – “I am depressed,” they think, “therefore I am a depressed person.” The student becomes still more quiet, withdrawn, and, ultimately, self-defeating.

I must travel many more leagues in order to become a truly effective teacher. To be honest, I still feel like the enemy. I feel like my own enemy, and I feel like my students’ enemy.

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