I work as an adjunct professor at a local community college. This year I was thrilled to participate on the “Year of Social Justice” committee and to head up one of the major activities for the year – “disABILITY for a Day”. The students were given 5 disabilities to choose from, and were to experience a day of class rotation with the chosen disability. We limited the options because we did not want students (for example) choosing a mental illness and inadvertently feeding the stigma of various diagnosis. The students were to then answer 10 response questions and write an essay about the experience; or, create a video segment on their experience. If a student had a disability or invisible illness, they could do the activity “as their norm” or choose something different.
I received a number of finished products from some of my own students, some of whom I had no idea had a disability or invisible illness, and a few that I did. With permission, I am sharing part of that response (and leaving out names and identifiable descriptions).
An Invisible Influence
While I consider myself a person with invisible disabilities (profound hearing loss/hearing again bionically, and Meniere’s disease), I have worked very hard to make the invisible – VISIBLE. I learned in my late 20’s, that it served in my favor for people to recognize that I did not hear normally nor move normally. I do this by “BLINGing up” my cochlear implant, using a brightly-colored cane, and going about my daily life with a service dog by my side.
Although I have “been out of the closet” for years, there are more subtle things that I do not even realize are an influence for others who are struggling. I’m open about my challenges and actually have to work hard at not using too many personal illustrations throughout my lectures. (It’s one thing to educate your students about the disability community, and another to overwhelm them with details).
When I stumble, I usually say, “Woah!” and then grin super big and ask “would you like to see the rest of the dance?” I giggle at myself. Genuine, embarrassing/snorting giggles. If I turn too quickly towards the white board and slam into it, cheek first, I would have a spiffy comeback sometimes such as “ouch… up close and personal”. At times I would simply say, “Crap. It’s gonna be one of those days”. My students knew when I was having a particularly bad day because I would sit during most of the class, or simply announce that I was going to limit motion today (so please come to ME-smile).
One day in class, I reached to pick up a paper clip that I did NOT want Chloe to retrieve and fell on my face to the floor. Several students were there in seconds lending me a hand to resume my vertical stance. After hearing a couple of times, “Geez, professor. Ask for help”, I learned that I could ask for assistance when my service dog could not do so safely, and no one minded at all! I work hard at being transparent. I simply didn’t realize how well students with disabilities could see right through some of the “stuff” I used to advocate in a positive way.
I had a student this semester with visible disabilities, hidden and covered up to make them as invisible as possible. The student sat on the front row and wore a hoodie the first couple of weeks of class. It hid her face and her torso. I saw a transformation in this student in only four months. It wasn’t until the “disABILITY for a Day” assignments were turned in that I understood the why behind the change.
By the end of the semester, the hoodie was gone, she sported sparkly jewelry that actually drew attention to some of her challenges. She smiled (and golly did she have the most beautiful smile). She talked to everyone in her vicinity in the classroom. I saw students come up and hug her at the end of the semester and exchange phone numbers. The following is part of what she shared:
The Two Sides of Me
I always tried to hide my disability. In public I would cover up as much of me as possible. My face could be seen and I’d smile when someone looked at me. I would never allow them to look to long. In reality, I was broken, scared and even scarred. I have a professor who embraces all that she is, disabilities and all. I’ve seen her put other people’s unease at rest. She cracks up at herself. When she is having a bad day, she says so but continues to do her thing and teach. She never makes us feel sorry for her on her bad days. I’m not sure how she does it because one thing I hate is pity. Maybe it is because she is real when she is having a good day or bad day. I’ve heard her use the words “differently-abled”. She says she borrows it from a lady she knows with incredible courage and strength who lives with significant challenges. I don’t know why I’m 19 and only now figuring out that I’m differently-abled and not disabled. I have now learned to tell my family or close friends that I’m in pain or having a bad day. I don’t let it drag me down though. I have really good days, too. I’ve even learned how to put on make-up with one hand. Yay, me! There are two sides of me, and I like both sides.
I Get it Wrong – So Will You
I don’t share any of this to “toot my own horn”. As a matter of fact, I’ve made so many mistakes. For example, I had a student ask me this last semester, “Are you OK, today?” “Sure,” I replied with false sincerity. “Bull****”, they replied.
I share this post today for one reason only. You often aren’t aware of your own influence.
Do you have a tough life? Be genuine, but live as if you are being watched. Be real, be transparent, but remember that someone somewhere is taking notes.
“Denise, you have no freaking idea what it is like. You have plenty of support. You have a job. You have friends”.
Yes. I hear from disgruntled readers from time to time that I cannot understand what it is like to experience the hardships they face. They are right. Their challenges are not my own. I know that I do NOT always have good support and feel alone. I have a job, but it is really hard to go to work some days. I have friends, but only a few that I could actually say, “please help me”. I don’t want anyone to ever think that I do it right all the time. If I was perfectly at ease with who I am and comfortable in my own skin, I wouldn’t be seeing a counselor twice a month. I have major depressive disorder and it is very closely linked with my disabilities. I do not want anyone to think I do not struggle – for I do. My motto is “I have disabilities; my disabilities do not have me”.
Live your life – that’s right, the one that is often TOUGH – as if someone was watching.
©2015 Personal Hearing Loss Journal