Are Ya Stressinatin’?

[Pictured: Author and owner of Hearing Elmo. White, 56-year-old female grinning at the camera for this post. Gray hair, brown eyes with flowered blouse]

Many of you know that I am a psychology professor (although I do teach American Sign Language as well) at my local community college. This week is finals week. My students are stressing big time. I have been teaching since 1990 and teaching college-aged students since 2011. This is the most “stress” I have ever felt coming off of students. It may be because for many this was the first semester back to a “near normal” semester. Many who have come right out of high school may have spent the last year or TWO doing most coursework virtually. Our final exams are face-to-face in a designated time slot (to keep any student from having an overlap).

Finn Paz-Gurion is my 3rd service dog, a 4-year-old Golden Retriever. Out of my three service dogs, Finn is the most likely to seek out hurting students. My first had some Golden in her mix and she many times did the same, but not to the degree Finn does. Finn behaves as if it is part of his job to check on students. I have noticed this week that Finn has noticed everyone seems stressed. He hesitantly approached a student with their head down on their arms and poked his head up underneath to say HI. The student sat up and greeted Finn, but in eavesdropping they proceeded to tell Finn how stressed they are. Finn made sure they knew he cared and was listening. He did this several times in each of my classes. One student exclaimed, “Oh Finn! You know I’m stressed!”

I am a mentor for a some adjuncts and one told me this week, “I’m stressinating!” I did what I could to alleviate some of that <big grin>. I also serve as a Disability Mentor for one professor and one doctoral student (both with disabilities) through the American Psychological Association. They are both stressing as well, stated without hesitation in our two zoom conferences this month.

Stress is not ALWAYS bad. At times it serves as the best of motivators. I have certainly found the comeuppance to finish what I have started due to some stress related to due dates and timelines. Stress can also be bad, even dangerous. Hans Selye, founder of the “stress theory”, provided some terrific research and science related to stress.

I find myself in the resistance stage more than I care to be. Resistance, like stress is not necessarily “bad”. In this stage, a person with disability (or an abled person) creates and implements coping mechanisms and the means to achieve goals with perhaps some self-created accessibility tools or options. A small example of this is push-button accessible doors on my campus. Walking up to an entrance, I can feel my stress elevate. Will the automatic door be turned on correctly? If the outer door opens, will the inner door open as well? If it doesn’t I’m trapped between doors! Finn can “potch” (Yiddish for PUNCH… I cannot find a Hebrew word for the action word), but few doors on campus are sensitive enough to respond to a dog punch. Instead I clobber the button with the tip of my cane. If I am lucky, the door opens. Luckier? Both doors open. If I am not lucky? I have to ask for assistance. This “asking” can be difficult for an independent-minded person with disability. So the resistance phase is good… I’ve learned to adapt and even ask for help as needed. Even so, if I have to fight with the doors all week, I can promise you that by week’s end I am exhausted.

As a psychologist, I have recently been reading about the research associated with the Disability Related Stress Scale (DRSS). The World Health Organization has given a temporary “stamp of approval” for reliability though more research is needed to determine validity (Rhode et al., 2012). Do people with disability experience stress the same way and similar levels as those who are abled? Is the stress related to the disability?

I have been a person with disability for long enough, I truly believe I experience very little stress as a DIRECT result of my disabilities. I cope, modify, and “fight on” when I experience the effects of my disabilities. Instead, the stress I find the harder to cope with is that of the reactions or “in-action” of people around me. Do they see me or see my disability? When they make decisions about DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility) issues, are they considering the impact of those with visible and invisible disability, illness, and diagnoses? Are people with disability invited to participate in committee making these decisions? Are they invited to provide workshops or other disability-related education and advocacy?

As a person with disAbility, how does “stress” impact your life?

L. Denise Portis

2022 Personal Hearing Loss Journal

Rhode, P. C., Froehlich-Grobe, K., Hockemeyer, J. R., Carlson, J. A., and Lee, J. (2012). Assessing stress in disability: Developing and piloting the Disability Related Stress Scale. Science Direct.

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