Permission to Ask…

By Anonymous

I have been at the same post-secondary institution for six years. I recently finished my second degree there. I had to write a thesis and the focus was on how we understand and process different kinds of (dis)Abilities. Because I have completed both these degrees in the same department, I have created a bit of a reputation for myself. It turns out I am “the person to ask” about “those things” being: accommodation, advocacy, inclusion, how to help students with disability, how to address faculty members with different kinds of disabilities and the list goes on…

I am not a PwD, I am an ally

Therefore, sure, I can answer some of these questions, but I cannot account for every individual’s experience living with a physical, mental, visible or invisible (dis)Ability.

This fact, however, does not prevent the queries…

So today I want to tell you a story, about how I may have poorly or properly managed a situation, and how I was happy to have someone asking me. Because I believe, that no matter how ignorant the question, I would rather someone ask, instead of maintain the prejudices that they’ve established through misunderstanding.

But, you can be the judge.

Recently, I was wandering around the aforementioned department bothering my colleagues which I am wont to do….during my tour, I was approached by a professor. They had a question about “invisible” illness.

This was our conversation:

Professor X: “Can you close the door”

Me: “Sure”

X: “I know I can ask you this because… well you won’t get mad at me…or lecture me or whatever. I just want to know.”

M: I laugh “I’ll see what I can do”

X: “So I have this student, and they need an accommodation or whatever it is…and so I have to go get a computer… so, well I’ve dealt with all that. But the thing is…And don’t get me wrong, I’m not QUESTIONING this….but…they look fine. So what’s wrong with them?”

M: “Oh…well they’ve registered as having a disability, and requested an accommodation…”

X: “Yeah…I’m not questioning that. Its just, you’ve met this person before…so, what’s wrong with them. What’s their ‘problem’”

M: “Well…that’s not really my place to say….”

X: “I just don’t understand, I want to help, but if I don’t really know what it is, what am I going to do? How do I even know if they’re disabled, if they don’t look it?”

M: I pause, sort of stunned, trying to pick my words carefully “Well if they need the accommodation, then that’s where your involvement ends. If the student wants to talk about it further, that’s up to them. But I can’t tell you more about them, if they haven’t decided to disclose…to you…Anyways it shouldn’t change anything”

X: “Yeah…….I just wish I understood better”

In my personal opinion, its not that this conversation is necessarily negative, nor is it that this person is ableist (or at least not consciously) and want to remain ignorant of the need for greater accessibility on campus; this conversation merely reflects a lack of understanding. It reflects the systemic ignorance surrounding the majority of our post-secondary spaces. Professors aren’t trained to “deal” with these sorts of things. Therefore, they don’t really know how to go about it, and their approach can seem very alienating to a student seeking accommodations because of a lack of understanding at a number of levels.

Here’s where InvisAbilities comes in. When the student doesn’t “Look sick” then they face a different type of stigmatization involving a lack of trust, understanding and recognition of their situation. InvisAbilities is changing that, nudging us towards constructive conversations, which leads to action. Personally, I’d rather be asked than for confused parties to suffer in silence, because if we start talking about it, maybe, just maybe we can start breaking down some of the very real barriers to inclusion.