I am a non-white person with light colouring, and I am physically disabled, but people generally can’t tell either by looking at me. My race and my disability status therefore come under the umbrella of what are known as invisible identities. These are not the only parts of me that fit into the category, but they are the ones I’ll be using to explore some of the problems with the idea of the invisible identity.
So, first up, we’ve got to ask what the phrase means. Invisible to whom? Whether an identity is invisible or not depends on who is looking.
My identities are not invisible to me. So who is doing the perceiving here? Not me, clearly. It’s not my ideas about myself that matter here. And it’s far less likely to be members of my communities observing and not realising I am one of them. So to whom are these identities invisible? The people who don’t share them. The privileged people are the ones who don’t notice my identities, who assume I am one of them, who deny me who I am. They are the ones who are noticing, the only ones with agency here. It is their perspective that gives us the term “invisible identity” and is allowed to define my experience and being.
And, of course, the person who “sees” is inevitably sighted. The whole concept of whether identities are visible or not relies on visual cues (not that those are themselves reliable). Once again, disabled people are left out of the equation; once again, privileged people are in charge of identity. As such, with regards to disability in particular, the notion of invisibility to describe the dynamic here is a fair bit problematic.
But although there are a variety of definitions of “disability” floating around out there, I am aware of none in which a wheelchair is a disability. A wheelchair is a tool. But the reason people think Jane has a visible disability is that she has a visible wheelchair. In fact the identification of visible tool with visible disability is so strong that I suspect that every night when Jane gets into bed her disability magically becomes invisible.
Whether an identity is invisible or not depends on who is looking.
Seeing as how it’s the beginning of a new semester, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week hearing professors talk about their classroom policies and, specifically, the obligation of all students with disabilities to 1) register with campus DS (disability services), and 2) talk with the teacher at the end of class about the accommodations they require. Simply including this (identical) paragraph on their syllabus with perhaps a brief acknowledgment of it is satisfactory to these professors, when in my opinion it is not nearly enough. It certainly does not mean that any of these individuals have any understanding of disability, or of the needs of the disabled.
They are always quite adamant about students with disabilities needing to request accommodations immediately at the start of the semester, as in, during the first week. They say things like, “Don’t come to me the week before the exam asking me for (accommodation).” As if all people with disabilities know in advance what they might need. As if requesting accommodations down the line somehow indicates that the student 1) isn’t really disabled, or 2) isn’t a serious student and didn’t plan ahead, or whatever. This is the sort of thing that has discouraged me from registering with DS. I don’t really know what kinds of accommodations I might need until I need them.
My professors always address the class as if nobody in the class could possibly have a disability. This might be because invisible disabilities are ignored and not taken seriously. It might rest on the assumption that, if a student doesn’t approach the teacher asking for accommodations, they must be disability-free, but that is a pretty foolish assumption to make, since not all students with disabilities require accommodations and for many students it’s (ironically) inaccessible to them. I have struggled greatly in the past with college classes before my MIs were fully documented or diagnosed. Other students I have spoken to have had similar experiences. They might not want to stigmatize themselves, they might have some internalized ableism about what it means to seek accommodations, they might not have the privilege to access what is required to formally recognize a disability… etc.
So when the professors view the class, as a whole, as being not disabled, this translates to extremely strict policies and statements like, “There are no make-up exams, even if you are sick,” and “If you miss more than two classes I will drop you from the course,” and “Do not send me e-mails asking for what you missed,” and “No laptops or recording devices in class,” and “You need to participate, by speaking in class, to get a good grade.” I understand why professors have to make these rules, but making blanket no, do not, ever statements like this are really exclusionary.
Another one: It’s extremely common for professors to rant, at length, about students being even a minute late, or even dock their grades if it’s a regular occurrence. And yet I go to a school that has buildings that are really far apart, and classes are separated by 10 minutes maximum (and that’s *if* the teacher actually lets us out on time, which they often do not). It’s hard for me sometimes to get to classes on time and I can’t imagine how bad it would be for someone with a disability that made it hard for them to move quickly.
In one of my classes, the professor talked about how she once had a student say, “I have a learning disability so I need more time to write this exam, but I can’t afford the required testing for the LD so it’s not documented,” and so the professor refused. Because “it’s not fair to the other students.” This emphasis on fairness assumes that all students are already on an equal playing field, which they are not. It implies that accommodations are somehow giving an advantage to a student. This is how society at large treats accommodations, even if people don’t generally voice it. And the assumption is always that the student is not disabled by default. The implication is that a student must be lying to seek accommodations for something that isn’t documented. They are not given the benefit of the doubt. And that just reinforces all sorts of ableist thinking regarding the legitimacy of invisible disabilities and the right to privacy for people with invisible disabilities. We have to go to great lengths to prove ourselves.
Professors often single out certain behaviors as being personally irritating to them and make statements bordering on ableist when attempting to set some kind of behavioral rule for the class. I’ve had professors say that they get personally offended when students yawn, or fidget, or when they don’t make eye contact. Or: saying that we students are all adults and therefore we do not need guidance.
A really common one is professors demanding that students not leave the room at all during class, and these classes are 2-3 hours long without a break. When professors emphasize how disruptive and rude and distracting it is for students to leave class for any reason, when they demand that students “make themselves comfortable before class starts” it’s shaming for students who cannot go several hours without visiting the bathroom. (“Make yourselves comfortable” is a euphemism for “go to the bathroom”, obviously.) Should I have to approach the professor and explain that I have a small bladder, or that I take meds that make me really thirsty which, in turn, means I have to pee frequently? I hope you can see that this is far more embarrassing than leaving during class. A student should not be put in this position. They should not be sitting in class experiencing anxiety because they have to pee. They should not be worrying about the professor viewing them as an irritation if they get up.
Which leads to the fact that professors in general are incredibly hostile towards manifestations of anxiety and people with anxiety disorders. It’s widely viewed as something we must “get over” and it’s amazing to me how many professors believe that forced exposure to a fear will result in overcoming it. Yeah, that does work for some people and in some situations, but if I had a dime for every time I heard a teacher say that everyone needs to force themselves to feel comfortable speaking in front of the class I’d be rich. Requiring students to speak in front of the class or to read during class is a problem (unless it’s something like a public speaking class). I’ve also had teachers who shame those who choose to sit in the same seat every class, and who force students to sit in different places every day… or who shame students who sit in the back of the class, or near the door, because that apparently means the student isn’t serious about their work. Which, sure, that happens, but it’s like it doesn’t ever cross their minds that there may be other reasons for students to do these things. It’s not like anxiety is uncommon, especially among college students. And by engaging in all of these behaviors I have just described, these professors create an environment that is unfriendly and unreceptive to students with disabilities, especially of the invisible variety; it encourages us to keep quiet and not be a bother, unless absolutely necessary. Because asking for anything, asking to be acknowledged, is an annoyance.
Further thoughts based on my own experiences: People with disabilities actually frequently have no clue whatsoever what sorts of accomidations they need. Especially with developmental disabilities because they’re made pretty invisible even to you.
Like it took me forever to realize “Oh wait I really can’t read these textbooks” because i assumed everyone’s brain worked like mine, so obviously I just wasn’t trying hard enough (by the time noticed it was too late to do anything since, as a result of that, I’d .)
Like it’s not really enough to say “Well ask for accomidation” because frequently students have no clue what the accomidations they need are, especially if they’re disabilities are undiagnosed. (Mine were in a weird state of some being diagnosed but not others; and regardless all the “accomidation” I got was basically telling me to try harder to be organized, which, hahahaha that’s not going to work at all.)
Plus it seems really fucking ableist to me to require public speaking classes. Like I mean, I (obviously) had to do speeches in front of the class in my public speaking classes and it was fucking terrifying and I literally could not do any preparation for them because of anxiety. But like… They’re a reasonable requirement for that class, except… I wouldn’t have been anywhere near that class if it weren’t a required general course.
no spoons to comment right now but i do have thoughts which i will go back and write out at some point in the semi-near future (i hope).