Navigating disability disclosure in the Writing Center: The other side of the table

 

Lately, I have been writing eagerly on the subject of writing centers and disability disclosure. An important topic, for certain, but much of what I am researching and writing deals with sessions in which it is the tutee/writer who has a disability and therefore must navigate disclosure. In thinking about this, I am asking myself: What does disclosure in writing centers currently look like for a tutee with a disability? What should it look like? How does how we handle disability disclosure inform our practices—and how should our practices inform how we handle disability disclosure?

And yet, dealing with disclosure in the writing center is an everyday occurrence for me—only in the opposite direction. This is because 100% of my sessions happen with a person with a disability—but that person is me.

As a faculty consultant and a woman with a disability, I am constantly faced with the choice of disclosing my disability during my appointments. Sometimes, I do not end up thinking about disability or disclosure much during a session—everything runs smoothly and it never comes up as “an issue.” But other times, I am faced with that often gnawing feeling that arises when I know I must decide whether or not to disclose.

It’s noteworthy here that I have a choice of whether or not to disclose. If I don’t tell someone I have a disability, chances are they would never guess. Though this affords me some privileges over those with visible disabilities, others with “invisible” or difficult-to-notice disabilities like myself know the following struggle well. If I do tell the student I am Deaf, will their attitude towards me suddenly change? Will they think I am now somehow less qualified, less intelligent? Will they shout at me or become embarrassed and reserved? If the session is with an international student, do I have to be prepared for a different level of exposure to or knowledge of deafness than I would with an American-born student?

All of these questions and more run through my head before I make the decision to disclose to a student. My institution graciously allows me to tutor in a private room in the library, away from the noisiness and hubbub of the Writing Center’s common area. This alone has “allowed” me to avoid disclosing a great majority of the time. But sometimes, I must still wrestle with the decision. A student who is new to America and has an accent becomes incredibly flustered and self-conscious when I ask her to repeat herself—do I tell her it’s not because I’m having trouble understanding her English, just trouble reading her lips? A student who is painfully shy habitually mumbles and covers her mouth—do I tell her why I can’t understand her, risking the rapport I’ve worked so hard to build thus far?

There are no easy answers to these questions. As much as I would like to think that disclosure never changes the mood of the appointment or a student’s demeanor, it can. Lately, I’ve recognized that subconsciously, I’m most likely to disclose to graduate students and least likely to disclose to freshmen, who have a higher tendency to become freaked out by the news—or at least look perceptibly uncomfortable.

And there are times, too, when I disclose as a means of asking for an adjustment to how we’re running the session, and this request goes unmet. Sometimes this is just sheer force of habit—I know that it is difficult for hearing folks to adjust their normative ways of communicating. But I can remember one session, which at the time felt like a rude shut down, that was actually a crucial reminder that my sessions must always be a meeting of two people—each with their own individual preferences and ability levels.

A graduate student had come in for help with dissertation organization. I always pull a chair out right next to me on the side of my “good ear,” and students usually take this cue to sit there. But she opted to grab another chair, way down at the far end of the table. OK, I thought to myself, I can try this. After a few minutes of conversation, I realized I was drowning trying to match the audial cues to her lip movement, and I asked her if she could move closer.

She said no. As simple as that.

I didn’t push the issue, but internally my feelings of alarm and sensitivity to rudeness and ableism were blaring—despite that, admittedly, I had still not disclosed my disability. As we chatted more about her dissertation, the topic of disability justice came up, and I mentioned to her that I wrote on the topic frequently. “Oh?” she asked. Her interest was piqued—“What do you write about?”

I explained that I was Deaf (thus my request to move closer to each other) and that I wrote extensively on issues related to disability justice: disability as an identity, access to accommodation, and most importantly, abandoning the medical model approach and instead thinking of disability as socially constructed. She got very excited. She explained that she, too, had a disability—a visual impairment that required her to sit rather far away from any subject she wanted to be able to see and focus on. Hence, her request to sit at the far end of the table.

We both scooted a tiny bit closer. We became enthralled and enveloped in a lively discussion of disability accessibility and disclosure—what it means to align one’s self with a marginalized identity and how that changes others’ perceptions of us. We giggled at the fact that we had both asserted our needs, but had feared overtly disclosing our disabilities to each other.

What I will always remember about this session is that it can be so easy to be swept up in the normalization of ability. I rail against others making assumptions about my ability and communication needs, and here I was in this session, doing just that to my student. And yet, I still believe that no disclosure should have been necessary—for either of us—for us to be able to figure out the best way to work with each other, based on each of our needs and preferences. Because trusting each other, believing that we each have figured out what works best for us, and meeting in the middle—that is the egalitarian ethos of the writing center. 

______________________

Kerri Rinaldi is a faculty writing center consultant at Drexel University. Her research interests include self-initiated writing practices and the framing of disability in writing center theory and practice