Interview from Canada (Part 2)

Now that you have met Vera Dolan, and she has shared with us disability guidelines, issues, and some new ideas from Canada, let’s learn more about Vera herself: as a Ph.D. candidate at OISE* - University of Toronto in Ontario, Vera has chosen to research faculty with invisible disabilities. She shares some views of the problem: “when disabilities are not visible, we simply deny their existence. If you claim you have an invisible disability, you run the risk of being thought guilty of lying until proven innocent – which rarely happens, because the invisibly disabled don’t usually have the stamina (or time and resources) to prove that their suffering is real. After all, most of us still “look good”, so what’s all the fuss about it? Just get over it!.... Why must we take on extra guilt because others don’t understand what Goffman* calls our differentness?”

What makes Vera so passionate about this issue? As a matter of record, she herself is a faculty member with an invisible disability. Typically researchers are not members of the population under investigation, and yet Vera’s empathy should certainly encourage other faculty members with disabilities to come forward and feel more comfortable sharing their perspectives. Vera is taking the lead in doing so.

More on what she has found: “the invisibly disabled end up struggling to conceal their disability for fear of stigmatization and alienation. This is the main reason why I’ve focused on college and university faculty with invisible disabilities in my doctoral research. These are people who likely feel impelled to hide their disabled identities at all costs; if they disclose their condition, they are liable to be deemed as defective and therefore incompetent. The idea of a professor with a learning disability is simply inconceivable. How can people who depend on clear thinking in order to function have issues related to their ability to learn and/or reason? As a result, these faculty members suffer in silence…. Why are we choosing not to see the problem and ignoring the fact that some of these individuals are in great need of accommodations to help them meet their scholarly demands? Why are we creating a hostile environment in which these people feel uncomfortable asking for help? Furthermore, why are we not congratulating and admiring them for being able to fully function as professors despite the challenges imposed by their disabilities?”

Hopefully, hearing more about Vera’s findings might encourage some faculty to share some of their personal experiences and views.

So not only is Vera investigating her faculty colleagues’ experiences, she continues to experience another set of challenges as a doctoral student with a disability: “I was not looking for special accommodations; however, it was very important to me that my professors be aware of my disability, so they wouldn’t disregard me as an airhead every time I lost my train of thought while doing a presentation (which does happen). All I wanted was for them to be aware, that I might have the odd memory lapse, so they could redirect me to the point I’d been trying to make (and help me avoid humiliating myself in front of an audience).” Finding the right balance of services and understanding from faculty was not always easy in Vera’s experience.

As an instructor, Vera is also engaged with online courses and notes: “what I have seen is an effort to display the course materials in different formats, seemingly more targeted at people with different learning styles, as opposed to disabilities….instructors are told to take students who declare their disabilities very seriously and, in addition to trying to provide all possible accommodations (e.g., more time for assignments), should refer them to DS.”

Some other overriding issues Vera has encountered are the standard medical model views of disability and lack of efforts to incorporate universal design. Nevertheless, we appreciate that Vera is now working with AHEAD to help both students and faculty examine the issues more carefully and make progress in understanding diverse perspectives of disability. Her willingness to share her personal challenges and views is certainly inspiring and welcomed as the first in our international interview series.

* (see Goffman, E. (1986). Stigma : Notes on the management of spoiled identity (1st Touchstone ed. ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.)