Wondering When & How to Disclose Disability with Colleagues

I have now gone 19 days with double vision. There was one day in there where my vision was double for only an hour or so, but the rest of the days, I’ve been lucky to have a solid hour of time when my eyes are really functioning normally.

Double vision makes it much harder for me to pass as not disabled, so the question of whether and how to disclose my disability has been more pressing the last few weeks. I mentioned last week that I added a disclosure to my email signature. This week I wondered whether I should disclose to a group of 23 colleagues who participated in a two-day workshop I facilitated.

The decision of whether or not to disclose to a group of people is never a simple one. I’ve mentioned before Annika Konrad’s concept of access fatigue, which is the exhaustion disabled people experience from having to constantly educate others about their disabilities and needs, enable others to feel helpful even when they are doing the very barest minimum to make something accessible and/or doing it very grouchily, and balance the costs of asking for access with the benefits of actually getting it. I hear often hear people disparage folks who disclose as “making excuses” or “looking for attention.” Even though I know I am not doing those things, it weighs on me that I will likely be seen as doing those things by some people.

I have gotten into the habit of disclosing my disabilities to my students on the first day of class. When I did that for the first time years ago, I received an outpouring of positive support and gratitude from my students. Many of them told me that seeing an authority figure disclose a disability helped them feel more welcomed and included in the class. Some of those students had disabilities themselves, but many didn’t and simply felt that having a professor who was open about being disabled created a culture of acceptance. In all the years I’ve been disclosing to my classes, I’ve never had any negative reactions, so for me, it’s a no brainer to disclose to students. I’ve had similar positive responses in the Writing Center I direct from the staff. In both these cases, though, I have a lot of privilege: in the classroom, I’m a tenured professor. In the Writing Center, I’m the boss.

My position is different with colleagues. We are peers in a sector in which being overworked and burned out or close to it is almost valorized. If it looks like I am making excuses and doing less work than they are, they could see me as someone who isn’t pulling their weight and therefore creating more work for them. Before the workshop, I had communicated by email with the participants several times, so they had all seen my email disclosure, although I don’t know how many people actually read my signature or remembered it by the time the workshop began on Monday. I decided not to make any additional announcements about my impaired vision, but several times on Monday and Tuesday morning, I found myself awkwardly trying to pass for someone with unimpaired vision. Then I did a presentation on Tuesday around midday, and that’s when I very much regretted trying to pass.

I got to a part of my presentation where I had planned to read a dense paragraph of text. It simply wasn’t possible—the words and letters swam before my eyes and nothing would come into focus. I said to the audience, “I’m sorry, I’m experiencing double vision that is making it impossible to read this,” and a participant immediately said, “I’ll read it” and did so.

I got no sense of any negative judgment from anyone about this incident, but I wish I had not apologized for my double vision. It is very important to me to not apologize for my disability because it is not mine to apologize for. I prefer to thank people for helping me rather than apologize. I also prefer to disclose in ways that frame disability as normal, and I’m not sure that the way I handled the situation did that, although I do really like that my colleague jumping in to help positioned accommodating on the fly as normal.

Although I’m not happy with how I handled this situation, I’m not sure what I would do differently if I could have a do-over. Maybe simply deleting the “I’m sorry” from what I said, since that’s the part that bothers me. I’m not sorry for having a vision impairment. Or perhaps I could have asked at the outset of my presentation for a volunteer to read the text when I got to that part of the presentation.

Ideally, I’d like to have a default way of handling this type of situation with colleagues so I don’t have to think about it whenever it happens. My default with students and the Writing Center staff is to disclose explicitly and immediately, which eliminates the need for me to make a decision about when and how to disclose. I want that same simplicity with colleagues.

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