Do my students see me as disabled? And should they?

To what extent, I often ask myself, does having a disability affect my teaching?

Teaching is a relationship. One may be able to gather facts or alter habits in isolation, but without communication, one can never truly deepen understanding. Freire tells us that education must be based on discourse and conversation between learner and teacher/learner. Hooks goes slightly further. She speaks of the importance of authenticity in the classroom. A student can only learn if they are free to be themselves, to be who they are. To draw on their own wealth of experience, and reflect on that within the classroom. Whenever a student’s race, class, sexuality, gender,ability status etc are sanitised from the curriculum, or remain unspoken in the construction of class experience on a topic, a student is blocked from learning. Drawing on this, hooks challenges the educator to be authentic in the classroom. I read hooks, and find her challenge to be a challenge indeed. In my previous career as a practitioner, I found the only path to survival that of the ‘professional face’. I like to be the professional, competent, capable lecturer. And leave the frightened, in pain, broken me at home.

To be an authentic lecturer I need to allow the students some (appropriate) awareness of who I really am.  I tried the opposite. I was ‘in the closet’ for far too long. It led to the dual problem of inauthentic teaching and wild rumour. It failed spectacularly. When I name myself in the classroom space as a disabled, lesbian single mother it shapes how the students hear what I say, and allows them in turn to be who they are in the classroom without needing to keep secrets, or parts of themselves locked up in closets. It validates the students own sense of having experiences, whatever they may be, that count, and from which they can discuss and comprehend theory.

And still, day after day, incident after incident, I realise how quickly students forget that I have any disabilities. They do not see me as the cripple. They see me as the lecturer, as if those two things were mutually exclusive. Students are having a class discussion, and begin talking about ‘the disabled’ in a patronising way. ‘Can I remind you all that I am disabled too, that you are talking about me?’ I say form the top of the class. 30 students look at me in confusion. ‘You are not disabled’ they say. ‘You just have a bad leg, a bit of trouble walking’. The following week I am introducing some Forum Theatre activities to another class so I have all furniture stacked against the wall,and all the students in groups, playing games and moving about. As I move from group to group I trip, my 2 sticks fly away in front of me, and I slide across the floor. Only one student from the whole class responds. ‘Did you fall, or is this part of an exercise?’ she asks me. I laugh, and admit that I just fell. ‘Oh’ declares the student next to her. ‘I thought you just dropped your sticks so just stretched out across the floor to pick them up again’. The joy of leaving powerpoint aside and using forum theatre as a learning tool. Anything can happen. This is where lecturers ‘stretching out across the floor’ just doesn’t seem weird anymore. And these recurrent incidents make me laugh, and leave me feeling somewhat flattered. On the one hand, students can be so quick, in that learning relationship, to leave pre-conceived notions aside, and accept the slightly eccentric crippled queer lecturer for who she is. And intellectually I struggle with the thought that I shouldn’t feel flattered by the perception of me as non-disabled, but I do.

So, why exactly, do I feel more content at this regular discovery that the students do not the my otherwise all to visible disabilities? I currently don’t *look* disabled when I teach. This is important to me, for it is the only place in my life that I don’t look disabled. Every other place, space and time, with the possible exception of when I am sound asleep in bed, I look disabled. At the top of the classroom, sitting up on a desk, swinging my legs, is the one and only time, bar sleeping, that I have no disability aids anywhere near me, and no need of any.I fight hands that won’t work, legs that wobble, to get out of bed, to manage with simple self-care tasks in the home. Getting from my office to the loo and back can be a challenge. But there, at the top of the classroom, or even safely in my office chair with a student for a one to one tutorial, all that fades away. Teaching is my one non-disabled space in an otherwise very disabled life. This has great meaning for me. And so, am I in-authentically continuing to suppress something of myself when I teach? This is the dilemma I face. To want extent would the students benefit from more of an awareness that they had a lecturer who can’t walk, but who can still teach – and so I set myself up as that very thing I preach against – the (and how I hate this term) “role model”, – the one individual who looses individuality by being seen as representative of an entire peoples, and having moral lessons to convey about that entire group. Or, alternatively, to run from the categorization, resist the label, just me ‘me’, and by so doing leave swathes of preconceptions, misjudgments and prejudices unchallenged. And in turn, for the student with a disability in my classroom, what effect does this have on them?


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One Response to Do my students see me as disabled? And should they?

  1. K. Willsen says:

    “You’re not [insert group adjective here], you just…”

    This is a typical response to “Hey, that’s me you’re being rude about, you know.” It roughly translates as “You challenge my preconceptions, and I shall deal with that by ignoring your other-ness. My opinion is still valid, and I have paid you a compliment by validating you, too.”

    I understand not wanting to be a “role model”. It’s a horrible position, where everything you say and do becomes charged with some deeper meaning. And it’s great that your students accept you as a person, not just as a “disabled person”. But I share your concern about taking “You’re not disabled,” as a compliment. Like you say, being a lecturer and being disabled are not mutually exclusive things.

    This is a sore point for me, so sorry if I come across as rude. Too often have I, or my friends and family, been on the receiving end of, “Oh, I don’t think of you as one of [that lot] – you’re my friend/ colleague/ neighbour.” It’s said with a smile, and meant as a compliment, but the meaning is clear – and not complimentary.

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