As we get acquainted with a new academic year, I wanted to write a more personal piece to bring awareness to an important issue.
Having lived with a profound hearing impairment since birth, I am acutely aware of the challenges and frustrations that come with having a disability. I wear two hearing aids and spent most of my years requiring minimal accommodations in classrooms; short of needing to grab a seat front and center at lectures and tutorials, I somehow managed to get through university without requiring help from disability services. However, graduate school was an entirely different experience. When it came to videos being shown in the classroom, listening to special-guest lectures being delivered over Skype, and monthly meetings with other students in my cohort in a large board room, or my supervisor questioning the accuracy of my notes from clinical assessments, I began to realize that my previous strategies were insufficient to cope with the increased intellectual demands of graduate school.
There are a few things I wish I had known before I started graduate school. While my experiences are most relatable to others with hearing impairments, I hope that my recommendations and my advice below will be of benefit to other students with disabilities, and more generally, encourage reflection about social treatment of disabilities (for this part, skip to the third point).
Register with disability services ASAP.
My first mistake was not getting registered with disability services when I first arrived. This meant that when I actually needed help (i.e. getting transcription for an online guest lecture), the bureaucratic infrastructure wasn’t in place and thus I didn’t get assistance right when I needed it. The process takes a little bit of time and we need to be prepared. It’s important to know that getting registered at disability services doesn’t mean that you are obligated to make use of these services. It simply means that your name and information is on file in the event that you should require accommodations. Another benefit to registering is that the staff are extremely well-versed in the supports that they can offer and may be able to suggest helpful accommodations for you that you may not have been aware existed.
You can make an appointment to register with Queen’s Disability Services here.
Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself.
You know yourself better than anyone and you are the expert on how your disability affects you inside and outside of the classroom. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and ask for what you need. More than once, I was in a situation where the professor and I were trying to work out what sort of accommodations I needed, and I specifically asked for something that I felt I would enable me to participate in the classroom to the same degree as everyone else (for example, transcription or subtitling of a video). The professor suggested an alternative that required a bit of extra work on behalf of one of my peers. I wasn’t fully comfortable with this alternative, but I was also trying to be sensitive to budget restrictions in my department, so I acquiesced. In retrospect, I walked away from the situation wishing that I had been more assertive in advocating for my needs, as I felt that the professor assumed that my request was of the “would be nice” variety, rather than reflecting an actual need. That was my second mistake.
A way forward: Tolerance and curiosity.
As I have learned, not everyone is equipped to deal with disabilities. They may ask you to turn up the volume on your hearing aids or your headset (true story—both have happened to me), unaware that this is a highly ineffective solution (because amplification is often not enough). Further, my disability is often invisible. Most people aren’t aware of my hearing impairment—unless you encounter me in a noisy or crowded environment, and then I will proceed to ask you to repeat yourself a couple of times—and thus I feel it’s easy for people to overestimate my hearing abilities. There are often a lot of assumptions made; just because I do well in everyday conversation doesn’t mean that that this is true of all situations.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t educated enough, or that they’re ignorant, but rather it’s indicative of a topic that doesn’t get talked about enough in our society and on campus. I generally find that once people understand my needs and how they can help, they are extremely receptive and supportive (for example, one of my professors works in his office with the lights off [we should check if he glitters in the sun] and we always make sure to turn them on when I come in so I can actually lipread). For a long time, I was ashamed of my disability because I didn’t want to be different from anyone else, and in hindsight, this probably contributed to my shyness in dealing with the above situations. However, doing so only isolates us further, because we aren’t able to ask for the tools and resources we need to enable active participation, and most people don’t know how to ask or even approach the topic.
Perhaps this is strictly my experience with disability but maybe this more generalized state of unintentional ignorance is often conflated with stigma. It seems that in my experience, we ultimately fear the things we don’t understand, because we don’t know how to talk about them. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter where we start. So I’ve elected to be less shy about it in the hopes that people will feel less intimidated about broaching the topic.
So, ask questions; let’s have a conversation.