9 Feeling (Un)Seen
Notes on hidden disabilities in the (digital) classroom
Andrew David King
Loving intensives of Intensive Care
Bear down on your given name,
Margaret, attend, attend now
Margaret, they call you to live intensely
At the moment of your medication.
– Josephine Miles, “Intensives”
What did one do with the body in the classroom?
– bell hooks, “Eros, Eroticism and the Pedagogical Process”
The pivot to virtual teaching in the COVID-19 pandemic—the details of which are still being ironed out, nearly three years later, at educational institutions worldwide—seems like an especially good time to reevaluate how the concept of social legibility and the related concepts of privacy, care, and obligation might inform our pedagogical theory and practice. As instructors, how do we interpret and understand our students within the bounds of our professional and ethical obligations to them? How do our students, in turn, “read” and understand us whether behind desks or screens? What institutional prerogatives, codified or uncodified, must our students contend with and respond to simply in virtue of showing up to class? What habits of discourse, dress, speech, and thought do we, often without realizing it, impose on our students—and which of these habits serve no deep educational purpose or, worse, actively hinder their development?
To these important, often overlooked questions, I want to add a few more. What can a careful consideration of hidden disabilities—I prefer the plural term, as a way to resist the linguistic flattening of diversity within the concept of “disability” itself—reveal about the legibility of students’ lives in the classroom? More importantly, what can our students with hidden disabilities, individually and collectively, teach us about how to teach them?
The term “hidden disabilities” is, at best, imperfect. These disabilities aren’t hidden to those who have them, and often they aren’t meaningfully hidden at all; others, for various reasons, fail to notice them. Despite thoughtful criticisms of the term, however, I believe it has useful applications and I claim it for my own experiences as a disabled person. Clearly not every aspect of one’s identity is capable of being inferred by others on the basis of one’s appearance or behavior. Many disabilities that aren’t truly hidden become hidden by others’ shortcomings in knowledge, education, or sensitivity. There are other disabilities—forms of chronic pain or episodic impairment, for instance—that simply aren’t revealed unless the disabled person in question volunteers the information. As I’m using the term, then, it has at least two applications: to refer to instances where a disability is obscured for social reasons, and to refer to instances where others, no matter how sensitive, couldn’t know about it unless told.
There are, then, questions of how to think about hidden disabilities in the classroom in general, and questions about how these considerations, taken seriously, naturally lead us to modify our teaching. To these I’ll add a final concern: what are the challenges—and the unsung advantages—of virtual teaching for students with hidden disabilities? Even as schools and universities return to “normal,” it seems a safe bet that virtual instruction will persist with virtual attendance options offered for disabled and ill students with increasing frequency. We—especially the able-bodied and healthy among us—should think about what virtual instruction offers students whose experiences are unlike our own, and strive to retain what’s valuable from it as institutional inertia drags pedagogy back to a pre-pandemic state.
An abstract discussion like this one can’t but fail to do justice to the particularities of students’ experiences, but I offer these reflections as a preliminary sketch, a map for reconfiguring our attitudes, expectations, and strategies. These notes reflect on the nature of disability, “hidden” and not, and my time as a student and instructor, both in-person and virtually, during the pandemic. My recommendations straddle the divide between the theoretical and practical. My thinking and experience have led me to endorse not a sleek package of best practices, but what might be described as an ethical disposition: towards the idea of teaching, towards our students, and towards the communities, both concrete and ephemeral, of our classrooms.
We unthinkingly think of disability as a legible thing—something available for inspection. Lennard J. Davis, writing about this cultural assumption notes that “[t]he person with disabilities is…brought into a field of vision, and seen as a disabled person” (1995). Although one can begin to understand what I mean by “legible” here by exchanging the term for “visible,” to equate the legible with the visible is to simply push the problem back. For something’s being legible, on my understanding, isn’t a matter of its being available to some perceptual faculty, like sight or hearing, but a matter of its being available to be interpreted as something meaningful within a given social or cultural context.
The concept of legibility, dealing as it does with the means by which persons and groups understand each other, figures in the disciplines of history, social and cultural theory, and psychology among others. Michel Foucault, writing of working-class housing estates in the nineteenth century, describes how the estates’ layouts made individuals “visible,” and how “the normalization of behavior meant that a sort of spontaneous policing or control was carried out by the spatial layout of the town itself” (1997, p. 251). James C. Scott, in Seeing Like a State, details how early modern European statecraft seemed intent on, “rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format” (1998, p. 3). The American Psychological Association’s online dictionary specifies, as part of its second definition for “legibility,” that the term refers to “the ease with which an environment can be cognitively represented,” among other things. Relatively recent empirical work on the concept has explored how members of different cultures variably experience a given environment as socially legible in this sense.
Most of the sources mentioned so far discuss legibility as a higher-level property of social arrangements and systems, but I’m mainly interested in the ways in which persons—students and instructors—can be legible to each other. Consider a more down-to-earth example that relies on visual perception. Suppose someone wants to go to a Pride parade to show support for their friend who’s marching in it. In order to make clear that they’re attending in support of the parade, this person might wear rainbow colors or pins that indicate their celebration of Pride. In doing so, they’re rendering themselves legible as a Pride supporter to their peers—and to everyone who understands what these symbols mean in broader cultural contexts. Or consider the phenomenon of being called by one’s given name, as in my epigraph from Josephine Miles. To be called by one’s given name is to be read as a particular person, one with a particular historical existence.
Legibility can also have a nefarious side. Frantz Fanon’s writings about race, racism, and colonialism in Black Skin, White Masks include numerous traumatic recollections of being called slurs—being socially read and addressed as subhuman or inhuman. In addition, Fanon painstakingly outlines the phenomenology of being read as representing not just oneself but one’s perceived culture or race. Recalling how he was often left two or three places on a train, Fanon describes how he “existed triply”—how European colonial society made him accountable for his body, his race, and his ancestors (1986, p. 112). Fanon’s observations issue an important qualification to what others, like the philosopher Charles Taylor, have argued is the indispensably dialogical character of identity formation (1994, p. 33). Fanon notes that this dialogical relationship can just as well be oppressive, as when the social atmosphere is so charged with racism that what he calls the dialectic between body and world is definitively structured by it (1986, p. 111). Another example of ethically troubling legibility is discussed by Jesus Cisneros and Julia Gutierrez in their writing about what they term “undocuqueer” experience (2018). For them, legibility is linked to state legitimation as expounded by Judith Butler, who claims that the latter involves finding that “one’s public and recognizable sense of personhood” fundamentally depends on prescribed discourse (2004, p. 105). Lastly, while failures of legibility can lead to bad consequences, it’s also possible, as Alison Kafer notes, for the needs of the disabled to be problematically made “hypervisible,” framed misleadingly as exceptional and contentious (2017, p. 215).
A decade into several chronic illnesses, I still find myself in the throes of thinking of disabilities as necessarily legible. Consider the International Symbol of Access: the stick-figure nested in a swooping curve, a symbolization of a wheelchair user, that’s printed on signs and spray-painted on parking lots internationally. Rejected attempts at revising this symbol have proposed a stick-figure body that appears to be in motion, rising from the chair or moving with it. But as critics have pointed out—echoing critiques of the original symbol when it debuted—this modification to the icon, whatever its merits, still failed to address the question of how to include in a mainstream conception of disability those whose disabilities aren’t readily perceived by others. Among the latter, we might include individuals with mental illnesses or learning disabilities, or those with chronic pain, fatigue, or illness, besides many more. How might the able-bodied “see” those with hidden disabilities in such a symbol?
The short answer, of course, is that they can’t. Common cultural understandings of disability start with what is, for better or worse, a familiar case of disability—that of the visibly-identifiable wheelchair user—and imaginatively extrapolate from there if they extrapolate at all. My claims here are intended descriptively, not critically, though there’s plenty to criticize about these unreflective understandings of disability. At the same time, there’s something to be said in favor of the strategic essentialism that the International Symbol of Access promotes. I think here of my mother’s witnessing someone being written a hefty ticket for parking in a disabled spot. Impatient with the woman’s protests that she’d only meant to be there “for two minutes,” the officer said, “Ma’am, this is for people who can’t walk.” If that retort was false to the letter, it was true to the spirit.
Where legibility gets tricky in the classroom is when it involves students with hidden disabilities forfeiting their privacy in order to prove, formally or informally, that they have a disability and therefore deserve a certain accommodation. Whether these individuals are ever “temporarily able-bodied” or not, their disabilities don’t readily present themselves to public inspection or verification. While there’s a simple sense in which we can see (or hear, or feel) that someone uses a wheelchair to get around, there’s no correspondingly simple sense by which we can perceive that someone has a hidden disability unless they tell us. There might be exceptions to this general characterization: someone with chronic, recurrent pain might be forced to sit down and take medication, which could then be publicly interpreted as a sign that they live with an invisible disability.
But these exceptions are also subject to qualification. Someone’s suddenly expressing pain and seeking to resolve it could just as well be interpreted as something temporary, a cramp or headache, rather than a persistent condition. The symptoms of those with hidden disabilities can also be time-dependent; rather than acting as reliable public signposts of a disability, they may come and go. Even worse, as I’ve noted, those with hidden disabilities often find themselves, as N. Ann Davis attests, in the position of having to prove the existence of their disabilities to others; this, and the mistrust with which such demonstrations are sometimes received, incurs emotional and psychic costs (2005). Linda Martín Alcoff, writing about race and gender as visible phenomena, observes that “if there is no visible manifestation of one’s declared racial or gendered identity, one encounters an insistent skepticism and an anxiety” (2006, p. 7). Something similar is true, I suggest, for disabilities and illnesses.
My use of the term “read” in relation to social legibility isn’t meant to imply that individuals with hidden disabilities are texts, or that they exist for, or because of, our interpretation. It’s meant to draw an analogy between reading texts and what we do in social situations—like teaching or being in a classroom—where we make inferences about others in advance of, and in addition to, their own testimony about themselves. In my view it’s a pervasive, inescapable, and not necessarily nefarious phenomenon. Just as we can’t help discerning that gathering clouds and a darkening sky might mean rain, so we can’t help discerning that, say, the person standing before us may be a fan of a local sports team if they’re wearing a shirt that suggests this. Note that volition, while compatible with legibility, isn’t a part of the concept. When we talk about what’s socially legible to us, we’re talking, at least in part, about what information about other people “shows up” to us without our consciously intending or doing anything at all. Who and what is legible to us, and how, may have to do with what Ludwig Wittgenstein called our “form of life,” our “Lebensform,” a set of background presuppositions intimately related to our store of linguistic terms and concepts (2009, p. 19).
At the several universities where I’ve taught, students are thrust into context after context where their academic success—a different metric, I suggest, from their learning—is dependent on their rendering their thoughts, speech, and bodies legible to their instructors and to the institution. In addition, these institutions address them, at different times and according to their convenience, both as subjects and as customers.
There’s no getting around a certain amount of legibility; we have to know, and for good reason, what the names of our students are and we should want to know what they want to be called and what pronouns they use, if they wish to offer them. What I’ve been calling “social legibility” has a scholarly analogue, too. From the perspective of progress within a discipline, new work, however innovative, has to be interpretable in light of what preceded it. And certain classroom exercises—think first-day-of-class icebreakers—that unfold in the spirit of friendship, community, and mutual understanding can be considered legibility-building. Where an emphasis on legibility becomes troublesome is, again, where it forces students to redesignate private parts of their lives as public.
When we structure our courses with what Rosemarie Garland Thomson calls the “normate,” maximally non-disabled student in mind, we risk forcing our disabled students, including those with hidden disabilities, to choose between passing up accommodations or making legible, on the university’s terms, aspects of their life they may not wish to share (1997, p. 8). In order to better understand why this should be concerning, consider first what many students go through to secure general disability accommodations.
At each university at which I’ve either studied or been employed, the process of obtaining disability accommodations requires that a student demonstrate that they have a disability or medical condition for which a certain set of institutional remedies has been authorized. An obvious but under-discussed observation is that such a policy will have classist ramifications in any country that lacks public healthcare: intended as a safeguard against abuse, asking for proof disenfranchises those unable to afford it. Well-off students with good doctors and medical plans will likely have a diagnosis in hand before stepping on campus, while the less well-off will be forced to spend time, money, and labor navigating purposefully Byzantine systems to obtain basic statements (or restatements) of the facts of their situations. They might have to do this repeatedly throughout their education, as some universities set their own expiration dates on students’ medical documents, even if those documents pertain to lifelong conditions—a practice that, as far as I can tell, has no medical justification. The documents, once submitted, go through opaque review processes where it can be unclear who has access to them and what the terms of that access are. The student may have to participate in interviews and appointments with university staff before the accommodations are granted. All this has highly worrisome implications. As a recent study in Disability Studies Quarterly suggests, a student’s success in obtaining accommodations, or “learning supports,” may depend on how well students manage to navigate their university’s bureaucracy and how lucky they are in finding supportive, responsive faculty (Bruce & Alward, 2021).
Note, here, one assumption of disability accommodations processes: that students can be placed into mutually-exclusive “disabled” and “non-disabled” categories from the point of view of the university. (I’ll continue to speak of “the university” in the abstract, as a stand-in for what numerous institutions of higher education share.) Or, if that’s too metaphysically loaded, “students eligible for accommodations” and “students not eligible for accommodations.” Practical binaries like these serve a corporate-bureaucratic ideal of efficiency. Students are sorted, using the rhetoric of compassion, into two sets, one with respect to which the university becomes obligated to expend more of its resources.
What such a binary doesn’t do is help students whose disabilities or illnesses are difficult to diagnose, uncommon or poorly-understood, or not even unambiguously acknowledged as disabilities or illnesses. Consider those who live with chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, or simply an undiagnosed ailment whose symptoms have no locatable cause or which have outlasted their expected duration. If a physician’s note attesting to the fact that they believe the student to be living with a medical disability is sufficient to secure accommodations for the student in the absence of a formal diagnosis, why not just believe the student? Students in these situations might decide, not unreasonably, that the labor of applying for accommodations—of finding a doctor sympathetic enough to testify on their behalf—is simply not worth it. I myself made this decision more than once.
Students with disabilities are faced, then, with a dilemma. Either render themselves and their challenges legible to the university on its terms, or forego accommodations. For students with conditions, like chronic pain or fatigue, already barely legible to the medical establishment, the stakes are even more dire, as they may do everything right and still fail to be seen. Their knowledge of their own body, of their own experience, may be disqualified—classed as one of what Foucault terms “subjugated knowledges,” or modes or articles of knowledge that are either “masked in functional coherences or formal systematizations” (notice how this masking is closely related to, if not identical with, illegibility) or discounted as knowledge (1997, p. 7). They become victims of what Miranda Fricker calls “hermeneutical injustice,” where the limitations of a culture’s social resources preclude a group or individual from articulating their experiences or even fully understanding them (2007, p. 1).
When we take stock of the fact that disabled students face choices like this before even stepping into our physical or virtual classrooms, we can begin to appreciate the ethical stakes of accessible course design. We start to see that our obligation to conscientiously design our courses doesn’t end with the inclusion of a well-intentioned rider on our syllabus about disability accommodations—often part of mandatory departmental boilerplate passed over in a class’s first meeting—but begins there.
I speak as a student and instructor whose life is marked by several such disabilities, some mental, several physical. Though I feel literal pain—the chronic pain that has come to characterize my day-to-day existence—as I write this, something in me still worries I’ll be called out as an impostor. I don’t use a wheelchair. I’m occasionally, though increasingly less so, what some call “temporarily able-bodied,” or asymptomatic enough to pass as, and trick myself into thinking I am non-disabled. I don’t have a disabled parking placard, or many of the other visible trappings of disability. But I’m every bit as dependent on the support of other people and institutions for my well-being as the prototype depicted in the International Symbol of Access.
In fact, in 2021, I may be more so as my conditions require constant check-ups, monitoring, and interventions, none of which I’m guaranteed in a country without public healthcare. Whenever I go out, I think about how I’ll be able to access emergency medical services, and take a pouch of medicines with me. Every two weeks, I painstakingly organize a rainbow of pills into 28 clear plastic squares, each representing either a morning or an evening dose for the next two weeks. I keep a journal of symptoms in an attempt to puzzle out the tea leaves of my pain.
I recite this abbreviated personal history not to garner pity, but as a spell against denial. Even now, my social conditioning causes in me a kind of double vision about my own body. In the bathroom mirror, I see a youngish, male-presenting torso that visually registers as “healthy.” How could this body be sick? How could the owner of this body—indulge my dualism here for a moment—feel scared, terrified, even, by what’s happening to, or inside, it? How can the medical “reading” of my body as “mostly healthy despite several ongoing conditions” be reconciled with my own day-to-day experience of pain, discomfort, fatigue, frustration, alienation, and isolation? And if I can hardly formulate these questions for myself, how can I hope to meaningfully communicate about them with others, whether in order to secure the accommodations I need or to find my fellow travelers? Should I carry a cane with me, as I’ve often considered doing, not because I need it, but to signal to the able-bodied that I’m not one of them?
Lacking these answers, I’ve been led to drastically reevaluate what it is that I can reasonably ask of my students. I mean “ask” not only in the sense of action, or what one might ask someone else to do, but of information. What can I reasonably expect my students to know—about themselves, about their conditions and disabilities—and what can I reasonably ask them to share with me?
No individual educator will be able to rewrite their culture’s conception of disability or solve all the problems entailed by their institution’s Procrustean disability accommodations process. But individual educators can choose to enact more expansive conceptions of care, of legibility, that aid students with hidden disabilities while respecting professional boundaries.
Some disabled students will very much need services that only the university is able to provide. I think here of funded note-takers, for instance. I’m not recommending that students eligible for accommodations not apply for them, nor that instructors intervene in conversations between these students, their doctors, and administrators. Nor do I want to disregard the ways in which university disability services can sometimes help disabled students to become legible in ways that are useful for them: by serving as a form of proxy legibility while adjudicating correspondence about accommodations between students and instructors, for instance.
What I’m recommending is that, as much as possible, we not put our students in the position of having to make themselves, and their disabilities and illnesses, legible to us or the university. Note that I say “having to make”: not forcing students to become legible isn’t the same thing as forcing them to remain illegible. I try to find subtle ways to let students know that I’m available to discuss, within professional boundaries, how their challenges might be affecting their performance in class. I try to signal to my students that I live with illness and disability, and that openness about one’s physiological, medical, or mental state is neither a faux pas nor a “trauma dump.” When a student mentions dealing with illness, or needing to take a day off for mental health, I imply I’ve dealt with similar things. I mention in class how essential it is to practice self-care at every level of academia, making clear that I make time for this care in my own life, too.
Universities already protect students from being asked about the specifics of the disability or condition for which they’re receiving accommodations. But what if we, as instructors, took a different approach to course design, one that doesn’t tacitly assume that all our students are able-bodied, and that if they aren’t, they’ll seek formal accommodations? What if disabled students, and not non-disabled students, were the targets of our curriculum?
These kinds of imaginative suggestions tend, in my experience, to be brushed off as naïve. To seriously entertain relaxing or removing in-person attendance requirements, to make flexibility about deadlines (even within reason and the terms of the instructor’s contract) the rule and not the exception, to offer alternatives to verbal contributions to class discussion: to a certain cast of mind, these approaches are pedagogically suspect because they are not “rigorous” enough. In response, we should consider how appeals to rigor can have more to do with the enforcement of social norms than with any genuinely intellectual goals. David Bartholomae, in “Inventing the University,” has written sensitively about the complex demands that academic writing pedagogy places on students to make themselves legible, where the notion of legibility at work can sometimes be less a matter of making intelligible to a particular audience who one already is and more a matter of repackaging, even reshaping, oneself and one’s experiences for this audience (1986). Even taking appeals to rigor at face value, it’s hard to divorce them from educational models that tie learning to capitalist notions of productivity. As David Wasserman argues, “Much of the accommodation students receive as a result of a diagnosis of disability should not require one; perhaps more flexible exam times and course requirements should be more broadly available; perhaps our school systems should [be] oriented less toward performing a screening function for employers and more toward providing an ‘appropriate education’ for all children, not just disabled ones” (1998).
I don’t pretend to have the experience and insight necessary to give both meaningful and general prescriptions about how to construct courses so as to allow students maximum freedom with respect to their own legibility. I can only urge a conception of the role of instructor that, as much as possible, respects students as unknown quantities—one that doesn’t assume, in particular, that they’re able-bodied or that they don’t have hidden disabilities. As an instructor, I’ve worked directly with students to help them be successful when institutional guidelines had little or nothing to offer them. Though these arrangements may not have been legible to university administrators, there was nothing suspect about them. They involved no crossing of any boundary, no violation of any policy that went beyond my own prerogatives. They didn’t involve anyone revealing information they didn’t want to reveal, or putting another person in a position of liability. Several of these students confided to me that they had been either been turned down from university disability services, or hadn’t received the accommodations they needed most. I was their last link to institutional accommodations.
Accommodations need not always be spoken of as stopgap measures. Sometimes, the flexibility I offered students—more time to complete assignments during a flare-up of symptoms, for instance—positively aided their intellectual progress, more than simply not interfering with it. By permitting them to spend fewer of their able-bodied hours performing a hyper-legible “student” role, they could spend more time actually being students in ways that worked for them.
If one set of problems related to legibility presents itself in physical classrooms, another arises in virtual ones. The body language and facial cues that we typically rely on can become distorted or effaced. The gridded arrangement of faces on Zoom can thwart the natural information-overload-prevention device of focusing just on whoever’s speaking or whoever’s closest to us. And yet, I want to suggest these modifications aren’t fatal. In fact, we can draw lessons from them about legibility and student accommodations that we can then apply to in-person teaching.
In March 2020, when the university at which I was teaching decided to transition all in-person courses online, I made my course—an advanced seminar on modern poetry with a workshop component—entirely asynchronous. We wouldn’t meet online at our scheduled time; we wouldn’t pretend like the pandemic wasn’t wreaking havoc on our lives, as if the only change it involved was our not being able to meet in the same room. Thanks to supportive supervisors, I could do this, but my colleagues in another departments couldn’t. There, an ableist conception of “rigor” ruled the day, one that not only demanded synchronous teaching but an increase in difficulty to compensate for the perceived loss of intellectual integrity that virtual teaching entailed. Never mind that, at the same time, students were dealing with the fallout from sick or dead relatives, from their parents’ losing their jobs, or from having to suddenly care for younger siblings who couldn’t attend school. A colleague in that department reported that a few of her students simply went radio silent, as if they’d vanished.
With asynchronous assignments, my students were able to utilize whatever pockets of calm and clear-headedness they could find—in short supply, no doubt—to complete the course. The major hurdle was figuring out how to conduct a writing workshop where students’ poems were discussed and critiqued, while all of us were in different locations in time as well as space. I resist saying “replicate” a writing workshop; what we manifested together wasn’t a poor facsimile of a genuine article, but a real form of community under emergency conditions.
Rather than asking what my students lost in my class’s moving online, I want to ask what they might’ve gained. Counterintuitively, I found that the students on the whole did well, shock and stress of the pandemic aside. Some students’ performances improved; several made substantial contributions to workshop discussions in writing that I suspect they would’ve never had made verbally. For my more rural students, and for myself, foregoing commuting meant gaining time and well-being. I’ve since hoped that the pandemic would spur more discussion about whether requiring attendance risks discriminating against disabled and ill students, or at least making their lives markedly harder, but there’s been a sorrowful paucity of conservation about this. Students with hidden disabilities may be “temporarily able-bodied,” or free of mobility issues. But they may also be students for whom energy is in short supply. Students for whom a daily commute is highly taxing and represents lost time that could have been better spent studying or recuperating. Of these students, some, due to their disabilities and conditions being handled better at home, won’t gain anything from physically attending classes; some who might in fact gain from them will have those gains mitigated or canceled by the travails of commuting. Here I point again to my own experience as evidence. But recently more general empirical evidence has been gathered that supports the claim that commuting time is inversely related to good health.
In synchronous online classes I’ve taught since, Zoom’s various functions beyond the audiovisual have provided a virtual body language, a substitute by which students who might not have been able to use, or might not have preferred to use, physical body language and speech availed themselves of its nuances. Students used the “raise hand” feature to note their desire to speak, sparing them the anxiety of having to intervene in fast-paced discussions. The ability to virtually and visually “raise one’s hand” at any time, in a way made non-awkward by its standardization in the Zoom platform, helped those silenced by anxiety and by social practices inhospitable to their communication styles, to be perceived as speakers. Students who needed to turn off their webcams—whether because of a disability or illness, to take a break from social participation, or for some other reason—did so, reappearing visually only when this was manageable or desirable for them. Most of these students did well in the course, and several were frequent participators.
Zoom’s virtual chat has also figured prominently in my experiences with online teaching. The chat not only served as a forum where those who wished to contribute to discussion in writing could do so, but as a site of free encounter, discovery, and conversation. Although a flurry of chat activity can be distracting, the chats in my virtual classrooms almost always ended up serving as crucial venues for questions, answers, reactions, rejoinders, and objections. It’s tempting to view the chat skeptically, and I can recall a few instances where it hosted problematic behavior. But the risks involved are similar to those involved in verbal discussions, where students can also say disruptive, offensive, or off-topic things. What matters, I suspect, is the framing. At the start of each class I teach, I set community norms with my students. The calls for basic respect and courtesy that these norms inevitably include are understood, in virtual classes, to encompass the chat. I make clear that I’ll be dipping into the chat occasionally, but not policing it, treating it as a space for “hallway conversation”: nothing said there should violate our norms, but I won’t be inspecting it, though I’ll try to respond to questions directed at me.
Those tempted to think of the chat as a site where mere anarchy is loosed should reconsider the enforced silence of the traditional lecture hall, where students who might wish to discuss the lecture as it unfolds are prevented from doing so. Instead, they’re faced with the task of absorbing new information while having to physically signal their engagement to their instructor and peers via body language, even if this latter task detracts from the former. As pedagogical theorist Martha Burtis pointed out to me, there’s no guarantee that the performance of engagement tracks actual engagement. Perhaps as instructors, we’ve become too fixated on feeling like we’re being paid the attention we deserve. But I would much rather my students dynamically, even disruptively, respond to what I have to say than sit in siloed silence, together but also alone with their peers.
In my experience, student use of the Zoom chat alongside lecture or discussion didn’t preclude more traditional academic forms of engagement. What’s more, no one who found the chat uninteresting or not useful had to read it, though I grant that the situation would be improved if individual users could turn off chat notifications. Micro-communities developed in those chats, with regular contributors casting themselves as characters: the objector, the helpful answerer, and the wit, for instance. Somehow, surprisingly, this lively, thriving academic culture, before relegated to the hallways outside of class, had been made legible in its own way.
What does this all mean for students with hidden disabilities? I recount my experiences with online teaching in the pandemic to shore up my sense that the prospects of virtual teaching are more optimistic than one might think, especially for disabled students. Virtual classrooms hold out the promise of more flexible, more accommodating models for a greater variety of students and learners; in the care of the right instructor, they allow students increased freedom in how they render themselves legible or illegible. Freedom in this sense is a boon, most of all, to those who lives would be made most difficult without it—a group that includes students with disabilities, hidden and not.
These benefits come in tandem with all the added challenges of optimizing new technologies, which I don’t want to downplay. Still, those who taught online during the pandemic should embrace the opportunity to return to in-person teaching, if and when they do, with more inclusive pedagogical practices gleaned from the much-maligned virtual classroom.
To put the point more forcefully: I’m convinced that educators who made it “through” the pandemic (which is, in fact, still ongoing) only to adopt as soon as possible all the same pedagogical methods they had before it have thrown away a crucial learning opportunity—the opportunity, literally, of a lifetime. For American instructors, whose students don’t enjoy the social safety nets of healthcare or living wages, the risks of failing to learn these lessons are especially serious. And yet the rhetoric of a return to “normal,” and of the assumed superiority of non-virtual teaching, persists.
During the U.S.’s grappling with the pandemic, anti-public health apologists have often employed the rhetoric of “protecting the vulnerable” —the immunocompromised, the elderly, the disabled—in the service of resisting lockdowns. These calls were often contentless, shifting the responsibility for dealing with some of the pandemic’s worst effects onto those most likely to suffer from them. But the sentiment’s core idea—that, in thinking about social arrangements, we should think first and foremost about those made worst-off under them—has a storied history, one that deserves to be retrieved from these more recent, bad-faith appropriations. The political philosopher John Rawls’s foundational work A Theory of Justice makes considerations pertaining to the lives of the worst-off members of a society the cornerstone of its titular theory. I want to conclude these speculative notes by thinking about the potential of such a focus to transform pedagogy, online and offline.
I don’t wish to claim that the students whose sufferings and challenges are interpersonally and institutionally illegible are necessarily those who ought to be considered the worst-off when we think about our classrooms. Some students face major obstacles from conditions and disabilities that are very legible, in the sense I’ve been describing, both to individuals and institutions. But insofar as our pedagogy fails to address, and so disadvantages, the particular needs of any student, that’s an extent to which we should hope to revise it.
The necessary revisions won’t always or even often be possible; they may be thwarted by the limits of our own labor, by bureaucracy, or by other limitations foisted upon us. What isn’t subject to material or administrative limitations, however, is our ethical imagination, which includes the most basic means by which we interpret and evaluate others. Adopting a maximally able-bodied approach to course design forces students with disabilities to undertake the often-painful work of making themselves legible to normate culture, which already excludes and erases them. The labor of making themselves legible in the classroom and in the university becomes, then, a second insult. No doubt we can’t, as I’ve noted, prevent all disabled students from undergoing every kind of institutional maltreatment, or from ever having to render themselves legible. Nor should we necessarily want this, as legibility itself is a neutral phenomenon—part of what it means to be a social being, as I understand that notion. But we can expand the boundaries of our concept of the “student,” focusing more on what we can ask of our students as intellects, thinkers, and writers than as bodies with differing, contingent needs. And we can focus on getting clear, with ourselves and our colleagues, what it is that we believe about instruction without quite realizing that we believe it, and what in these unexamined beliefs reinforces ableism in academia. As the rhetorical theorist V. Jo Hsu writes, “Only by rendering our beliefs legible—by fixing them temporarily, imperfectly, and vulnerably in some form—can we create the conditions for discussion, negotiation, and change” (2018, p. 163). This requires bravery and risk, in quantities our disabled students already know much about.
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- See the American Psychological Association’s online dictionary entry for “legibility,” https://dictionary.apa.org/legibility, and, e.g., “Social Legibility, The Cognitive Map and Urban Behaviour,” Thierry Ramadier and Gabriel Moser, Journal of Environmental Psychology 18, Issue 3, September 1998: 307-319. ↵
- See, e.g., Emma Teitel, “Critics of new ‘dynamic’ disability symbol not just anti-PC cranks,” Toronto Star, 2017. ↵
- This is not a risk-free endeavor. Besides a general disdain among academics for perceived weakness, of which talking about one’s disability or illness can be taken as a sign, students can also hold these outdated attitudes. I once received a course evaluation from a student who found it “borderline inappropriate” that I mentioned, in an aside one class, that I was dealing with the side-effects of a new medication that day, and so asked for their patience. But whatever my fears of the consequences of making my own disabilities and illnesses legible to my students, those fears aren’t my priority as an instructor. (There’s much more to say here, of course, about the safety and security of disabled faculty, especially those without job or healthcare security, and my setting them aside is not intended to downplay them.) ↵
- An FAQ regarding disability accommodations at UC Berkeley, my alma mater, states: “Students with disabilities have a right to privacy regarding their medical diagnoses and medical documentation. For this reason, we ask faculty not to request medical documentation from students with disabilities.” ↵
- See Jeremy N. Bailenson, “Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue,” in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2021. ↵
- See, e.g., “Tired of Commuting? Relationships among Journeys to School, Sleep, and Exercise among American Teenagers,” by Voulgaris et al., in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, 2017. ↵
- Coverage about the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, which involved scientists from the U.S. and worldwide, focused on such rhetoric, which Declaration supporters often employed. See, e.g., “Coronavirus: Health experts join global anti-lockdown movement,” BBC, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-54442386. ↵
- Characteristically, Rawls holds, e.g., that “social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society” (A Theory of Justice, 13). ↵
- See, e.g., Martha Burtis’s critique of Quality Matters in “The Cult of Quality Matters,” Hybrid Pedagogy, August 10, 2021, https://hybridpedagogy.org/the-cult-of-quality-matters/. ↵