Recently, an email was sent to the group of Wesleyan students who use disability services  to request accommodations such as extended time on tests or emotional-support pets. The email was sent by the dean who has taken over for Sarah Lazare, and potentially the most notable thing about it was that instead of BCC-ing everyone, the list of students had been very clearly CC-ed. Thus, everyone with a disability suddenly had their status disclosed, albeit only to each other.

Disclosure of a disability is a scary thing. For me, it has become somewhat inevitable. Every time someone asks me what I want to do with my life and I respond with “multiple sclerosis researcher,” it seems to be too specific an answer not to warrant another question. Do I know someone with MS? Yes, that would be me. And then there, it’s out. I’m disabled, even though I don’t look it.

Many people with disabilities prefer to remain anonymous if they are able to do so. I know that because, having examined the CC-ed list pretty extensively, I now am aware that a significant portion of my friends and acquaintances are disabled. I say “now aware” because they themselves had not disclosed that information to me.

That’s a little bit uncomfortable. Most of my friends know that I’m disabled, and we’ve talked about it at some point. There are a lot of people who could have said “me too!” on multiple occasions, but they didn’t.

Many people reacted pretty strongly to the email faux pas. To me, it was an innocent mistake and it wasn’t as public as it could have been. If the e-mail had somehow been sent out to the entire campus, it would be a different story. But we were only outed to a group of students who are all in the same boat. People at Wesleyan seem to enjoy being with people who are the same as them in some way—a fact that is especially highlighted by the program houses on campus. But there’s not a disability house, and coming out as disabled is potentially the only coming-out situation that still feels a bit taboo here at “Diversity University.”

What is it about disability that fails to unite us? Often the term “disability” leaves me unsettled. Disability is such a broad category that it does not mean the same thing for all of us. Another division in the disability community is the medical model vs. social model debate—for those of you who haven’t read up on Crip Theory, these are two distinct ways of viewing disability. I identify more with the medical model, which means that I focus on diagnoses, medications, and cures. I say “more” because the medical model has become a less politically correct viewpoint within the disabled community. The social model of disability says that society is actually what disables people by creating situations in which certain bodies cannot function as easily as others.

I don’t think either of these models are universal, and for my chronic disease, the medical model makes more sense. What works for ADHD probably won’t work for MS or a missing limb, but the University tends to see us as one and the same. This is certainly reflected in the way that the administration chooses to handle disabilities. The most striking thing to me when I first requested accommodations was that there was a focus on the student making an effort to minimize the amount of work to be done by professors and the administration. This sounded reasonable, I guess, until I was told to see a nutritionist because I needed to fix my MS-related exhaustion. My central nervous system is being attacked by my immune system and my MS doctors have already taken that into consideration when formulating my diet.

Almost anyone who gets diagnosed with a disease immediately goes out and researches everything about it so they can decide how to feel as healthy as they can—that includes doing whatever it takes to do our best in school. In requesting accommodations, I think we’re already saying that we’re willing to work and that we’d like to succeed. We could choose to not request those accommodations and adopt the apathetic hipster attitude. By requesting accommodations, however, we’re communicating that we are proactive and we care about our education.

Because of this—though I was initially disappointed that some of my friends were not as open about their disabilities as I had been about mine—I realized that I was proud to see that a lot of my friends were on the emailed list. Even if they weren’t comfortable disclosing their disabilities to me, it’s good to know that so many people I care about are doing whatever they can to succeed.

I also feel compelled to say that I appreciate that we have our very own dean to help us navigate Wesleyan and act as our liaison to professors and the administration. If the disability community would like to attack someone, perhaps it shouldn’t be a dean who sent an extremely nice and well-intentioned email to us, even with his breach of confidentiality. Instead, I think we the community should look at ourselves for perpetuating our own status as the “unmentionables” on campus.

  • anonymous

    your piece really lets scott backer off with a slap on the wrist. clearly you have not been adversely impacted by the email since you are already very open about your ms, but many people value their confidentiality, and you seem to trivialize their concerns. breaching this all-important privacy is just about the worst thing a dean of disabilities services could do.

    you also shouldn’t be scouring the list looking for people you know; this action only serves to further undermine everyone’s privacy.

    on top of that, i disagree with the assertion that backer’s email was “extremely nice and well-intentioned.” it was a boilerplate email, nothing more, nothing less.

  • who else

    the first response to your piece is anonymous and hostile; perhaps that is because people prefer to be the latter if the former. my own sense is that your piece is well-balanced and thoughtful and entices. It entices people to respond by its open-minded and apparently easygoing attitude. A good essay, to say the least. Try to ignore all the scolding from your peers that seems bound to occur.