It took many years before I came to grips with my disability. I shunned it, stubbornly tried to compensate for it. But as it worsened, it became increasingly difficult to ignore. Coworkers perceived me as arrogant and aloof. Friends would approach and ask why I ignored them. When? I’d inquire. Just a few minutes ago, you walked right passed — didn’t you hear me call your name?
Actually no, I didn’t.
Eventually I was forced to action. For two years I delivered speeches on behalf of my employer in large auditoriums. On most occasions, I’d provide a disclaimer I wouldn’t be entertaining follow-up questions due to time constraints. But the time I forgot is the time I’ll never forget. After finishing my spiel, a few hands rose. Oh no, I sighed. One woman stood up in the back and asked something. I couldn’t discern anything she said. I asked her to repeat the question. Nothing. My face became flushed as the audience murmured amongst themselves, impatiently waiting my reply. I asked someone in front for clarity, but I couldn’t hear their response either.
Ashamed, I abruptly apologized and walked out of the room humiliated.
The following week I made an appointment with an audiologist and confirmed what I long knew. I have significant hearing loss. If normal people hear at a 60 decibels level, I hear closer to a baker’s dozen.
Fortunately, AU is home to an excellent Disability Support Services, directed by Joanne Benica. Before I enrolled, I was reticent to schedule an appointment, I had numerous inhibitions. I needed accommodations, but I didn’t want to feel patronized. I didn’t want an automatic advantage over my peers. I wanted privacy. I didn’t want classmates to know and/or treat me differently. Thankfully, Joanne quelled my fears — “The purpose of disability accommodations is to equal the playing field, not to provide special services or unfair advantage. The accommodation is meant to provide equal access,” Joanne told me.
I heard that loud and clear.
Another concern was pacified when Joanne said my disability information would be kept confidential. An anonymous announcement would be made in class and that would be the extent of public notification. Students meet with professors during office hours to distribute and explain the relevant information — ideally, professors will act accordingly.
In a survey conducted in 2008-2009, students with disabilities rated AU departments, faculty and staff, as 61 percent responsive to their concerns. Not too shabby, although not exemplary either. In my own experience, professors are amenable to the requests, but tend to forget unless reminded.
For students with documented disabilities, utilize the resources on campus. As an undergraduate, I didn’t have the courage to accept my deficiency. I saw it as a weakness, unwilling to submit to its command. At times, I’m still self-conscious (especially when I’m sporting hearing aids), but I’ve slowly learned to accept it as a part of who I am.
I recommend AU students without disabilities make a concerted effort for flexibility and understanding. Be cognizant that many around you (about 450 documented at AU) struggle each day with their unique problem. Many classmates may be annoyed to have their views partially obstructed by the 6’2” giant head (me) constantly occupying the front seat of class. I don’t do it to be a brown-noser, I do it because I need to.
We can’t expect anyone to predict who has disabilities (if not apparent), but as a rule, acquiesce (if asked to move or speak up) out of consideration because it may be more of a necessity than a request. Since we don’t know the intricate details about strangers, it’s best just to cut them some slack. If you notice an odd proclivity of a classmate, they may be compensating for something you’re not privy to. They may have a disability. And even if they don’t, you could do worse than obliging out of courtesy.
Conor Shapiro is a graduate student in the School of International Service and a liberal columnist.