Like many other people with disabilities, I struggle with the issue of disclosure. Legally, I’m not required to disclose that I am Deaf unless I plan to ask for accommodations. At the same time, I’ve learned that I need to disclose my disability at some point in the process of applying for an international exchange program, school, or job in order to be successful. I can’t hide my disability, and nor should I feel I have to.
And yet, like others with disabilities, I don’t want to be discriminated against because I am Deaf. I don’t want anyone—particularly application committees that have a potential say in my future—to make assumptions about what I can and cannot do.
There is such a wide, rich spectrum of what it means to be Deaf, and the same is true of any other disability. In my case, I have some hearing with a hearing aid and cochlear implant, and I also read lips and use sign language. Many people who are legally blind have some vision. Some use canes and some do not. Some people who use wheelchairs can walk short distances or have mobility in other ways. Others may have mobility only in their hands.
Disability is too complex to ever reduce to a single word. Deaf. Blind. Wheelchair-user. Even if it could be so easily simplified, it could never describe the adaptations we’ve made, our individual intelligence and personalities, our rich interior landscapes, the resiliency that we must develop in order to succeed in a world that is not always accessible or accepting.
However, whenever I disclose, I worry that I will be reduced to a single word that labels my disability. I imagine what the application committee might be thinking when they read that word: I’ve never worked with a Deaf or Hard of Hearing student before and I’m not sure I can do this. I had one Deaf student in the past, and the situation was just too difficult. It’ll be expensive. It’s a risk. We don’t have the facilities. Maybe next time. Don’t accept him.
Then I realize that I, too, am making an assumption that I don’t want to make, one that is based on fear.
In this situation, I find myself acting as if I expect the application committee to be close-minded, ignorant, perhaps even downright intolerant—even though that committee could very well be composed of a rich spectrum of people from a wide variety of different backgrounds.
I have not always disclosed my disability on an application, but now, as I look back, I realize that I have always disclosed in the application process for the programs that I ended up attending, including three international exchange programs (the photo above is from my Fulbright Fellowship in Nepal), my undergraduate and graduate programs, and various volunteer programs along the way.
In disclosing my disability in these situations, I’ve taken part in a mutually beneficial leap of faith. I’ve assumed that the application committees in question were open-minded, diverse and highly qualified at finding the best possible candidates, and in that environment, I disclosed freely and felt open to be fully honest about myself.
In turn, they have assumed, based on my application, that I am a good fit for their program—perhaps regardless of my disability or perhaps because they see my disability as a unique asset and want to encourage diversity.
Often, it becomes too easy to look at disability as a barrier instead of an opportunity. However, disclosure can allow people with disabilities to be proactive throughout the application process, start a conversation about reasonable accommodations early on, and frame their individual situations as a positive. Instead of being something we need to hide, our disabilities become part of ourselves that we want to share.