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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online

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Disabled in Grad School: Speaking as an Authority

Lived experience as a source of authority.

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May 24, 2018
 
 

Alyssa is an Autistic doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

Of course, being seen as an authority figure isn't only a disability issue. For example, fellow GradHacker Alexandra wrote about cultivating authority as a female graduate student. Writing an article, she was told that she wrote with "too much authority." Did the reader know or assume her gender? (Someone who sees my name is likely to make the same assumption, and I doubt I'll fare any better if the reader knows I'm actually nonbinary.) Is it because of her feminist perspective? Is it the combination of the two? Looking back at my own teaching experiences, I suspect the combination. Sometimes my students know I'm autistic, and sometimes they don't. Most of them are under the incorrect impression that I am a woman. As a disabled grad student, though, I frequently run into this threshold issue, the one about my authority on my own experiences.

As a masters student teaching introductory college math, my authority was never really at issue. The department was good about backing up grad students when we had to tell our students, "No." And the topic was mathematics: everything I taught was a matter of fact, and I could prove it. I similarly didn't have difficulty demonstrating authority when I assisted in the electronics lab. My students’ circuits either worked or didn't, and my suggestions for how to fix them either worked or didn't.

There was some weirdness, however, about my writing on index cards when I couldn't speak. Though my knowledge on circuits was still a given, my students questioned the idea that being temporarily unable to speak could be normal or okay. How could it not be a big deal for me to need augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)? And that's the pattern I've run into. It's talking about disability, that thing where I actually have lived experience, where my knowledge is more likely to be questioned. Maybe it’s because I’m questioning the authority of what ‘everyone’ knows.

It's a pattern. Autism experts have been arguing that autistic people have a biased view of autism for as long as we've been writing about our experiences. On one hand, this is literally true. Everyone has biases about everything. And I'll be honest: yes, some of my autism-related writing, as researched as it is, is also activist: I'm highlighting issues that many professionals might like to ignore in favor of teaching us to act more normatively. How are Autistic people who are also Queer erased? What about AAC for people who technically could look more ‘normal’ by speaking instead? On the other hand, why is it that only our biases are called that? Pushing for indistinguishability as the primary goal is also a bias.

When I went and reviewed work about (and mostly by) Autistic adults who use AAC and can speak in order to argue that this is 1) a thing; 2) helpful; and 3) to be encouraged, I wrote like an outside expert to the extent that I could. That seemed like the best way to show that I wasn't writing about just my own experiences (see the chapter I wrote last summer - the book is out now). If there's even a whiff of that, and I'm saying something that isn't the usual practice or theory, I can expect to be reminded that "If you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person." Which, again, is literally true. So is, "If you've met or read writing by a few hundred autistic people, you've met or read writing by a few hundred autistic people." Guess which category I'm actually in.

Now, this obviously isn't something that happens 100 percent of the time. My major professor and my supervisor for my autism and AAC project both think that my autistic perspective on autism-related issues is valuable, because it gives me insights they can't have. There exist people who will consider lived experience to be a source of authority, rather than a detriment to it. Those are the people I try to work with, whenever possible.

[Image by Flickr user Jonathan, under a Creative Commons License.]

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