Opinion | Disclosing a disability in the virtual world

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As the world went online and learning became remote, for the first time in my life I was presented with a choice: Should I reveal my disability in our virtual learning environment or not? Even using the world “reveal” feels absurd in my own context as a full-time electric wheelchair user, but Zoom offered me the chance to conceal my otherwise highly visible disability and experience this chapter of my university life without the heavily loaded label that has become so embedded in my identity. This experience was not intended as the fulfillment of some long-held dream, nor did I want to treat it as an experiment regarding how others might change the way they interact with me. I was simply intrigued by the concept of who I might be as a non-disabled young woman and what the process could tell me about my relationship with my disability today.

When reflecting on this experience, I made sure to first consider the impact of my disability in the broadest sense. There are certainly negative stigmas intertwined with being a wheelchair user that put into question my capabilities, rights and worth, but my situation has also afforded me incredible opportunities and valuable connections that have brought me to this point. While some people may have stayed away, others have only entered my world because my disability made our paths cross in some way. Taking away the disability element in the eyes of others should therefore not be viewed as taking away something purely negative. My disability undoubtedly shapes my interactions with the world around me, but not in ways that are exclusively bad or good. 

Understanding this spectrum of impact enabled me to approach the concept of being un-disabled at Zoom University in a healthy and productive manner — I wasn’t exploring a utopia, just a parallel universe. In this universe, we each exist as a name in a black box or a moving picture from the shoulders up. My disability is such that only the most observant could perceive the subtle weakness in my voice, the black fabric of my wheelchair’s headrest peeking from behind my hair or the fact that, unlike my peers, I am not frequently turning my head or reaching for a drink. This is the most level of playing fields, and I can just be Tilly.

It surprised me immediately how uncomfortable that thought made me. I expected to focus on the practical benefits, such as how breakout rooms gave me the chance to engage in discussions without negotiating the “elephant in the room”, because there was no elephant. Such as how my heart did not sink when the professor suggested we change up our groups because this did not involve actual movement around an inaccessible classroom. Such as how I did not have to wince at the whir of my mechanical arm supports when raising my hand, because this could be done at the silent click of a button. Instead, however, I experienced a lingering discomfort that grew in response to my inauthenticity. 

I anticipated feeling liberated by how the burdens of disability and its effect on how people receive my contributions had been lifted, but I found myself fumbling to express myself in the absence of necessary context that is foundational to my worldview and, in any other situation, supplemented by obvious visual cues. I often say that disability doesn’t define me, but it has shaped me to such an extent that much of my life ceases to make sense without it. Of course there are challenges, but I embrace how my disability causes people to see me differently and I cannot imagine a life for myself without it. Of course there are aspects of my identity that are just part of “me,” but having a disability from birth means that many things in my life can be traced back to this fact and not even Zoom can separate the two. 

Among the many lessons the pandemic has taught us, I think I have finally settled on the answer to a question I am so frequently asked: If I had a magic wand, would I wish for my life without disability? There are many dimensions to my response, but existing in our virtual world has highlighted for me how this question is akin to asking whether I would wish for a different life altogether. Disability is in my DNA, metaphorically and literally speaking, and so I have no concept of who I might be without it. Even in the low-stakes, online classroom environment, I feel compelled to invite people into my story and, although I appreciate the power Zoom affords me to make my own choice, I choose to reveal and embrace my disability because I cannot picture it any other way.

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Tilly Griffiths is a junior from the United Kingdom pursuing a double-major in Political Science and Communication. As a person with disabilities herself and current ASSU Director of Disability Advocacy, she has written extensively for the Daily on issues relating to accessibility and inclusion since her freshman year, and continues to highlight the experiences of the disability community on campus as an opinion columnist.