Last year, I attended a workshop on microaggressions by Robbin Vasquez (firstname.lastname@example.org) which opened my eyes to critical insensitivities I hadn’t considered. As I learned more about microaggressions, I realized language that may appear harmless could be unintentionally damaging. Microaggressions can negatively affect all people; not just those with disabilities.
A microaggression is defined as a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority. It may also refer to individuals with disabilities.
If a Coordinator were to use microaggressions that a student caught on to, imagine how it would affect their trust in the Coordinator, the department, and the student’s overall education. In this article, I will convey the strategies I learned to avoid unintentionally damaging students’ sense of self-worth.
Some examples of microaggressions to avoid will be described further. While for the purposes of this article we are referring to Coordinators speaking to students identifying as D/deaf or hard hearing, these can apply to many other situations.
Patronization can feel well-intentioned, but it is capable of being the most harmful. Praising a D/deaf or hard of hearing student excessively or for actions you wouldn’t praise other students for has been described by some as being more demeaning than not being praised for achievements at all.
It is commonly understood that certain accommodations need to be provided for students with disabilities. An important second layer is that those accommodations are meant to create an equal playing field. This means excessive praise is not needed and that all students should be rewarded equally for their achievements. It implies “you are not capable” and “I can do that better than you can”.
Take a moment to imagine you’re a Deaf/hard of hearing student. You arrive at your appointment with an accessibility Coordinator and are told, “You did such a good job making your appointment and arriving on time without any help!” This statement seems well-intentioned, but is an example of patronization and would be seen negatively.
Infantilization is not allowing a person with a disability to perform actions they are perfectly capable of doing.
For example, we ask that our TypeWell transcribers simply add [inaudible] into the transcript when a speaker makes an inaudible comment. The alternative is for the transcriber to interrupt class to ask for a repeat. However, if the transcriber didn’t understand the comment, the other students likely didn’t, either. if the student feels they need the information, they can raise their hand and ask the person to repeat the comment—just like any other student! The student can request that the transcriber ask the person to repeat their comment, but assumptions are not made prior to that.
Coordinators can avoid infantilization by avoiding being overbearing, talking too slowly to the student, asking the interpreter to ask the Deaf/hard of hearing person a question rather than speaking directly to the student, and assigning services that the student may not need/want.
Spread effect occurs when assumptions about a person are made due to their disability, such as assuming that one disability means that all of the person’s senses are impaired.
People who aren’t familiar with the Deaf/hard of hearing community may inappropriately ask if the person reads Braille, for example. Another example of spread effect is when people avoid communication with people with disabilities because they assume they won’t have things to contribute to the conversation or that communication is impossible.
Denial of Disability Experience
While it may seem perfectly harmless to say, “I don’t even think of you as disabled”, this can be very hurtful due to denial of experience. It also adds an unnecessarily negative connotation to their disability.
Another example is when professors decline adding captioning to videos in class because it “distracts the other students”, completely ignoring the student’s need. Sensitivity is key.
Improve Educational Experiences for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Students
Disability Resource Coordinators that are mindful of their language and how it may affect their students’ feelings will improve educational outcomes by making students feel safe, heard, comfortable, and confident.