The Challenges & Rewards of Disability Disclosure

A young man shakes the hand of an interviewer.My hands were shaking as I held the phone, and it was all I could do to keep from dropping it. My mother’s firm hand was on my shoulder. She said, “You know, it’s not the end of the world if they say no. We can find other schools. We’ve always found other schools.” Of course, in my head, I thought, But I want this one. Before I could vocalize the answer, a man’s voice came through the line.

“Hi, Anthony? This is the Director of Admissions at Saint James School. We’ve reviewed your application and we’d like to invite you for an on-campus interview. What day would work best for you?”

I could hardly contain my smile as I hung up the phone.

The history of Saint James School completely surrounds you as you go down the asphalt driveway, which is perfectly in line with the Senior Circle (used only on the day of graduation) and Claggett Hall (the oldest building on campus). The warm spring day made for a picturesque setting that looked as though it had come straight from a Harry Potter novel.  I was absolutely in love. As I walked up the steps of Claggett, a tall gray haired man greeted me and asked if I was ready for the interview.

It went very well, and I handled the questions with as much poise as you could expect from an eighth grader fresh out of middle school. He warmly shook my hand, handed me a Saint James School t-shirt, and informed me that I’d be hearing from the school soon.

I did heard from the school, but it wasn’t quite the news I was expecting.

My hands were shaking again, and of course my mother’s hand was back on my shoulder. This time, though, she didn’t say anything.

“Hello there, this is the Director of Admissions at Saint James School. I must thank you for the wonderful interview. Your application is also fantastic; such a great balance of academics and extracurricular activities! However, there is one thing I must take note of…” I gulped. “…you said here that you have a disability ‘but it’s highly manageable and shouldn’t be a hindrance toward my attendance here.’ Do you really believe this?”

I gulped again. “Well yes,” I said. “I have asthma, but I haven’t had a legitimate attack since I was two. I do have cerebral palsy, but it has never gotten in the way of me living a normal life.”

There was a long silence on the line. Then-

“Well, I mean, I don’t want to discourage you from attending, but I do just want to warn you that Saint James may not be only academically demanding, but physically demanding for you as well. Students walk to all of their classes and…”

The rest of this most-likely prepared speech faded beyond hearing as I sat there, shell-shocked.

Let’s be honest here. While Saint James does have a non-discrimination policy, I was being indirectly and discreetly told that I would not be welcomed at this school.

But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. So my mother and I went back up to the school and demanded to speak to the headmaster. He apologized profusely for the incident and encouraged me to enroll at the school, which I did. Once we had settled that the school would admit me and I would attend, the next step was to request any accommodations that would help me perform my best in school.

My professors in the English department (and even my friends) have always told me that writing is one of my strengths, but I would be the first to tell you that it takes me a long time to complete a writing assignment. Many classes at Saint James School (and the University of Maryland where I am attending college now) have timed quizzes and essay sections. Upon being accepted to Saint James, the headmaster scheduled meetings with the chair of the English department and my other teachers to discuss what accommodations I would need including longer allotted time on quizzes and tests. I was surprised to learn that they obliged these requests willingly, and as a result, I excelled academically.

At graduation four years later, I was awarded the Nobel C. Powell Prize “for creative exercise and outstanding contribution to change, development and progress at the school, while remaining faithful in its fundamental principles and purposes.” This award was a fitting testament, I think, to what I accomplished at the school. What surprises me most of all is that I received this award from a school that originally did not want to accept me. But then, while reading through the award description again, I realized why I received it. As my headmaster told me after graduation that sunny June day, my attendance alone was an “outstanding contribution to change, development and progress at the school.”

And though I didn’t realize this at the time, my presence at the school made me a wonderful advocate for those with disabilities. Not only did I attend the school, but I also contributed heavily to the community through acting in the drama troupe and playing in the jazz ensemble. Only later did I find out that I was the first officially registered student with a disability to ever attend Saint James School. For both me and the school, this had been a long time coming.

My experience with disability disclosure at St. James School is just one example of the barriers I’ve encountered due to society’s low expectations of what I could do. My struggles with disclosure began very early on in my life, as my mother tried to enroll me in a mainstream classroom at an elementary school. Numerous doctors and educators tried to tell my mother that my needs could not be accommodated in a mainstream setting. She wouldn’t take this for an answer and proceeded to hunt for schools that would take me. Just as Saint James did, my middle school also initially rejected me because they felt that they could not provide appropriate accommodations for me, even before I could explain what those accommodations might be.

It has taken me quite some time to get comfortable enough with my disability to know when it is right to disclose. As a self advocate for my own disability rights on campus, I’ve learned that it is important for young people to be well informed about their own disability so that they can easily convey their needs to a counselor, teacher, or mentor. In my experiences, disability disclosure is all about helping others help you.

At the University of Maryland, I am currently registered with my school’s Disability Support Services (DSS). Essentially, it’s a great source of help and information for all students with disabilities at the university. My counselor is a phenomenal mentor and she helps me with everything from registering for classes to ensuring that I have the proper transportation for classes that are farther away.

Unlike at Saint James, however, no one at college sought me out and brought me to the DSS center. I had to locate the building, set up an appointment with my counselor, and fill out all of the necessary forms on my own. Once I had done so, my time at Maryland became much more rewarding. All it took was that extra step; that willingness to seek help. I now get extra time on certain tests and quizzes and transportation to any class that is more than a ten minute walk away. This all came about because I was willing to acknowledge my disability, I realized that I needed help, and I knew how to ask for it.

And while I didn’t require any specific accommodations for the duration of my internship here at the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL), I did decide to disclose my disability during the interview process. When I was asked why I wanted to intern at IEL, I realized that I could not explain fully unless I showed the impact that my disability has already had on my life. Through working at IEL this summer, I have become so much more comfortable discussing and disclosing my disability by being in this encouraging environment.

The 411 on Disability Disclosure is a great guide for those young people who are still struggling with the ins and outs of disability disclosure. The Cyber Disclosure for Youth with Disabilities document is a helpful supplement to the 411 Guide, as it details how the nature of disclosure has changed with the advent of sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other blogging and social network sites. Families, youth service professionals, and other caring adults can learn how to support youth with decisions about disclosure using the guide, The 411 on Disability Disclosure: A Workbook for Families, Educators, Youth Service Professionals, and Adult Allies Who Care About Youth with Disabilities.

By Anthony Douglas, Intern at the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) Center for Workforce Development (CWD). Anthony is a sophomore at the University of Maryland, College Park, studying English Language and Literature.

About NCWD Youth

NCWD/Youth works to ensure that transition age youth are provided full access to high quality services in integrated settings to gain education, employment, and independent living.
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