I first met Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal when we attended the same elementary school—a strange magnet school where kids worked at their own pace, wrote and anthologized poetry, wandered off to lunch on their own, died on the Oregon Trail, and performed monthly “celebrations” of skits and songs they had written themselves. Pryal’s neurodivergence made her attendance compulsory, and I needed an environment with more individualized attention. It was in that creative, accepting atmosphere that I first learned to love writing. Decades later, when I moved to Chapel Hill, Pryal and I reconnected as writers and friends.
Pryal and I started meeting to write and talk about writing, our families, and teaching, and we were having parallel experiences of advocating for disabled people in our circle: students, family members, and ourselves. I was struck by how she approaches issues of neurodiversity. She is autistic and has bipolar disorder, and while there are lots of experts on neurodiversity, not many can speak to it from a personal perspective and also as a legal scholar, professor, parent, and advocate. I love the depth of understanding Pryal brings to issues of mental disability, and when The Rumpus sent out this call, I knew I wanted to interview her.
Pryal is the award-winning author of Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education (Blue Crow Books 2017), which was released on audio by Blackstone Audio this year. Her forthcoming book, Darkness Interrupted: Reckoning with Mental Health and Higher Education, will be published by the University of Kansas Press in 2023. She is a long-time columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education focusing on mental disability and higher ed, most recently writing on the Dobbs decision and student mental health.
I had the opportunity to speak with Pryal in person about her thoughts on disability and higher education, ongoing issues that have come to a point in the time of COVID-19. We met at her favorite coffee shop, La Vita Dolce, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The Rumpus: For me at least, when the pandemic hit, the issue of disability and education came to a head. Although I have had college students who have used accommodations for years, including ASL interpreters, breaks during class, note takers, and the expectation not to participate in class discussions, I had not really interrogated my own choices in teaching until the pandemic.
Katie Pryal: This has been a common theme in discussions about how best to teach during the pandemic. People are saying, “Wow, until now, I hadn’t really thought about what I’ve been doing.” If it makes you feel better, “people” in that sentence includes myself, and I’ve been writing on mental health and teaching for nearly a decade. There were things I needed to change, too.
How I see it is that COVID-19 has put new and immense pressure on institutions, faculty, and students, and that pressure has revealed a lot of flaws in how we—institutions and faculty—do things, such as teach. It also has revealed how vulnerable our students can be, especially our disabled students, and how cruel our teaching strategies can be.
Rumpus: Yes, COVID-19 caused me to rethink how punitive attendance requirements can be. Students losing letter grades for missing classes stopped making sense when their family members were sick or dying or their anxiety was visibly high. But now there is a lot of pressure to “return to normal” and make sure students come to class, no matter what their challenges are. But I don’t think we are back to normal, do you?
Pryal: Definitely not. We’re in a state of compounding trauma, not decreasing. My university experienced this first-hand last October when there were multiple student deaths by suicide and also multiple suicide attempts. Those tragedies were a wake-up call that although we were on campus, students were still in mental health crisis. Our teaching needed to take this crisis into account by being more accessible.
Rumpus: How would you even begin to help professors think about bringing accessibility into their classrooms?
Pryal: The first thing to understand is that accommodations are not accessibility. Accommodations are special exceptions made for one disabled person who has to jump through lots of hoops to get them. Accessibility is the creation of a space that is hospitable to and usable by disabled people, no hoops required. Thus, the best teaching is always accessible.
The best guiding light for accessibility (and good pedagogy generally) is in a 2019 essay by professor Cate Denial called “A Pedagogy of Kindness.” In it, she defines kindness as two simple things: believing your students, and believing in your students. So much of college teaching is traditionally adversarial. Professors don’t even realize how much suspicion we’re trained to feel toward our students.
Rumpus: That’s exactly the realization I came to when I saw the palpable struggles my students were going through–was it really my job to question whether or not they actually needed to miss class? How does this atmosphere of suspicion affect disabled students?
Pryal: This suspicion ramps way up when you’re talking about disabled students and their requests for accommodations. (Do they really need extra time? Do they really need copies of my slide decks?) Instead, just believe your students who say they need these things. Even better, provide them to all students and create an accessible environment. Don’t withhold learning materials that can help your students succeed. As Dalton says in Roadhouse, “Be nice.” No matter what.
I want to send Denial’s essay to every professor and administrator in higher ed saying, “Here’s a guide for how to teach now.” But more than that, it’s a guide for how to teach forever. Once the pandemic is over, we shouldn’t go back to teaching like assholes.
Rumpus: I agree that COVID-19 caused a sudden shift in my available resources, constraints, and experience with students, but it also gave me an opportunity to rethink most basically how I teach and how students learn. Before COVID-19, I’d been thinking of ways to make my own courses more accessible to students over the years because there is so much value in doing so; however, I was still sticking to what was familiar and comfortable to me.
Then, during the pandemic, I drilled down into my discomfort with having to plan ahead in order to make my courses more accessible. It forced me to move beyond my own resistance. What do your research and activism tell you about this resistance?
Pryal: People really hate feeling uncomfortable, don’t they? Things that are new can either make a professor freak out or feel that the classroom experience has become richer.
Rumpus: Accommodations and making my content more accessible have changed my courses for the better—for all of my students and for me. During one course, an interpreter attended every session for a hearing-impaired student, and it was phenomenal to engage with the student and interpreter.
Another student had an accommodation that allowed them to avoid participating during live class sessions. In lieu of live participation, the student would contribute by sending me emails reflecting on the class. I was hesitant—surely, the student could just push through like everyone else.
Pryal: We’ve all had that thought. That’s the suspicion talking. What happened in those emails? I’m dying to know.
Rumpus: The result was a really powerful perspective on the course material. She wrote thoughtful responses about what happened in class; she was really thinking about what we had talked about during class. And then she showed how well she could synthesize our readings and our class discussions. For me, her emails were gifts, a record of what she was learning and what I was teaching, making the courses something bigger and better than I could have done on my own while getting onboard a student whom I might have otherwise lost. By my old standards of class participation, she would have failed. With her accommodations, she more than thrived; she was my best student that semester.
Pryal: What an incredible story. It really shows how professors, even ones as open-minded as you, have limiting ideas about what students should be able to do, and about what is possible in terms of teaching. Many academics are experts in their area, but they have not been trained in teaching or accessibility. Ableist expectations of what a “normal” brain or “normal” student must be able to do keep so many disabled students from thriving. Imagine how many students have similar disabilities to your former student but do not have professors or institutions that provide accommodations like you did. Those students frequently fail. I wish more professors were as willing to take risks as you were.
Rumpus: One issue getting in professors’ way might be stigma. In your opinion, what kinds of problems does stigma create for disabled students in higher education? Perhaps you could start with explaining what stigma means?
Pryal: I’m glad you asked about what stigma means—I think it’s a word that people outside of the disability community hear a lot, but they might not be sure just what it is or how it works. Stigma means shame and ostracization. In practice, stigma against disabilities causes disabled students and faculty to avoid seeking accommodations or other help on campus because they don’t want to be ostracized. Ostracization can be poor treatment by a professor, for example, when a student requests an accommodation.
Another example is the banning of laptops by some professors. I’m not going to get into the reasons why professors think this is a good idea; just don’t do it. Banning laptops is ableist because many students need them for various disabilities. Professors defend their ableist practice by saying that they make exceptions for disabled students. But imagine being the one student with a laptop in a classroom. First, your accommodation has forced you to out yourself as a disabled student. Second, you are now the target of jealousy because you have a privilege that your fellow students do not. And finally, you have to wonder whether your professor is constantly suspicious of how you are using your laptop.
Regarding that suspicion: Imagine that you were teaching a college course, and you chose to ban laptops. If any student were to tell you that they needed to use a laptop in class to accommodate a disability, would you require documentation from the disability office? Or would you simply just believe them? The humane thing to do is the second. But professors are so well-trained to be suspicious of our students and of disabled people that we do not.
Rumpus: I hadn’t thought about how being the only student in class to use a laptop would force you to disclose your disabilities. This makes me think about how tricky it must be to decide whether to disclose in order to get support such as accommodations, knowing you’ll leave yourself vulnerable to stigma. What would you say to disabled people in higher ed about disclosing their disabilities?
Pryal: I can answer this question best from the perspective of faculty because I can shine a light on the intersection of different vulnerabilities.
First, I want to make clear that when I use the word “faculty,” I’m referring to all higher education workers who help educate students, be they librarians, academic support professionals and advisors, or classroom teachers on or off the tenure track. When I use the word “professor,” I mean anyone who teaches in a classroom. The reason I make a big deal about rank and titles is because among college faculty, about 75% work on contract, many of them on very precarious contracts that pay very poorly. In higher education, like anywhere else, “labels have an innate power to confer or diminish status,” as law professor Rachel López has written.
The reason I bring up rank and job security is because choosing to disclose a disability can affect your job security. If your job is renewed semester-by-semester, you, a disabled person, might not want to seek accommodations. In fact, it would be pointless, because it often takes an institution weeks or months to get employee accommodations in place. By then, you might not be an employee anymore.
Then there’s the more insidious reason: If you are in a precarious employment situation, you might not want to disclose because higher education is not welcoming to disabled people. And if you lack job security, that means you are putting your job on the line. I didn’t disclose my own disabilities until after I left higher education. I’m teaching again now, but more on my terms, and not because I need the job to feed my children and provide my family’s health insurance—like I did a decade ago.
Rumpus: It’s not hard to see that institutions have been built, for hundreds of years, on the premise of educating the elite: the privileged, neurotypical white male. It’s a system and a culture entrenched in tradition that is resistant to change. I can understand why a disabled person would choose to keep their disability secret. But not all disabled people have the choice not to disclose, right?
Pryal: You’re right. The choice to hide, or mask, one’s disability is not available to all disabled people, only to those who have “invisible disabilities.” An “invisible disability” is a disability that isn’t usually perceivable as a disability by others. The disability itself might be perceivable—for example, you know I talk really fast—but most people wouldn’t associate that with a symptom of a mental disability.
In many ways, people with invisible disabilities have a privilege because they have the choice whether to disclose. But in other ways they face different challenges; for example, research on abled peoples’ reactions to disability found that “participants were always much more suspicious of a person with a nonvisible disability” who sought disability accommodations.
Rumpus: Any final thoughts on education and disability?
Pryal: Being disabled in higher education takes a psychic toll, whether you are faculty or a student. Yet most institutions do the bare minimum to remain “compliant” with the law rather than doing the work to make their spaces accessible and inclusive. If you’re disabled, then, you always feel like you’re an outsider begging for something extra, instead of like a member of a community that sincerely wants you to be a part.
I realize I’m speaking in stark terms here, but after twelve years spent as a student in higher education and nearly twenty years of teaching, I think I’ve earned the right. I won’t stop working until academia is actively anti-ableist and openly embraces disability, including mental disability and neurodivergence.
Author photo by Trevor Holman Photography