Professors at Iowa colleges and universities may teach the same class over and over but each semester brings a new experience with all kinds of students. Ambitious students, quiet students, lazy students, disruptive students.
They also teach students with illnesses and disabilities that, in some cases, are not easy to see but to which faculty have to respond.
“I didn’t realize how much of a visual teacher I was until I started teaching blind students,” Paul Brooke, a Grand View University English professor who has been teaching for more than 20 years, said. “You have to put yourself in their position and really think, ‘how am I going to learn this?’”
Brooke taught two blind students in his first year of teaching.
But, not every disability is an apparent as being blind. An increasing number of these disabilities are categorized as hidden disabilities or invisible illnesses. This can range from chronic illnesses, such as Crohn’s or POTS (postural tachycardia syndrome) to learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or ADHD, or even mental illnesses, like anxiety or depression.
They fall under the “invisible” category. With these illnesses or disabilities, students walk across campus and sit in class and do not appear to outsiders to struggle with anything. Each school year, more students with invisible illness and disabilities pursue higher education.
A Fall 2014 report from the Higher Education Research Institute states that approximately 12 percent of incoming freshman are entering higher education with a reported disability.
Accommodating them is not always easy. Professors have to be aware of their teaching styles and adjust to accommodations students need while being the silent mediator for all students and maintaining an effective classroom environment.
Disabilities can challenge professors to think about the way they teach. Brooke ended up bringing in Braille for the blind students he taught. In hindsight, he said, this early experience helped, leading Brooke to understand that not every student can be taught the same way.
“It’s put more responsibility on me and making sure that I’m connecting to them, and that’s good because it makes me see it from their point of view,” Brooke said.
EXPERIENCE & PERCEPTIONS
Professors at five Iowa colleges and universities – Grand View, Simpson, Drake, Upper Iowa, and Wartburg – who were interviewed for a special IowaWatch/Simpson College student journalism report on hidden disabilities said faculty often are not offered training on how to handle students with these disabilities. They also are not trained on the types of accommodations or situations they might come across.
Instead of being prepared for these circumstances, each professor learns from experience, the interviews revealed. The approach and perception of hidden disabilities is often molded by specific experiences.
Psychology research has shown our first experience shapes our initial perceptions, and further experiences either enforce or change these. Brooke said he comes in with an open and flexible mindset, but that may not be the case for every professor.
“There are a small percentage of faculty who feel likes it’s an advantage to them (students) to be diagnosed and whatever the circumstances might be, is a benefit to them. They feel like it’s unfair,” Brooke said.
Brooke said that would be an exception for him and that most students don’t use their disabilities as a way to manipulate the system.
Summer Zwanziger Elsinger, an assistant professor of marketing and management professor at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, has seen both extremes of students – those who keep to themselves and a few who have acted out. In her case, her perception stems from a personal experience, as she has a learning disability.
“That’s part of how I deal with it and I know that’s affected my perception of how I see other people struggle,” Zwanziger Elsinger said.
Tammy Faux, an associate professor of social work at Wartburg College in Waverly, said her personal experience from being a social worker makes her willing to offer help to a student, diagnosed or not.
“Have I had students who have used the system? Oh probably,” Faux said. “But, if you’re going to come to somebody and say you need extra help, it takes a little bit out of a person. Usually if a student is specifically asking for something extra, they probably need it.”
At Drake University in Des Moines, Debra Bishop, an associate professor of practice in management and international business, relies strongly on the student disability services office at the Business College and a system for handling disability accommodations.
Drake professors need documentation from the student disabilities office before giving students classroom accommodations. They send students to the student disabilities office for assessment and documentation.
This system makes sense, Bishop said. Having someone who works with student disabilities verify students’ needs allows for an effective and clear process, she said.
“I guess I’ve always be in the mind that if those are the accommodations, then they’re the experts. And if they’re saying this, then it’s what it should be,” Bishop said. “I’ve never really questioned if I agree with it or not.”
SELF-ADVOCATES & SUPPORT
Having available accommodations and support doesn’t mean diagnosed students will use these services. For some students, a sense of pride kicks in.
“They’re reluctant to use the accommodations at first, because they come to college and think, ‘I can do this on my own’,” Faux said.
In other instances, students attempt to change other’s perceptions.
“They want to start over again, they don’t want to be seen as being different anymore,” Brooke said. “In trying to forge that path, it may not go well. It may lead to struggle.”
In Brooke’s experience, every student handles his or her situation differently. Some students simply hand him an accommodation request form and walk away. “The student that comes to me and actually has a conversation with me, I always feel like that’s a better situation,” Brooke said.
That conversation isn’t always easy.
“Students have to be willing to open up and have that conversation, and that’s risky for a student,” Bishop said. “That’s the stigma associated with it: I’m flawed, and people don’t want to admit they’re flawed. But, we’re all flawed in some way or another.”
Much is out of professors’ control, except for how they control their understanding of the situation, and how approachable they are. “What we can do better is to help the students understand we’re here to help them succeed,” Bishop said.
OUTCOMES IN THE CLASSROOM
Faux teaches a May term course at Wartburg called “Working with Different Disabilities.” Typically 15 to 20 students take the class, in which her students are paired with students who are young adults with various significant disabilities.
Structure in the classroom plays a role in how students with disabilities learn. A lecture class gives a different experience than a discussion class gives.
“I have a couple students who are very proud, and not going to tell anybody,” Faux said. “But then how they communicate in class and come across in group activities probably suffers. They’ve got something really great to say and deep thoughts if you can just give them the time to get it out.”
In some cases, a professor might not even know a student is struggling with a hidden disability or illness. Only if students use special accommodations in the classroom or choose to share their story with the professor, will the professor be aware.
Student confidentiality law prohibits professors from disclosing disabilities to other students, making professors silent mediators, working to model the correct behavior when engaged with someone with a disability.
Brooke said, “If I’m acting, as a professor, in a certain kind of way (toward a disabled student), the students will pick up on that and do the same thing. So if they’re doing that in my classroom, then I’m evidentially showing them that it’s okay.”
Students with an illness or disability can choose to share this information with the other students if they wish. Without that, others might be completely unaware.
Faux suggests that there’s a problem known as health privilege.
“If you don’t have a health problem or if you don’t have a chronic illness or specific learning challenge, you have the privilege that you never have to think about it,” Faux said. “Where as, if you have diabetes or if you have a learning disability, you have to constantly be aware of that and constantly be aware of how you present yourself to people.”
People don’t take time to understand something that doesn’t affect them. Levels of understanding among peers is influenced by the “invisible” aspect. The “invisible” illnesses and disabilities are harder for others to relate to.
“A lisp or a stutter you can see and understand where it comes from but if someone struggles to orders to their thoughts or struggles to order their words, that’s more of an invisible thing,” Faux said. “I do think there needs to be more awareness to know about those hidden disabilities.”
Professors interviewed for the IowaWatch/Simpson project said awareness requires knowledge, and knowledge requires understanding, and that understanding can be difficult to achieve with differing levels of exposure to students with disabilities.
Brooke said students might only encounter someone with a rare, hidden diseases once or twice throughout their college career. “If you’re exposed to that only two times out of sixty, there’s really not going to be any change that occurs. If there’s more inclusion and more students who are different, then over time you would sense that change and notice that.”
Amid all this are students with hidden disabilities wanting to succeed in the college classroom. Helping them, Brooke said, means having support from family, professors and, most importantly, from a student services staff member.
The situations differs at each school. “Bigger schools are good about getting you the services you need, but if you don’t have that human connection it falls flat,” Brooke said, who also has taught at Iowa State University.
Zwanziger Elsinger said, “I think how something gets handled at a small school is very different than how it would happen at a bigger institution.”
She spent three years at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville before going to Upper Iowa in Fayette, which has 1,058 undergraduates. Wisconsin-Platteville had 8,047 undergraduates this spring and total enrollment of 8,901, according to its website.
“They had more things and accommodations to offer, but it’s not necessarily helpful. You have to figure out the balance. It’s a teeter totter.”
This IowaWatch story was published by The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA) and Des Moines Register under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners. To learn how IowaWatch’s nonprofit journalism is funded and how you can support it, go to this link.