Natalia Rivera Morales a PhD candidate and Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh

Natalia Rivera MoralesNatalia M. Rivera Morales is a PhD candidate and Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. Her areas of academic and research interest comprise Antillean Literature and Philosophy, Bio/Necropolitics, Rhizomatics and Schizoanalysis, Psychoanalysis and Trauma Studies, Critical Disability Theory, Critical Race Studies, Minority Rights Jurisprudence, and Feminist Approaches to Bioethics. Her dissertation examines impressions of disability, particularly of psychosomatic, neurologic, and neurodevelopmental variety, in Puerto Rican literature, medical culture, and jurisprudence.

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My name is Natalia Rivera Morales. I am a doctoral candidate in the department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pittsburgh. I’m also a Spanish instructor and I specialize in Latin American and Italian Literature and Critical Disability Studies. So my academic interests are intimately tied to my personal experience as a student and now instructor with a learning disability and co-occurring anxiety. So the first memory that I remember on a personal level, recognizing that there was some access issues, or some degree of it especially in the high school level, right? Some degree of a lack of knowledge of different types of learning styles and different types of processing speeds. Because with my diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, one of the key components of how that ADD effects me is that I have a slower processing speed.

So while my reading comprehension is strong, my processing speed affects my writing speed. So I’m not always able to produce a paragraph in a timely manner. We often had prompts in English class. This was in 10th grade. And the expectation was that we would be able to write a paragraph in half an hour. And oftentimes I would need double that amount of time. I would need an hour. And sometimes I wouldn’t even be able to finish one simple paragraph in an hour. And I remember my English instructor at the time, after class, when I sort of approached her and said, “Hey, I am not withstanding the additional time. I wasn’t really able to finish my paragraph.” And I remember she looked at me incredulous and said to me, “I mean, if you can’t even write a paragraph, a simple paragraph in one hour, I don’t know what to tell you.”

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So I remember that moment. I also remember later on when I was preparing for AP exams, this also happened in high school. This was my junior year. I was taking an AP world history class, and I remember that I approached my instructor already knowing on my own because I had already had plenty of experience advocating for myself since I was a child, I already knew that all standardized testing had a process for requesting accommodations. So I remember approaching my AP world history exam and at my AP world history teacher and explaining to him that I was registered with disability resources, how to document your disability and that these were the particular accommodations that I needed time and a half, which was a very common accommodation.

And I remember him telling me, “I don’t have a problem providing you classroom accommodations. I’m just not sure that extended time is provided on the AP exam.” And I was just flabbergasted that an instructor would actively misinform me that way, because even I knew at the tender age of, I don’t know, 16, that ETS always provided a process for requesting accommodations. So I was stunned that an adult felt that he could just misinform me that way. And misinforming me not necessarily with a negative intent, but he genuinely had no notion of the process. And so it’s unwillfull misinformation, but the effect is similar because imagine had he said something like that to a student who had no idea how to request accommodations, how to obtain an evaluation needed to substantiate the need for accommodations.

So it’s just that a lot of misinformation enabled by ignorance, and not so much malice, but just the complete lack of information out there just really compromises students’ ability to advocate for themselves. I don’t really remember the day of the Americans with Disabilities Act cause I was only months old, but the impact on me, basically I sincerely doubt had I been born 40 years ago, as opposed to 30 years ago, there’s a possibility that I would not have attended college. And even had I attended college, I feel that I would never have even considered doing a PhD if it hadn’t been for the Americans with Disabilities Act, I feel like I am prepared as an instructor to offer supports to students with other disabilities.

I have students with documented disabilities and I feel that because of my personal experience and as a student with a disability, I feel much more prepared to work with a wider range of students who need different needs, and I’m prepared to be accommodating, and I’m prepared to at least endeavor to make students feel like they’re valuable members of my classroom. I’m not a perfect instructor. I still have a lot to learn, but I think that level of humanity, I think that that speaks to a lot of students. And I think that, I feel like I’m better able to connect with my students. I remember one interview that I did with a student on the autism spectrum who was attending a college specifically for students with learning disabilities. And she made a very astute observation about learning disability-centered colleges and their focus on vocational training as opposed to academic training.

And this was a smart girl who wanted to pursue a degree in the humanities and she was doing an interdisciplinary liberal arts degree, but she couldn’t take philosophy for instance, or she couldn’t do a major in history. And I think that the coursework and the curriculum is how all the academic options were structured at this particular college, it sort of reinforced this idea that traditional academic disciplines are somehow out of reach for a student who reads as having an intellectual disability or reads as having potential or learning difficulties. And she lamented and I wholeheartedly agreed with her appraisal. She lamented the fact that she couldn’t pursue a traditional discipline like she would’ve wanted, she wanted to be a historian. So I think that in a way, people who don’t really read the legislation very carefully, I guess in their attempt to sort of include people, they’re inadvertently limiting the options for a lot of students, because there are students who may want to pursue physics, right, but they need a longer timeline to complete their coursework, but it’s just a traditional four year college,

those mechanisms just aren’t in place to provide that kind of support system for a student who needs additional supports, but who wants to pursue a traditional academic discipline. So I think in that regard, you definitely get the sense with the wording of the legislation that it’s intended to sort of correct that kind of societal exclusion and academic exclusion of students who want to pursue traditional disciplines. But I think in that regard, I think the level of enforcement I think is still very differential.

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So that 2009 amendment was critical because it rendered clear that disability did not have to be stable. It did not have to be a putatively consistent physical disability to qualify as a disability, under the legislation. So this included disabilities, other somatic or cognitive disabilities that were either inconsistent in nature or that went through periods of remission. So something like bipolar disorder, right? So the 2008 amendment, what was great about it was that it made clear that not withstanding the point through which you’re going, if you’re thinking of something like bipolar disorder, where you’re going through sort of a manic depressive episode, right? At the institutional level, there was still a responsibility to provide adequate supports to that person who was experiencing cyclical changes.

And what I’ve noticed at the university level, especially with science programs, that they include a tidbit that actually seems very unlawful to me. And if you look at the graduate handbooks and the undergraduate handbooks as well, they had this very strange policy that you’re supposed to let your professors know about your disability, that you must tell your professors within the first two weeks of the semester that you have a documented disability. The problem is that a lot of disabilities don’t work that way. There are moments where you’re relatively functional, then there are moments where you’re not functional, in sort of, socially understood terms, right? Especially for students, and this is not unusual for students who receive a diagnosis later in life, when they’re just commencing college, which is a transitional period.

So it makes sense that certain symptoms that were not disabling, another contact suddenly become disabling when you enter college. And that policy basically misinformed students into thinking that they are not able to request supports when they’ve reached a point where their condition has become so disabling that they can’t necessarily meet requirements in the expected timeframe. So it’s almost as if there’s like a mechanism in place to give the false impression that you’re not able to receive supports later in the semester. So I think in that sense, it’s more like even if there are protections in place, institutional ignorance and irregular enforcement continue to be a problem. There needs to be a way for social combination and academic accommodations to be rethought as a collective responsibility, but at the administrative level, there is a responsibility at the administrative level for the student to succeed, and that it is not merely an autonomous burden.

It is a collective responsibility. It is a collective duty. I do think that we, as community members can take on the responsibility to identify those disability rights organizations that are actively working towards providing supports and services, and not focusing on the cure aspect because the cure aspect is not allowing us to address the immediate societal needs. So I think organizations like the autistic self-advocacy network, the one that I worked for, they have these wonderful advocacy center programs. They really work on providing cognitively accessible resources for political advocacy, for instance, and they empower students to think of ways for advocating for supports on college campuses. So looking at organizations that empower people to advocate for themselves, with the skills that they have to feel that their lives are worth living as they are.

In partnership with Diana Pastora Carson, M.Ed.
Author: Beyond Awareness: Bringing Disability into Diversity Work in K-12 Schools & Communities, and children’s book Ed Roberts: Champion of Disability Rights, ADA 30th Anniversary Edition

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