Coming to terms with my disability during the pandemic

Elle Montoya-Kelner

This past Winter Study, I had the pleasure of taking Ari Quasney’s  ’25 Free University course, “DEAF 101: Introduction to ASL and Deaf culture.” (Quasney is an editor at the Record.) Ari is a Deaf student who has written a series of opinion pieces for the Record highlighting the sociopolitical and interpersonal struggles with Deafness and disability, aptly dubbed “Disabili-tea.” Although I have known I was hard of hearing since I was six, Ari’s American Sign Language course was my first real learning experience with ASL. 

My diagnosis was taken seriously by my parents at the time. However, the fact that I learned to speak English before my siblings and the fact that I was one of the first to read in my kindergarten class labeled me as exceptional, and so I didn’t qualify as “disabled enough.”  I know my parents didn’t pursue accommodations partially to protect me from the stigma of being classified as disabled and partially to avoid the financial strain of dealing with accommodations. Accommodations mostly just extended to my mother telling my teachers about my impairment when I would join a new classroom in elementary and middle school. She always advised me to sit in the front, but as I excelled in school my impairment was pushed to the background by everyone including me. 

While the medical model of disability defines disability in clinical terms, with diagnoses and medical jargon meant to “solve” disability, the social model of disability defines it in relation to the constraints of the environment that define the individual. I was medically disabled, but because I was doing so well in school, I was not perceived as disabled. 

I only sought to get a hearing aid after I realized that I had trouble hearing my professors and peers. It was when I no longer found myself as “exceptional,” but lacking behind my peers, that I thought it would be advantageous to seek accommodations. If we look at my disability through the lens of the social model, it could even be said that I hadn’t really been disabled up until I was no longer exceptional, but was struggling academically.

My senior year was faced with all of the normal stressors of college, but was compounded by my newfound identity and the global pandemic. Once I started using my hearing aid, I realized how my poor hearing had pushed me out of “normal” hearing spaces. Due to the pandemic, classes where I had already struggled to hear all of the voices in the room became exacerbated by the fact that we were now six feet apart and masked. The dining halls had already been disorientating in their own right, but now I had to struggle with asking for what I wanted in Driscoll and Paresky, which often encouraged me to place an order at Lee Snack Bar or ’82 Grill. COVID-19 was already isolating enough, but it became more isolating because of the ostracizing and pitying I occasionally received when people would catch a glimpse of my tiny flesh-colored in-the-canal (ITC) hearing aid. It was through the pandemic that it became abundantly clear how  disability is a social phenomenon for me. I couldn’t hear people six feet apart and, as much as I was tired of virtual class, at the end of the day, I thrived on Zoom. I could control the volume and follow along with the closed captioning, whereas before I had to rely on context clues or just gave up on trying to follow what the professor was saying. 

Coming to terms with my disability at Williams was strange because of the most common misconceptions about disability. Disability is often framed as debilitating and something to overcome. Alternatively, being accepted into and attending a prestigious college does intentionally or unintentionally encourage feelings of exceptionalism within its members. Disability is often seen as incongruous to these feelings of exceptionalism, which I believe discourage students who might otherwise benefit from accommodations, from seeking them out. 

Offices that offer accommodations and discuss disabilities are seen popping up on most campuses, but this phenomenon here at Williams is relatively new. The Office of Accessible Education (OAE) has only existed in its current form since 2016. As of right now, few elite institutions offer American Sign Language, either as a course or program, and part of that is due to the lack of d/Deaf (the lowercase d references medical deafness, while the uppercase references cultural Deafness) and hard of hearing individuals that make it to these institutions. 

Williams encourages discourse in regards to race, class, and sexuality; however, I think disability is still one front we can improve on. We are one step closer to making disability and conversations regarding disability and accessibility normalized on campus — through the OAE, DREAM (Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentorship, a student group on campus committed to helping the disabled community), and courses like Ari’s  — but we are far from an accessible campus. As a campus, we should not be aiming merely to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, but to exceed them and to meet students at their needs, no matter how varied they may be. Additionally, Williams has the responsibility of having conversations that not only discuss disability, but the way that our elite institution intrinsically feeds its students an idea of exceptionalism that often clashes with their idea of disability, and prevents students from recognizing their impairment and reaching out for help.There were many times when I struggled, and I didn’t stop to think that I could have made my life easier by seeking help. Prioritizing academic success while deconstructing notions of exceptionalism and learning that disability can and should be discussed in an elite space would lead to less ostracization on campus, while encouraging all members of the community to seek the accommodations that they require.

Elle Montoya-Kelner ’21 is from Rogers, AR and currently works for the Office of Accessible Education as a Disability Services Coordinator.