Willing & Disabled
When a disability is so well masked that
it becomes invisible, is it still a disability?
By Lori DesRochers '06
day. Seniors are lined up in caps and gowns, eager to march across the
stage and reach for their hard-earned diplomas. Each student is waiting
for that moment when his or her name is announced into the microphone.
Smoothly and accurately reading more than 350 names while on stage can
be difficult for anyone. But Vice President and Dean of the College Gary
Kates has an extra obstacle: He has a stutter, and this high-profile
ritual is his ultimate public-speaking challenge. “When I read your name
as you walk across the stage, I know it’s an important moment,” says
Kates. “If I stutter, I’ve failed.”
Kates, however, would rather face the challenge than relinquish the task
to someone for whom it would be easier. In fact, Kates doesn’t even like
the idea of others realizing how difficult it is for him.
“I want it to seem effortless. I want to make something so technically
difficult look easy,” he says, refering to the Italian term
sprezzatura, which means concealing the difficulty of an act with an
outward display of nonchalance and ease. He rarely talks about the
stuttering issue with friends or colleagues.
When it comes to disabilities at Pomona College, sprezzatura
seems to be the operative word. The College has no current students with
mobility impairment—or other disabilities that are plainly seen.
Associate Dean of Students Toni Clark, who serves as the College’s
disability coordinator, says of the 35 students who have reported
disabilities this academic year, the majority are learning disorders.
For these students, accommodations such as extra time on tests or
extended deadlines are often requested and granted. But other students
struggle with “invisible disabilities” that are not as openly recognized
or reported, and the result is that they are typically kept out of sight
“What very often happens with Pomona students is they’ve discovered very
fine compensation methods,” says Vice President and Dean of Admissions
Bruce Poch. “Sometimes you don’t see what people have overcome.”
Poch says he usually doesn’t realize when an applicant has a disability,
because in most cases they fear—unnecessarily—that it would put them at
a disadvantage in the admissions process. Others simply feel that their
condition is not something people need to know about.
“I don’t really feel like my abilities are impaired in any way,” says
Robby Gerrity ’06, who has only told a few close friends at Pomona about
his epilepsy. His grade school days were marked by yearly grand mal
seizures, and he suffered from partial seizures numerous times a day in
middle and high school. But today, with more effective treatment, he
believes his disability no longer visibly impacts his life.
“I’ll probably be taking neurological depressants for the rest of my
life, but I’m not too worried about it,” he says. “I do have a
neurological disorder, but it hasn’t affected any of the decisions I
make. I still do adventurous things.”
That may not be the case for everyone. McConnell Professor of Human
Relations and Professor of Philosophy N. Ann Davis published an article
in Ethics last fall titled “Invisible Disability” that examines the
impact of conditions such as severe depression, chronic illness, chronic
fatigue syndrome and countless others. She argues that these individuals
suffer from rejection, humiliation, social disapproval and stress in
ways that are connected to our assumptions about what it means to appear
healthy and able-bodied. In fact, she contends the notion that we must
conform to an ideal picture of health and “normalcy” is often the cause
of such problems.
Davis became interested in the topic of disability after a car accident
that left her with mild traumatic brain injuries. Even telling the chair
of her department what had happened was a difficult task. So she doesn’t
blame anyone for not wanting to reveal their disability, given that our
society encourages people to minimize their difficulties or deny them
“Physically, I’m fine, but it’s not gone. It’s still here,” she says of
her brain injuries. “If you’re healthy, you acclimate, but you don’t
overcome it. You learn to live with it.”
For one Pomona senior who was informally diagnosed with posttraumatic
stress disorder last summer, Davis’ words ring particularly true.
“I was able to maintain this kind of image of a leader on campus and
made great grades, but on the inside, it was turmoil,” says the student,
describing the anxiety, panic attacks, self-hatred, dramatic weight
loss, racing thoughts and loss of appetite that she experienced. She had
been sexually assaulted the year before, and then immediately began her
study abroad in a Third World country. It wasn’t until returning to
Pomona that she was finally able to comprehend what she had gone
through, and then the panic began.
“We are a community of leaders and doers and high- achievers, so it’s
easy to mask what could be a really debilitating condition,” she says.
“Either you don’t want to feel like the troubles you’re having are that
big of a deal, or you don’t want to be stigmatized. You don’t want to be
the one depressed kid at the ‘happiest’ school in the nation.”
For students whose disabilities do become apparent, the reasons for
desiring concealment are clear. Jameson Lam ’08 has what he calls a mild
stutter—a condition which has greatly improved since he was in middle
school. At that time, a group of his classmates took it upon themselves
to torment him regularly. While students at Pomona have been much more
understanding, the memory still haunts him.
“They’d sit where I would have to pass by them on the way to class, and
they would tease me and make fun of my speech. I felt completely
humiliated. I wanted to hurt them,” Lam recalls. “At the same time, I
realized that I really wanted to work on it and really perfect my speech
so I could show them.” Such behavior from middle-school kids might not
be surprising, but Kates finds adults can be just as cruel. “The real
fear is not that I’ll stutter,” says Kates. “But that I’ll be made fun