QD Conference Papers: The Politics and Experience of Coming Out

The Disability Closet: Teachers with Learning Disabilities Evaluate the Risks and Benefits of “Coming Out.”


This study documents the lived experiences of special education teachers with learning disabilities (LD). In response to the paucity of research about teachers with LD, we solicited narratives from four special education teachers with LD. “Disability disclosure” in school settings emerged as one of the most compelling and recurring themes across teacher narratives. Our participants described disability disclosure as a complex and ongoing process, requiring them to make decisions about who should know, why they should know, how to inform, what to disclose, and when to inform. Each participant chose to disclose his or her status as a person with LD in order to be a part of the study. As disclosure always involves risks and benefits, we acknowledge their disclosure as an inherently political act.

Our presentation focuses upon each teacher’s risk/benefit analysis of disability disclosure within his or her professional school setting. Relative to the issue of disability disclosure, we explore each participants’ understanding of self in relation to the professional environment in which he or she teaches. We regard schools as cultural spaces in which perceptions and attitudes about disabilities are manifested. As such, we acknowledge the ways in which school environments influence whether or not teachers disclose. In this presentation, we describe the relationships among others’ perceptions and attitudes about disability (particularly learning disabilities), disclosure, and, in the long run, the “sense of self” held by teachers with LD.

Perspectives/Theoretical Framework:

M.M. Bakhtin’s (1981) notions of “self as text” and the relationship of “self to other” inform our understanding of disability disclosure among teachers with LD. For Bakhtin, human beings can only be understood in relation with others. It is Bakhtin’s belief that there is no self without the social and cultural milieu, for “without the environment to engage and test its capacity to respond, it would have no living existence” (Clark and Holquist, 1984, p. 66). A human being’s sense making is necessarily intertwined with his or her social, cultural, and historical locations. The stories we tell reflect not only our personal selves, but also who we are within our particular social and cultural environment (Schiffrin, 1996). In order to understand the participants’ individual stories, we must attend to how these stories are infused within the social, cultural, and historical contexts of their lived experiences and the schools in which they teach.

Bakhtin (1981) perceives the self as continually in the process of construction, shifting and changing, resisting closure. Authorship, or the continual writing of the self, is played out in our dialogues with the world. In terms of disability discourse, this dialogue takes place in professional discourses, as well as in everyday and cultural scripts. Rather than fixing the self, narrative, by its very nature, reflects Bakhtin’s notion of open-endedness; the life story told is not complete–but is rather a work in progress. Every utterance is expressed from a point of view; it is through utterance that we articulate who we are at any given moment (Clark and Holquist, 1984).


The study included four researcher/participant dyads. Each dyad met for a series of three in-depth interviews and one final group meeting over the course of a semester. All of the participants are practicing or prospective special education teachers who have been identified as having a LD and teach students with LD. The four researchers are doctoral students studying learning disabilities.

Each researcher conducted a series of approximately three one-hour interviews, which were audio recorded and transcribed. In the first interview, we solicited life story narratives in order to elicit how participants make sense of their experiences with LD. As Reissman (1993) contends, narrative is particularly well suited to understanding an individual’s sense-making process. Following each round of interviews, the research team met to collaboratively analyze the data using critical discourse analysis and to discuss emerging themes. Subsequent interview questions were built upon the emerging analysis.

Participants were also asked to attend a final group meeting that lasted for approximately two hours. This meeting occurred at the conclusion of the data collection and was considered part of the debriefing procedure. At the beginning of the meeting, participants were given a summary of the study and our preliminary analysis. Each researcher briefly discussed part of the emerging analysis. Finally, participants and researchers discussed the findings of the study and answered questions posed by participants. We audio taped this session in order to incorporate the discussion in the final analysis.

Data Sources/ Evidence:

Transcripts of narratives were analyzed by individuals and group members. Our approach wove together features of narrative inquiry and critical discourse analysis. As noted by Gee (1999), narrative is central to the way human beings make sense of their life experiences. We recognize the centrality of language in narrative construction, and the dialectic relationship between discourse and social structures. Because language shapes, and is shaped, by the ideological assumptions held within a particular social structure (Fairclough,1989), we drew connections between the language that participants used in their narratives and their lived experiences in schools. Critical discourse analysis of narrative structures offered a particularly valuable means of exposing and understanding the ideological nature of social structures, in this case, the professional environment(s) of teachers.

Results or Conclusions:

Data analysis revealed that the intersectionality of age, gender, race, class, and lived experiences contributed significantly to each participant’s understanding of disability and his or her willingness to disclose in specific contexts. Within the specific theme of disclosure, differences appeared among all participants. For example, participants experienced different levels of comfort in relation to their specific educational situations. These differences became most evident during a dialogue between participants at the final meeting in which they debated the merits of disclosure. Two teachers advocated complete disclosure, whereas a third teacher expressed vivid fear of losing respect and status as a consequence of disclosure to colleagues. Participants described responses to disability within their school settings along a continuum, ranging from extreme support to blatant hostility.

Despite individual differences in lived experiences as teachers with LD, all participants described the decision to disclose or not disclose as an on-going struggle in their personal and professional lives. “Coming out” as learning disabled can be perceived as a political action. Once “out,” there is no fully going back “in.” In light of the relative “invisibility” of learning disabilities, persons with LD often liken their disclosure issues to those of people who are gay and lesbian (Rodis, Garrod & Boscardin, 2001). For example, the narratives of our participants closely reflect Sedgwick’s (1990) description
of the complexities surrounding disclosure:

Even an out gay person deals daily with interlocuters about whom she doesn’t know if they know or not; it is equally difficult to guess for any given interlocuter if they did know if the knowledge would seem very important (p. 68).

As a research team, we are struck by the power of this metaphor regarding disclosure. In relating these teacher narratives to Bakhtin’s (1981) notions of “self as text” and the relationship of “self to other,” we conclude that non-disclosure forces teachers with LD to hide “who they are” to the detriment of their “sense of self.”

Educational or Scientific Importance of Study:

This study contributes to the gap in current literature regarding the experiences of teachers with LD. The findings reveal persistent misperceptions about LD among educators and raises questions about the school environment and its receptivity or hostility to teachers who have LD. Teacher narratives indicate that many general and special education teachers do not believe a person can be a teacher and have a LD, forcing some teachers with LD to feel vulnerable and remain undisclosed, ironically perpetuating damaging beliefs about disability.

In light of these persisting misperceptions about LD, this study is particularly relevant for teacher education programs. As “insiders,” the teachers in our study describe schools as places in which students with LD are too often dismissed by educators as casualties in educational triage. Additionally, in some school settings, teachers with LD regard disability disclosure as a risk to their professional status. Thus, these narratives present educators with a vivid picture of the lived experience of being LD in a school environment, both as a student and teacher. As teacher educators, we believe that personal narrative is a powerful tool in changing belief systems about disability.


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Clark, K. & Holquist. (1984). Mikhail Bakhtin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. London: Longman.

Mishler, E. G. (1999). Storylines: Craftartists’ narratives of identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Riessman, C. K. (1993). Narrative analysis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Rodis, P., Garrod, A., & Boscardin, M.L.(Eds.) (2001). Learning disabilities and life stories. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Schiffrin, D. (1996). Narrative as self-portrait: Sociolinguistic constructions of identity. Language in Society, 25, 167-203.

Sedgwick, E.K. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.