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Thoughts on Zoom Classes and Visibility

As someone who’s been on Zoom classes for a minute now, I’ve been doing some thinking—dangerous business, I know.

That thinking has revolved around my broken camera. The thing about using a wheelchair (or presumably any other very visible marker of disability) is that sometimes people will see you and their preconceptions will fill in their impression of you before they even notice. The beauty of a nonfunctional camera is that you get around this. The danger of a nonfunctional camera is that, depending on the professor, you may or may not be counted for attendance. What I mean by the beauty of the camera is that if you are in a class with people who have never met you before, and they cannot see you, you get a chance to make an impression based solely on the thoughts you present to the class without the interference of people's biases based on your appearance.

I should clarify and say that not everyone's reaction to the chair is bad; in fact, most people’s aren't, it's just that unconscious bias is weird sometimes. Additionally, sometimes the thoughts you share with the class are related to your disability-- for instance, in my diversity studies class, my perspective as a physically disabled person frequently came in handy during discussion. It does kind of blow your cover, to use spy movie terms, but the point isn't about deceiving your esteemed colleagues in the pursuit of knowledge acquisition, it's about helping them uncover these automatic knee-jerk reactions so that they can pick them apart and figure out why they're there, and if they're useful.

So, you casually mention the chair when it becomes relevant to the conversation. You say, “Sorry for the beeping, my wheelchair is just turning off to save power,” or, “So, for context, I use a wheelchair,” and then make your point. And then you observe.

Sometimes, a few people’s faces quirk in surprise at this new piece of information they weren’t necessarily expecting-- something about the non-visual impression you have made doesn't line up with the ideas they already have about disability. Sometimes, the faces of your friends quirk in amusement because they know you're watching. They've heard you talk about this before. Mostly, people are kind of neutral, and add this fact in to their idea of you without much fuss. This one is nice. I like that this facet of my existence isn't necessarily earth-shattering for people. It is kind of satisfying to see people have that realization though, that their existing concept of disability doesn't line up exactly with this new information, (or the other way around) because you know they're going to go home and do some reevaluating. But it is also satisfying knowing that for the most part, it isn't a big deal. People can absorb this fact and continue on without a big perspective shift. That isn't what this Zoom class is for, you're here to learn chemistry or something. Acknowledging unconscious biases you didn't know you had is just a bonus.

I suppose my self-satisfied lurking will come to an end once I get a working webcam, but this whole experiment raises questions about the concept of the supposed privilege of passing for able-bodied that I will tackle another time.


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