Journal of College & University Student Housing Volume 50, No. 2 - 60

Resident Directors' Understandings of Disability
The RDs frequently described conflicts between their personal experiences and
societal norms regarding disability and noted that, in order to expand their understanding,
they had to avoid making disability-related assumptions that relied on narrow,
normalizing definitions or stereotypes. Isa described avoiding assumptions about the
way that certain disabilities may or may not appear.
I really have to keep myself in check when I come in contact with a student who discloses,
" I have bipolar disorder. " Or, " I have borderline personality disorder. " Or, " I struggle with a
major depressive disorder. " Or anything like that. I have to keep myself in check that I'm not
making assumptions as to what that means and how it manifests for a particular person.
Many of the RDs expressed a similar commitment to avoid assumptions about a
specific student's experiences or needs with respect to disability. Adrian emphasized
the importance of not predetermining appropriate supports based on an individual
student's disability.
It's an important thing, working with students who need accommodations for their
disabilities, that just because we have a certain answer doesn't mean that that's the
prescription. Each student needs to be able to live out their own story. And no two
students have the same story. So, explaining, " Alright, here's our options, what looks
good to you? What fits correctly? "
Similarly, Gwen recognized the importance of not dismissing a particular student
request based on her own assumptions of what she might have found helpful herself.
I had a student who had a large snake as their ESA. And it blew the central office's mind.
And I had an initial reaction of, " there's going to be a huge snake living across the hall
from my cats? Will it eat my cats? " That was my first reaction, and then I was like, " you
know, I know that student. If they need a snake, they need a snake. " And she explained
it to me one day: that it's like a living weighted blanket. The snake rests on her shoulders
while she does homework. It is grounding, it is calming, and it lives for 20 to 40 years. So,
she was like, " why get a cat that you're going to have to mourn in 10? I can have the snake
that lives almost forever. " So I think there's just a knee jerk of, " I can't have it or I don't
need it. Ergo you don't either. "
Many of the RDs also acknowledged that, due to their limited experiences with disability
and the effects of operating within a normalizing society, it was difficult to avoid
these assumptions. However, these assumptions were not only attributed to limited
experience with disability. Juli, for example, acknowledged that though she knew she
was not supposed to make assumptions about students' disabilities, her knowledge of
autism made avoiding these assumptions difficult; but she also felt that, as a result, she
was better able to support students with disabilities in her halls.
The RDs explained that their work allowed them to develop a greater sense of the
breadth of disability, as well as an appreciation for the highly individualized ways it
appeared. Together with the elements of personal experiences and attempts to avoid
assumptions, they seem to have developed more complex understandings of disability
Volume 50, No. 2 * 2024 57

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