American University
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Hidden differences: Life story narratives of adults with learning disabilities

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posted on 2023-09-06, 02:59 authored by Jessica Ann Skolnikoff

The overarching concern of my research is how people with hidden differences, which make them marginal, experience life. For the purposes of this dissertation, I define a person on the social margin as someone who, because of a "difference or differences," feels, participates and is treated as outside normative expectations and practices. Through an analysis of life stories, I examine the multi-faceted nature of social, academic and professional interactions and the effect that being learning disabled has on people's lives. The anthropological concept of liminality based on Turner (1967) provides a perspective on how individuals operate with "hidden differences." Because of their hidden differences, people with learning disabilities operate between the worlds of the non-learning disabled and the disabled---betwixt and between. Three additional areas of theoretical research provide a lens into how individuals with learning disabilities make sense of their lives in terms of their hidden differences. Goffman's (1963) classic research on stigma and the management of spoiled identity frames my research. Butler's (1990) theory of performativity provides a way to explore the experience of being learning disabled. Sedgwick (1993) emphasizes the role of the audience in the performative act. The methodology for this research consists of collecting and analyzing life story narratives. Following Linde's (1993), Leap's (1995) and Polanyi's (1985) work with life stories, I collected data in interviews with adults with learning disabilities who expressed their own opinions about their lives as individuals with learning disabilities. I examine these narrative texts for four recurring themes: liminality, revealing, performance and the role of the other. The life stories confirm that these individuals with learning disabilities are liminal-people because their differences are built-in and in most situations always hidden. Further, in every revealing moment the individual continues to construct him/herself, either by revealing and dealing with the consequences, or not revealing and creating a situation of hiding or deflecting attention from the disability. Finally, the variable that has often been overlooked is the role of the other and how that plays out in an individual's performance and experience.







Ph.D. American University 1999.


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