All posts tagged disability

Dear Professor: An Open Letter from a Student with Accommodations

Dear Professor,

Bethel is full of resources for helping for students, I always heard, but never dreamed of needing. You almost get sick of hearing all that Bethel has to offer for help, when you don’t need it.

I didn’t see it coming, didn’t understand it when it was here, and I am only now, years later, starting to realize what it was. All I could do at the time was feel it. Flashbacks would play out in my mind behind a blank stare as I sat or stood quietly until they played out. I couldn’t control when or where they happened, since it was mostly through triggers, which, if I couldn’t avoid, had to let play out whatever it stirred up, until my mind and body were my own again. I had been through adversity before, been through tough things that I didn’t think I could endure, but did, when I had to… I bucked up, pushed on and just did it. This was different.

I didn’t know what was happening or what to do about it, but I knew I had to go on. I had moments of clarity between episodes, where I could think and listen and learn, just as everyone else and just as I had always been able to do before.

I could work best when I could work around my impaired moments, and if I could miss class or certain topics in person, then I could get a lot done on my own. I would catch up on things that I sat in class for, but processed nothing during, while I was on my own, in a safe environment, with no triggers. If I could take some moments here and there to get through some bad episodes, a day or class here and there off, I could come back recharged enough to get through semi-normally.

I dealt with this all with no help, besides talking through things in counseling, on my own time and schedule. I took unexcused absences, late assignments, docked points and grade losses without explanation (or “excuses”) or protest. I knew what I needed to do (as far as taking time privately to get through psychological episodes), not knowing why, but did it anyway, hoping my professors understood it wasn’t a sign of disrespect or laziness.

I couldn’t express anything that was going on, unless someone asked and approached it gently. I got offers and suggestions for help, for which I was grateful, but skeptical. Having ever needed any ‘help’ before, I automatically turned any down, saying I would be fine, when of course I wasn’t.

I didn’t want help, or didn’t want to need it anyway, and didn’t think there was really anything that could help me. I just had to push through and do the best I could, in my own way, which was the only way I could to go on. As things got worse and I began failing some of my classes… not challenging courses either… my counselor suggested I use disability services. I initially shot the idea down, of course, since I wasn’t ‘disabled.’ Just another suggestion I thought I didn’t need, that didn’t apply to me, and that I was skeptical of as well.

About a year later, hearing the suggestion a few more times, with no improvement outside of counseling services, I finally took up the offer. It was difficult for me to swallow my pride, ask for help and then take it. I wasn’t ‘disabled,’ I thought, but what I was going through, whatever it was, was disabling me. At the time, it was wonderful to be understood by disability services, even when I didn’t yet know what I needed, as far as accommodations, but once we found what worked out best for me, I felt relief and hope, which in itself helped a lot.

The reception from others, however, wiped out any hope I had or help to my psyche. It apparently didn’t look good that it was after the beginning of the semester that I started to use disability services. Like it was a ‘cop out,’ one professor said. I figured the professors were thinking that I was thinking poor me— just another Bethel brat thinking “Oh, things are too hard, I don’t have time to play outside and paint my nails and still get all my work done—” or “Oh, I just need a little more sleep each day—” or “I just feel sad— so I’ll just use disability services.”

I’m not sure how it appeared, since it was certainly nowhere near that, which was evident, to me. But then I realized, as much as some professors could tell something was wrong and that I was different somehow, others didn’t see anything beyond my appearance, which must have been better controlled than what I felt I controlled…which was encouraging and damning. I didn’t want to appear as tormented as I was, but now, the people who were to make accommodations for me were suddenly deciding for themselves that I didn’t seem like I needed them.

Although the doctors, counselors and other professionals I had been working with were convinced that I had debilitating issues that could certainly use accommodations— but that I could certainly function and flourish as well as anyone else with these accommodations— the professors felt they were in a position to judge and fight it.

It was bad enough to deal with the not-so-subtle looks, tones and body language that expressed their dissatisfaction and disapproval, whether they knew they were doing it or not. (But I’m afraid some were consciously trying to convey it clearly to me that way, since they felt bound verbally.) But the actual things that were said were enough to make me lose any feeling of safety, hope or trust.

When I was approached by each of my professors, asked what my ‘disability’ was, asked to explain what was wrong and what I needed… all things that disability services said were being handled by disability services, and provided with what the professors needed to know and do… I was surprised, not sure what to do or how to respond. I was confused as to why they were asking me what they were told by disability services was private and not their concern, but given direction towards accommodations, which they expressed they were not eager to give.

I was embarrassed, felt attacked and exposed in my vulnerabilities. I felt ashamed for the need of help, the stigma attached to ‘disability’ and the rejection of my need, by people who felt qualified and in a position to know and judge, AND express all that, but not at all being ‘in the know.’ They had no idea.

Years before my traumatic experiences, and perhaps even during some of them, I would have called them out, defended myself, talked sense into them and made them understand, reprimanding them for their unprofessional conduct and rude behavior, creating a hostile environment…but I couldn’t say a word. All I could do what take it, clam up and retract into myself in self-protection. I wanted to cry, feeling so broken and defenseless…wanting them to know and realize the truth, but not being able to express it or make them understand… even if I felt they deserved to know my very personal business, which they didn’t. I was a good student and a still-capable person. They didn’t know me.

The things that hurt me most, that I wrote down as soon as I was alone and still cannot forget, were: “I don’t understand what your problem is,” “I don’t agree with this,” “How can you expect to be in this program, if you’re having trouble now?” “Why are you even here if you’re having issues? It sounds like you shouldn’t be here… this probably isn’t the place for you to be,” “It’s not fair to everybody else, if I give you accommodations,” “I don’t want to give you these accommodations…but I guess I have to.”

It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t have met with them alone, feeling before that I should have been safe, that there were laws and codes that schools follow to protect people like me. But I couldn’t have seen that coming, not at all being able to imagine such an outright poor reception and reaction. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and couldn’t believe they were actually saying it, not even toeing the line, but overtly crossing it. They were discriminating against me, without knowing anything, before they even made these accommodations. I was more of a nuisance and inconvenience to their perfectly run world, where any student should be able to work like the other, and if they couldn’t, then they should either buck up or leave.

I might have thought the same before I was put in a position where I couldn’t just ‘buck up’, but I knew I was still capable of being like everyone else, with just a little help. Not unreasonable help. Not help that was cheating me or anyone else. The help that I needed was different from the only kind of ‘help’ some could understand: excuses or total inability.

I didn’t ever need help before; not like this, so I was sure I wouldn’t need it forever, or even much longer, hopefully, if I could just get through this period. I wasn’t anything like these professors thought, I was sure, but I’m sure I looked it. How could they know? I knew there was no way they could. I couldn’t blame them for not understanding. I did blame them, however, for their conduct. It wasn’t their job to understand, or their right to know, but it was their job to conduct themselves professionally and trust the services that were in charge of my disability for decisions, by informed professionals, checked and tested to confirm my need.

It was a wonder I didn’t run away. That’s even more reason why I had to go on— that people couldn’t understand. I had to keep going in school. It was hard, and I did fail and retake classes, but I was still learning, despite my grades not showing it, and I did move forward, even if I had to move back a bit, even if I had to go slowly.

Now, after two years, I’m finally at the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not completely free from my pain or what I now see was clear PTSD, but I have overcome the worst, being in a position to function normally on my own.

After trying and finding a medication regiment to help, weekly counseling all through school, self-help books, writing and any other treatment I could to help heal, and one semester of disability services, I am now fully functional (and doing well in school) without medication or services for help.

Although the semester I used disability services was greatly marred by the ill treatment by my professors, I still count it as having helped me. Disability services helped me from completely failing all my classes and having to retake all of them all over again (only retook one, by choice) and gave me help in healing outside of that ill treatment.

I didn’t need professors to play, what was at best, a tough-love parenting role. Whatever they thought they were doing or felt a need to do was only hurting me and I knew there was no way they would see it any differently from how they imagined it was themselves. I found out what it was like, at least in some way, to be discriminated against and marginalized as a minority in something, in disability especially, completely out one’s control.

My issues turned out to very much be disabling and debilitating, all invisibly so, but I also proved to be quite able and competent, with accommodations to help me function as I would if I had no issues. I have the luxury of being without disabilities before, therefore knowing what it’s like to be a fully functioning healthy individual, and then having a legitimate disability… even more of a luxury, to now be without a disability again.

I have been able to see and experience both sides, which was a harrowing experience, but one that I hope was not all for naught. I consider every struggle and injustice worth it, if it can all help someone else, or many.