I can't recognize that

Witnessing the Impact: Disclosing and accommodating disabled students in the classroom

5 minute read
Disclosing disabilities is personal and vulnerable. For many, it's never a positive experience. (Photo by Madison Thibodeau.)
Disclosing disabilities is personal and vulnerable. For many, it's never a positive experience. (Photo by Madison Thibodeau.)

I have a learning disability—a fact that generally remains unspoken for me. I have chosen to keep it a secret because I have had discouraging experiences sharing this part of myself. A couple of years ago, I thought I was ready, but I was wrong.

Relying on myself

One day while sitting in class, I debated whether or not to disclose to my professor about my tendencies to become distracted and unresponsive. After everyone filed out of the classroom, I approached and let the professor know how I work best. The response: “I can’t recognize that,” with an uncomfortable and hasty “see disability services.”

If the professor knew how difficult that disclosure was for me, maybe there might’ve been a better response. Teachers don’t live the lives of their students, disabled or not. When we tell them what does and doesn’t help, it’s their responsibility to believe us and adjust their practices to accommodate. Turning us toward an unknown and untrusted service with little guidance is negligent and harmful.

Now in the middle of a pandemic, I can only rely on myself. Remote working with ADHD is like driving through thick fog on a dark road trying to get to where you are supposed to be. The problem is you’ve lost the directions and have no GPS to guide you, and the radio is playing heavy metal music bouncing from song to song. I don’t have an “off” switch in my brain and anything is more interesting than my homework. Trying to work with my disability is not always the easiest, and throwing in a global shutdown doesn’t help; it’s just another hurdle to overcome. I’m bound to get lost along the way. With no accommodations, it’s drastically harder to stay on the road and get to the destination.

Finding a way

Like many students with ADHD or other learning disabilities, I struggle in the classroom. With the sudden shift to remote learning, I face the additional challenge of classroom instruction in my home environment. Distractions at home and the presence of parents, siblings, or pets pose increased difficulties. I struggle with organizing the online work or focusing and completing those tasks. It’s just too much.

Since school has been online, it has been really easy for me to look at my laptop across the room, not pick it up and decide that I want to go outside instead. I think many instructors are doing their best, but it’s insulting to pretend that this approach really works. It’s not enough.

Still, I can’t bring myself to ask for help. My disability is invisible, and others often perceive students with ADHD as overmedicated, lazy, and dumb. Having accommodations and disabilities linked to a disorder thought of as a scam is devastating.

The unaccommodating truth

According to Jennifer Peruso, executive director of Learning Support Services at Immaculata University, disability services have typical ADA accommodations, where “reasonable accommodations are granted for students with disabilities to ensure equal access to educational environment and programming.” However, students requesting any type of accommodation must disclose and provide supporting documentation of a disability from their treating health care provider—if they’re lucky to have health care. In 2018, about 10 percent of US disabled residents—nearly 20 million people—were uninsured, according to Cornell University’s Disability Statistics database.

There are established Covid-19 accommodations at select colleges and universities that are not governed by any federal, state, or local legislation. These accommodations are “created by colleges and universities to provide remote learning accommodations to individuals with increased risk for severe illness,” Peruso said. However, there is nothing new to accommodate students with learning disabilities struggling with remote learning. Peruso states that ADA accommodations are meant to level the playing field but during a time of a global pandemic and remote learning, there is still limited leniency.

Covid may have brought awareness and some movement towards major change, but it’s hardly enough. “Accessibility for students with disabilities in higher education across the board has really expanded,” Peruso said. “I think more students are becoming more comfortable with requesting accommodations, and more professors are becoming more knowledgeable about accommodations implementation.” Still, disabled students don’t have everything they need, and not everyone is comfortable disclosing.

The dire costs

The cost of silence prohibits disabled students and haplessly contributes to the lack of accessibility in higher education. It’s difficult enough for students with learning disabilities to prove their disability, let alone convince others that they need accommodations and what those accommodations are. Disclosure is necessary, but it comes at the defeating cost of distress and discrimination. The act of disability disclosure is personal, vulnerable, and often dependent on an individual's own acceptance of self and disability. Disability admission involves making something deeply private into something widely public. Disability services prioritize disclosing a diagnosis more than providing the accommodation.

And yet, as my own circumstances show, there are steps all colleges and universities can take to better support students with disabilities. To start, schools need to recognize inaccessibility as discrimination. Intention to do right is not enough—equal access and opportunity must be made present and available. Familiar practices are not enough. There are no universal “best practices.” Changes must be made to ensure the door is actually open for disabled students.

Image Description: A black-and-white photo highlights a person's hand, typing on a keyboard, with the word 'help' written in marker on the person's skin.

What, When, Where

Read more about BSR’s partnership with Witnessing the Impact. And visit a sister project, We Will Talk About These Days, for a variety of interviews by and with disabled people about life in the pandemic, free to access online.

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