As difficult as it can be to go to school while dealing with illnesses and disabilities, there is usually at least some degree of institutionalized support. Most universities have something along the lines of what’s known at my school as Disability Services for Students (DSS) – an administrative department tasked with arranging advocacy and academic accommodations for students with disabilities. This includes things like alternate exam writing, peer note-takers, alternately formatted textbooks, or assistive technology, to name just a few.
DSS is a godsend for me and a lot of other students like me (or not like me, because DSS deals with a whole range of disabilities: physical or mental, visible or not). But the one thing that the fantastic people in that office can’t do is eliminate stigma. Talking about academic accommodations is often taboo, there are misconceptions about what they are and who they’re available to, and students with disabilities often internalize stereotypes and then don’t get the help they need. So let’s break this down:
1. Accommodations are not cheating.
In order to get an accommodation for a disability or illness, a doctor generally has to sign off on it. There are hoops to jump through that aren’t worth trying to fake your way into the system, even if you were willing to deal with the stigma, judgement, and discrimination that come along with a diagnosis. Moreover, accommodations do not mean being able to get through a class without learning or doing as much as everybody else. It means doing things differently, or maybe not as quickly, but it’s not a free pass.
2. Accommodations aren’t there to bump you up to average.
I think a lot people imagine Disability Services as being for a hypothetical disabled student struggling to pass without accommodations, but accommodations bump their grades up enough that they can just get by. While that is certainly true for some people, the point of accommodations is actually to mimic (as closely as possible) what school would be like if that student didn’t have a disability, rather than get them passing or more average grades. The difference in grades between not having accommodations and having them could be an F to a D, or it could be an A to an A+, or an F to an A+, or anything else. It could also result in getting the same grades, but at a reduced cost to mental or physical health. Think of accommodations as trying to achieve equality of opportunity, not equality of results.
3. You don’t know what accommodations someone needs.
Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes; just because you think someone doesn’t need help with something doesn’t mean that they’re wrong to use accommodations. It is seriously none of your business, and you don’t get to know what someone’s diagnosis is in order to judge whether or not they’re worthy of help. In fact, my experience has been that not even professors get to know a student’s diagnosis: everything is confidential except for what professors need to know to provide the accommodations required.
4. Accommodations don’t make you weak.
Even though the option is given to us by experts and bureaucracy who affirm that they’re necessary and useful, it’s often still up to the student to decide if and when to actually use accommodations. Sometimes they’re not necessary all the time, and of course that’s fine. But there is no shame in having to use them sometimes, or even all the time.
As one of my professors told me, there is no prize at the end of your degree for having gotten through it without accommodations. The trope of “overcoming” a disability by sheer force of will is stupid and hurtful and doesn’t make any sense. If you really want to become a “success story” despite your “adversity,” do it by using all the tools at your disposal, including academic accommodations, to kick as much ass as possible.