Am I disabled enough?
March 22, 2011 7:41 PM   Subscribe

I am considering filing with my university's office of disability services as a disabled student. Should I? But of course, there are complications.

I am in the US, at a major but not top of the line research institute, a graduate student, and nearing the end of my coursework for my program before doing comps and research. I've got two major health problems, but they have only recently gotten to where I am afraid they will interfere with my studies on a more regular basis. As such, I've been thinking of filing all the paperwork. I want to ask you, hivemind, if I should or not. But I have some problems.

The first complicating factor is that, for the most part, both of my conditions are invisible. On most days, you can't tell me from anyone else. On a bad day, I can't get out of bed. For one condition, I simply have limited mobility, and while it would be nice having profs realize I can't sit for 4+ hours on bad days, I can't see what really could be done. For the other, it often (1-5 times a semester) makes me miss one or more classes in a day, or makes me unable to drive. Again, I'm not sure what could be done other than "well, sometimes I'm GOING to miss class, and theres jack all I can do." I have no idea how well the office deals with invisible disabilities, or students with them. Nearly all of the paperwork and information is for students who have learning disabilities. And I don't want to be seen as being the special snowflake, because I'm not one.

The second complicating factor is that I've been at this unv in some form for more than 10 years. How weird will it look to people, I ask myself, that NOW I'm applying for this. Will this likely be a problem in some way?

The third complicating factor is that I've had both of these conditions longer than I've been at the unv. So I can't claim these are new, or I've just been diagnosed. How common is it for students to need to do this sort of thing under this situation, and how likely are they to be understanding of it?

Fourthly, I've got comps coming up, and I keep having the nightmare that on the day of one of my written comps one of my problems flares up and I miss the comp, or that I'm too groggy from pain meds, or that my hands hurt so badly I can't type/write. If I do apply for disability services, something might be done, but I have no way of predicting it, and I have no way of knowing how my department would handle such a thing.

Finally - how likely is this to be a problem in terms of my academic career. While on the surface I know they can't legally do anything to me, I know better than to think this means that the world is all kittens and sunshine. If I apply for this, and it becomes common knowledge in the department - and it will, because even being a large department, people talk - how badly will this affect how, say, my graduate committee members and my graduate chair, look at me as a student, and above all, as a future peer?

I honestly don't want to be THAT PERSON who makes it always about themselves and makes a problem for everyone over some special problem they have. But on the other, sometimes its just too much to deal with. I waffle back and forth on even being able to call myself disabled - after all, most days I'm fine - and I hate the thought of using resources that someone worse off than myself might need and not get.

So, hivemind, should I do this? Or should I keep to the damned puritanical bootstraps, and suffer through without whatever aid, if any, the unv could give me.
posted by anonymous to Education (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Without knowing what you have, it will be hard to say if you will be eligible for disability.

If you are eligible, though, I'd say take it.
posted by TheBones at 7:44 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it might help to know what type of department (science? humanities?) and what your disabilities are.

But I think if there's a chance you might miss your comps, you should go to the disability services office and talk all this over with someone there who knows your school's policies.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:46 PM on March 22, 2011

Teachers in grad school can be incredibly accommodating. Give them advance notice and documentation; but I guess you need to watch out for assholes. Bureaucracy's sometimes are a force for good.
posted by stratastar at 7:48 PM on March 22, 2011

This is what the disability services office is for. If your problem (and those of other people) were obvious and easy for your professors to deal with, would your school need to pay people to arbitrate them?
posted by Etrigan at 7:50 PM on March 22, 2011

A chronic intermittent disability is still a "real" disability. Rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis all follow the pattern you describe. There is no shame, let me repeat that, NO SHAME in asking for reasonable accommodation for your condition.

At the very least, you should go to the Disabilities Office and talk to someone who knows the culture and resources of your university when it comes to students with disabilities.

Your disability doesn't have to be new to you, and your circumstances don't have to have changed, for you to decide that you wish to avail yourself of the accommodation to which you have been entitled.
posted by gingerest at 7:54 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

both of my conditions are invisible.

So, if you don't have a documented disability status--or at least discuss your condition with your instructors--they won't know what's going on. In addition to being a resource you deserve, having a documented disability status is a way to communicate appropriately and professionally with your professors. I've worked in a couple different university departments and saw several professors dealing with students who had a range of health situations who were just trying to slog through on their own until a health crisis forced them to miss some critical class or exam or deadline and then--surprise!--"I have XYZ disease and it flared up and that's why I couldn't take the exam." The professors I worked for were all nice, helpful people who weren't looking for ways to "get" their students, but they were definitely more frustrated by the "hidden" disabilities than they were by having to accommodate students' documented disabilities.

You won't be taking resources away from anyone. You'll be doing a wise, responsible thing--both a wise decision for yourself and your professors.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:06 PM on March 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

OK so I just volunteer at my university's Disability Services Office, I don't work there or have a degree in this stuff, but here is what I have learned:

- They don't care if it is invisible. Really. If it is a disability, and you can prove it (doctor's note, etc), you are their clientele. They want to give you all the tools for success possible.
- They don't care how long it takes you to come in. Some people don't come when they first arrive at university for personal reasons, some manage their disabilities on their own, and some forget or don't make time to come in. BUT, when they do come in, they are greeted and treated well, a plan is laid out for them, and their accomodations are set up.
- Professors are totally ok with this, on the whole. It isn't much work for them, they generally like seeing students succeed, and lots of people have disabilities. Even ones you can't see. I would say it's a 50/50 split between visible/invisible disabilities. I've had my cousin's girlfriend come in, members of my sports team, all people I didn't know needed help. It's great.
- As far as I can tell, applying for help can be kept confidential, especially the details of your disability, if you want. However, most professors are quite impressed with students who avail themselves of the best help possible and set themselves up for success as best they can.

Seriously, the people who I volunteer with are amazing. They want to give everyone the best best best chance to play on an even field. People come in crying and these staff stay until six at night trying to help them. They do drop-in hours, they take walk-ins as much as possible, they give study aids, do workshops, and make themselves available. They help with technology, support, and coaching. It's not going to hurt to go in and see what happens and what they can offer.
posted by hepta at 8:10 PM on March 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

Hmm. This far along in your career, you might simply want to forgo the institutional middleman and simply give your departmental DGS a heads-up (if this position is held by a reasonable person). They know you, and if it's brought to their attention that you've been successful so far in spite of this condition, but that it might require accommodation in the future, they can make contingency plans with your input (for comps, or whatever). Have a plan in mind. This would seem to me to be the more professional course of action.

The DGS might then advise you to check with the disability services office, but if your campus is anything like mine, probably not: these offices are usually geared to undergrad learning disabilities, as you've noticed....and faculty tend to look askance at them if their only function is to hand out "extra exam time" letters like candy, as they do at my R1 school.
posted by philokalia at 8:17 PM on March 22, 2011

The disability offices at the schools I've attended and worked for were happy to have students come in and talk to them about their disabilities and potential accommodations. If you're concerned about confidentiality even then, consider contacting them through a throwaway email.

Complication #1 won't matter at all to your disability office. They see invisible disabilities all the time. Complication #2 won't matter to them, either. They are there as a resource that you can use when you see fit. They aren't about policing people in any way. Ditto for #3. They really don't care when you were diagnosed--only that you are asking for help now. Seriously...if they're professional, it won't matter a bit. I've had students reveal disabilities to me late in their academic careers, referred them to our disability services office, and they've had no trouble getting the services they need. For some of them, a mitigating condition (stress, family issues, illness, etc.) made dealing with the disability just that. much. harder. and they needed some extra help with a disability they thought they were able to control to a great extent.

Complication #4 seems to be your mitigating condition, so the time to ask for help is now. I can't see any harm in meeting with your disability office to discuss what accommodations might help you. They have a big database full of accommodations and disabilities and how the two match up. My current university defines over 200 different accommodations, so don't think you have to come up with these on your own. There's even an official accommodation for allowing students to eat/drink during class, so I'm assuming there's one that lets you stand up in class or take a brief break to walk if sitting is detrimental to you. Talk to them and see what they say. They may not be 100% certain of what to do in your situation with comps coming up, but give them a chance to work something out. Your department will be required to provide whatever accommodation(s) the disability office recommends (with a very few caveats that the disability office can talk to you about).

However, I think the key to getting compliance from your department once you have the accommodation(s) letter is communication. How you handle this will have a lot to do with Complication #5. You want to maintain clear communication, continue to complete all your work in a timely manner, and fulfill all other expectations to the best of your ability to ensure strong letters of recommendation for when you go on the job market. You'll probably want to use your accommodations sparingly, and you'll want to avoid any appearance of using the accommodations to avoid work. You can help your profs maintain positive impressions of you even if you have to miss class, for instance, by suggesting alternate make-up work (additional readings/reading responses/etc.) or asking how to make up absences. Being proactive and professional will go a long way toward ensuring this revelation doesn't cause you problems later on. If you want to see them as a future peer, act as professionally as possible so they have no doubt about your ability to perform your future professional work. That's really what they will care about.
posted by BlooPen at 8:38 PM on March 22, 2011

ack. Exacerbating circumstances...not mitigating...time for sleep...
posted by BlooPen at 8:53 PM on March 22, 2011

I think you should avail yourself of the disability services. I have not been in your position but I have taught (undergrad) college courses where students have had disabilities that required accommodation.

One advantage of going through the office of disability services is that they can write a letter for you that minimizes the amount of personal / medical information that gets shared with your instructors. This shields your privacy and also makes things easier on the professors. A letter which says "Jane Doe has a recognized disability which may require accommodation in the following manner: allowing Jane Doe to make up missed classes and exams; allowing absences without doctors' notes or pre-arranged excuses" makes the professors' responsibilities clear and they don't have to learn about the details of your disabilities and make judgment calls about the appropriate accommodations.

As an instructor, I appreciated getting these letters in advance of the need for any accommodations. I would of course accommodate students after the fact if necessary, but it helps me be flexible and run the course more smoothly if I can make a plan for accommodation ahead of time.

I think the second and third complications you mention are non-issues. I doubt that the people in the disability services office will refuse you service on the grounds that you haven't asked for it before, and the professors do not need to know whether your disabilities are new or old. It's irrelevant.
posted by Orinda at 9:06 PM on March 22, 2011

I work in student services at a top tier R1 institution in the US, and my office is under the same unit as as our disability coordinator. I suggest you do approach your disability officer.

Because this isn't only about you passing your comps, this is about you processing what's happening to you, and getting advice and support about how to succeed academically, professionally and personally with whatever health issues your are facing. Our disability officer would talk to you about how others have navigated situations similar to yours, give advice about resources and your rights, and do much more than 'give extra exam time', but run interference if anyone gives you static.

I think this is more of an issue for individuals where the disability seems invisible, but remember that there are probably fellow students around you, also with 'invisible' disabilities, who are getting support, and you don't even realize it. For example, there is a student at our school had a car accident while in school, and like you, can't sit, or write for extended periods of time. She received stellar advice and services to help her. When she can't make it to class, she doesn't get penalized. There are times when there is a notetaker there on her behalf, and she recieved advice about recording lectures when she couldn't write, etc. The office truly supported her. Seriously, even just the parking sticker helped her, because walking was sometimes difficult.

Part of the issue was psychological for her - she didn't 'see herself as disabled', so she held off on getting disability services. There are serious consequences for her because of it. Trying to figure out how to navigate the situation herself slowed down her progress to graduation. At my institution, several merit awards aren't available to students past their 6th year (which is the basis of how she funds her education, because she is a top student in her class, and can't afford school otherwise). Also one can only be a grad student for so long. But her disability changed her timeline, and is still changing her timeline, because her health is a dynamic situation. Sometimes she's great. Sometimes she's not. But she received support from a student service office about how to even discuss and renegotiate her progression towards her qualifying exams, etc., with her PhD advisor.

She still talks about dealing with the frustration of realizing that she can no longer just 'push through and write' her dissertation all the time, but has to limit herself to the mornings, and write with a dragon speech/writing program, because after about 3 hours, she's just in an insane amount of pain when she types.

My point is that a good learning specialist/disability officer will sit down and discuss all these issues with you, they will normalize them, and help you tackle them.

R1 institutions are tough enough - so be good to yourself and avail yourself of every resource - every resource that's in place to help you succeed - from student health, to financial aid to tutoring, to career services, to disability services and whatever else they offer to help you succeed. Fuck anybody - faculty or otherwise - who even insinuates that you are somehow weak, lacking, remedial, etc. for seeking any support. That's nothing more than a weak ass jedi mind trick. I swear to you, that those "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" faculty are the first - the first in line - to call up a student service office to demand these support systems when it's their child. I've been the person on the phone fielding their calls.

Please don't let your (not necessarily unrealistic) concern that some small minded people/faculty will judge you harshly as a 'special snowflake' prevent you from seeking assistance. Faculty don't even necessarily need to know that you are getting support from the office. Be good to yourself. Go talk to the disability officer. If they can't help, okay. But at least explore how they might be able to. Did I mention you are doing this not because you're 'weak', but because you're being good to yourself? Because you are. You really, really are.
posted by It's a Parasox at 9:14 PM on March 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

As a professor, I can accommodate students who have paperwork saying I am allowed/required to accommodate them, whereas I cannot make such accommodations for students in general. (for example, lots of students would like extra time on exams. I can't make this happen in general. ) If a student has issues that require accommodation, I really appreciate knowing about them, ahead of time.

Especially given your concern about comps, you should be talking to your graduate advisor, with the backup of the disability services office.

You're not required to use any accommodations that you are entitled to, but if you need them, then it's an option you wouldn't otherwise have had.
posted by leahwrenn at 12:13 AM on March 23, 2011

I'm a professor. We deal with students with disabilities all the time, even grad students. I don't care what the disability is; most of the time I have no idea what the student's precise diagnosis is. From a professor's point of view it's pretty simple: the student brings a letter from disability services saying what the student's accommodation is. I am *required* to provide that accommodation. I do what the letter tells me to do and I don't think about it further. It's so common that I don't even think about it.
posted by medusa at 9:03 AM on March 23, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a professor too. For me, it's exactly as leahwrenn and medusa have indicated.
posted by kch at 2:35 PM on March 24, 2011

Hello everyone. This was my question.

Thank you, all of you, for giving me the courage to finally do this. I know I should have done it long ago, but as someone who has constantly had people question and doubt that my symptoms, let alone my disorders, are real, this is something I have often felt as if I didn't deserve.

Thank you. I talked to my advisor yesterday. He agreed with you all. In a few weeks I have an appointment with my doctor to get the paperwork filled out.

If any of you are reading this, and you are asking yourself this question: do it. Get the help you are entitled to. That is your right.

Again, thank you.
posted by strixus at 3:55 PM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

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