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Disability? In College? Advice on Talking to Professors

Explaining your disability can get you more effective help from professors

June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month!

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) protects students with conditions that impede normal life functions from discrimination (The American Psychological Association's Summary can be found here). "Normal life functions" include going to school. I know much more than I want to about the ADA, because my son is chronically ill from one of many invisible illnesses. He has severe, chronic migraines that leave him in pain much of the time. The American with Disabilities Act also protects children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, and a host of learning disabilities. In elementary and high school, the accommodations needed to help people who face these barriers get a fair chance at education are covered by IEPs and 504 plans. These plans lay out what the student's, parents', teachers', and school's responsibilities are in creating a successful learning environment for the student.

When children are younger, this is usually managed by the parent. But as kids enter college, they take on the role of managing their learning themselves. In fact, they have to—it is against the law for professors to talk to parents about their child's education without explicit permission from their student.

I've taught at seven colleges and universities over the last 30 years (I feel old now) and they all work about the same. I don't know how the process of getting accommodations works specifically in different colleges. I do know what I get handed by my students. Some students do a superb job managing disabilities. Others not so much. There are many other resources available to you written by people who have disabilities or who have spent their careers fighting for fair access for students with disabilities. I am not an expert on disabilities—I'm just the mother of someone who suffers from one. These are just my thoughts as an professor on how students can really help me to help them get the education they deserve.

Don't just hand your professor your accommodation letter

When students register with the college or university office of disability services, they are usually evaluated and have their disability and needs documented. Then they are typically given an accommodation letter, saying what changes they may need from normal classroom procedures in order to succeed. For example, a typical student with ADHD will give me a letter saying they need time and a half for exams and that they need to be in a quiet room free of distractions.

LOTS of students (almost all of mine) just hand accommodation letters to me and leave. If I ask them what they need specifically, they kind of shrug and say 'taking the exam in a separate room—you're already doing everything else I want'.

That's not very helpful if they have a complicated disability like migraine or depression or many other invisible illnesses. To maintain privacy the accommodation letters are really general. They don't give a diagnosis. Sometimes they say generally the problems students have, but not in enough detail for me to know what to do. For example, they'll say 'problem processing abstract cognitive material'. This is a college. What does that mean in term of what I can do to help them learn what I'm teaching? The letters do say concrete things like "Time and half on exams. Quiet testing space without distractions." But that's not enough to help someone with diabetes, migraines or depression, for example, who is going to miss classes some days, who needs to eat in the middle of an exam, or who needs a dark room or can't look at a computer screen on random days.

What you can do to help your professor help you

Make sure your full needs are in your letter. Let me be upfront about this. Many students with serious disabilities don't have the time or energy to do anything more than get to classes and do their best to get their work done. All you can do is hand that letter to the professor. If that's true for you, make SURE that your accommodation letter communicates all your needs. Are there likely to be times when you will be unable to work for a few days at a time and you will need an extension equivalent to twice the time you're unable to work? Put it in the letter. Do you need food at regular intervals - even in the middle of an exam and sometimes on short notice? Put it in the letter. Are there times when you can't look at a screen so won't be able to attend a computer lab? Put it in the letter. Don't let that accommodation letter be a rubber stamp - make sure it is individualized to cover what you think your needs are going to be.

Visit your professor early in the semester. I would strongly, strongly strongly urge each student to go to their professors' office hours at the beginning of the semester and explain the issues, before any problems occur. I know this puts an additional burden on people who are disabled. That's why I suggest doing it early on at a time of your choosing, not when you're in crisis. I also know that it can be hard to reveal a problem that is deeply personal—especially one that is stigmatized. However, I know from experience that many students can successfully talk about their needs and the kinds of problems their disability causes them without telling me specifically the underlying cause of their problems (e.g., depression or anxiety or colitis or endometriosis). Do not feel you need to reveal private information about yourself. Make sure the professor understands your accommodation letter. But if there are specific, reasonable things that can be done to help you succeed, ask for it. Often much more can be done than is asked for in your accommodation letter.

Educate your professor. The more you can tell your professor about your disability and how it affects your academic performance, the better. I'll take migraines as an example. Most professors will not know what serious chronic migraines are in any meaningful way (I didn't.) What they know may be wrong in all the really annoying ways that people can be ignorant about disabilities. Just because someone is a brilliant physicist or an excellent Shakespeare scholar doesn't mean they know anything about your situation.

Talking to the professor and handing them a summary of your issues is very helpful. This can be part of your accommodation letter. For example, I wrote a useful summary for my son's high school teachers. It informs them about migraines in general and him in particular. You can write one for yourself. Or there are lots of excellent summaries online - attach one. If you're meeting in person, this gives you the opportunity to discuss behavior that professors might see as 'slacking' or 'lack of interest' as just problems related to illness. Trust me—when kids don't turn in work or don't show up for class, the professor's first thought is often that they don't care or are drinking, not that they are sick. Going to the professor right at the beginning of the semester demonstrates that you are being pro-active and are working to succeed despite your handicap and are taking responsibility. Then if things go south, the professor will be worried and not annoyed.

If you aren't able to meet with each professor individually (see Spoon theory below), write them a letter or an email. Have it included with your accommodation letter. But do it early, before barriers arise.

Tell them about the Spoon Theory. If you have an invisible illness, you probably know about Spoon Theory. Spoon theory is a metaphor used by Christine Miserandino to explain why it's so hard to have an invisible disability. It gets to that unbearably frustrating belief that if 'you just tried harder' or 'pushed through' you'd be able to function okay. It helps people who have never had a disability or a serious illness understand a little more about your life.

The basic idea is simple. You hand someone 12 spoons. That's their energy for the day and that's all they've got. They take a shower—that uses up a spoon. They get dressed—another spoon. They make breakfast and put away the dishes—two more. It's really clear that every small, tiny little thing that everyone else takes for granted is much harder for someone who has a disability that robs them of energy. Lupus. Chronic pain. Headache. Depression. Anxiety. Hand the essay to the professor with the description of your disability (if you choose to reveal it) and your needs. It may help them 'get it'.

Ask for what you need. Letters from the Office of Disability at the college or university are probably pretty general. If you think you'll be absent a lot and at random, let the professor know up front. Set up a system ahead of time for what will happen when those absences occur. Every professor I know is willing to send Powerpoints to students when they are sick if they're asked to do so. Put it in your letter. Many of us—especially at big schools—record all the lectures so students who miss them can watch them online. See what resources are available. They may already have everything you're going to need. Wouldn't that be a relief?

Students can also request from disability services someone who will record the lecture for them if they miss it. In many schools, students can be paid to record lectures or take notes if this is not already a normal part of college routine (in many large schools, it is). It might also be to the students' advantage to show the professor how to record lectures themselves. Or it might be something the disability office can teach faculty to do. It's really easy. On a Mac you just use the pre-installed Quicktime and start the record function at the start of the lecture. Your voice and everything on the screen (Powerpoints) are recorded and saved. On Windows you just download a free Microsoft utility for doing the exact same thing. If you know how to do this, it can help you help the professor help a LOT of students. It's not just students with disabilities who are helped by these simple, easy accommodations. It's busy parents. It's people holding down a job and going to school. It's students who have English as a second language. Most accommodations help everyone—not just people with identified disabilities. It creates an even playing field.

Most professors aren't jerks (some are). But explaining your issues and possible problems early and openly evokes most professors' protective instincts. And it's a lot easier for professors to help in advance than having them get annoyed because you seem disengaged and then explain later that, "no, I'm just really sick."

Remind them. Even the best intentioned professor may forget who you are or what your needs are. Most professors have hundreds of students each semester. When I taught at a big school, I had thousands every year. When an exam is coming up and you will need a quiet space or extra time, remind the professor ahead of time so they can make arrangements. Standard accommodations will normally be taken care of, but if your needs are unusual, make sure people are ready to meet them. If you need someone to read to you because you can't see well that day, tell them early enough that arrangements can be made. When you realize that you are in blinding pain that morning, or throwing up, or are recovering from a seizure, tell them that you have a problem, but also remind them why you need accommodations. That's what the letter is for.

Get help from the administration. Finally—if you are having a bad week (or two), you probably have an advisor or Class Dean or Dean of Students whose job it is to notify all your professors. This is the time to get someone to do the work for you - contact one person and let them contact all your professors. For example, I'll get sent a note from a dean saying so and so is ill and will need help catching up. This notifies professors that this is a serious problem, that the student is trying their best, and that the dean expects the professor to be accommodating. If you don't have a dean, you do have an advisor. There is also someone in the Office of Disability Services whose job it is to help you succeed. Getting support from outside helps even with professors who are not as responsive as they should be.

One more hassle of having a disability

Constantly having to educate others about your disability is one of the many hassles of having one. But you have a right to an education free of discrimination. You have a right to have barriers removed. Unless people know what you need, they cannot give it to you. Pulling together a packet of information that says what you need and helps people understand what they can do to help may require less effort long term than trying to fix something once things fall apart. And once you pull it together for one class, you can hand it to everyone.

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