Still playing catch up with these NHBPM Posts…
As a chronically ill college student, I have had to make many adjustments to my school schedule and course load. I dropped my fourth class this semester, and am very much behind in my other three classes. Luckily I have very understanding professors and, of course, a registered disability, but the feeling of guilt refuses to dissolve each day I am late turning in an assignment or can’t make it to class.
I do feel guilty when I simply can’t push through the pain, knowing that there are people out there who don’t have the option to put off doing work or completing other obligations, but I know that if I “buck up” and ignore the pain in my hands, or my migraine, or my subluxed SI joint, I could be putting myself at risk for a more serious problem or permanent damage. And yet the guilt persists: I look like a healthy 21-year old, I should be able to finish this paper. If Barbie goes to class with the flu, then I should be able to get out of bed too!
These thoughts do nothing for my self-esteem, and they make acknowledging my illness quite difficult, but it’s becoming harder and harder to shake them.
Unfortunately, some people assume that I do not feel guilty at all for missing an entire week of class, or postponing a midterm until my flare subsides, and I have conversations like this:
Friend: How are things going? You’ve been looking a little fragile lately, for lack of a better word.
Me: Fragile pretty much sums it up! I feel like I’ll fall apart completely if I step on this cobblestone sidewalk wrong. Luckily my professors have been really wonderful recently.
Friend: That’s great! What do you tell them?
Me: The truth. I don’t mind explaining my illness, and they’re often more willing to provide accommodations if I explain the extent to which it affects my life and my studying.
Friend: Have you registered with the Disability Office?
Me: Yup, and they’ve given me a letter detailing the necessary accommodations.
Friend: So what kinds of things do they let you do?
Me: Well, when I can’t make it to class, they’ll email the class notes with a brief summary, and I get help taking notes. I can use a laptop for my final exams if necessary that day, so I don’t have to worry. Also, my professors have been great about extending deadlines and things like that.
Friend: Wow, so you can just turn things in late without any repercussions?
Me: That’s not exactly how it works…
Friend: Well, I mean, I’m glad you have great professors, but when I hurt my leg they weren’t so accommodating. I had to sit through entire lectures nearly in tears it was so bad, and they didn’t care.
Me: You should have stood up for yourself! My experience has been relatively positive with the Disability Office, but it does take a certain amount of self-advocacy. I’m really sorry though.
Friend: Well, as long as you’re getting extra help, that’s all that matters.
This conversation may seem innocuous upon first glance, but the tone of my friend’s voice was accusatory and defensive. A temporary injury can be jarring while in college, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the emotional and physical strain of a chronic illness, and although I am sorry that the DO didn’t address her pain adequately, there are reasons why they are taking my case much more seriously. Additionally, the idea that I’m getting “extra” help is not helpful for my unrepentant feelings of guilt, but my good friend reminded me that the University system is designed to support its students in any way possible. Pre-med students get special advisors, pre-law students get pre-law societies and teas, and there is no reason that I shouldn’t be receiving the kind of support I needed to put me on a level playing field with my peers.
Truly, that is what disability services offers: they even out the playing field so I can play, work, and learn with the same ease of my classmates. Other students get to choose their hardships: they pull all-nighters and get to complain about being miserable for the next two days, they pile on the course load, knowing that come midterm season they will be a bundle of nerves and raw energy. Disabled students don’t get to choose their hardships. We have hardships thrust upon us, and there is no reason that we shouldn’t get the leg up so that we have the opportunity to make our lives difficult–on our own terms.