Academia cripples disabled people: Navigating abled spaces

Earlier this semester, I had a professor  ask me why I was still here.

A little background—I have a rare disability that leads to a bunch of rare comorbidities. It was the first day of class, and I was doing what I usually do: letting my professors know that I am not a conventional student, and this professor just couldn’t wrap his head around the fact that I was here. 

In college. On campus. In a pandemic. As a high-risk student.

And the truth? I’m not sure.

It’s not that I’m not sure why I’m here necessarily. I know why I’m here. I’m a senior. My classes aren’t offered online. My medical care is mostly based in Holland (and when you have multiple rare diseases, you hold onto what doctors you can find), so in reality, I had no choice but to come back.

What I’m not sure about is why I’m still here.

The reality is academia is built on the abuse of its students. We see this in the stereotypes—bowls of microwaveable ramen, ridiculous amounts of black coffee, no one actually getting enough sleep, the memes. People are expected to run themselves into the ground, and even doing that, most can’t handle college. Drop-out rates nationwide are high, and those who don’t drop out find themselves switching majors. Not everyone is “built” for say, an engineering course load. However, ask a student in any major, and they’re bound to have a story about some grand body acrobatics they had to pull to get through some class. 

If abled people are put in a situation where they are forced to make those sacrifices, what about disabled people? Most people think about the big sacrifices, and that’s true: I’ve definitely turned down countless treatment options because I couldn’t manage it while being a student. But most of the sacrifices I make are on a daily basis.

It’s not seeing friends for weeks because though I couldn’t see them while I was flaring, now I have to spend hours catching up on work I missed while sick.

It’s drinking coffee, despite that being dangerous for me, so I can get through weeks of school, and praying that I can deal with the consequences.

It’s not taking a shower for over a week because my body can’t put that energy in without fainting.

It’s not folding laundry for weeks because doing that means my joints will hurt too much to type my paper.

And on days I do need to shower, or fold laundry, or do some mundane activity abled people don’t even think about, I can’t do my work. And you know what professors hate? A student repeatedly not doing work. Because if you can’t hold yourself to the standard they expect for healthy people (the same ones abled people are killing themselves trying to reach), then you need to drop out and “take care of yourself”.

But the problem isn’t solved by me dropping out to take care of myself. Because even if I take care of myself, this system isn’t built for people like me. If it’s hard for abled people, it’s going to be impossible for disabled people no matter what. Dropping out and coming back isn’t going to change that. And yes, this is all with accomodations.

Accommodations on most college campuses barely scrape the bare minimum necessary to give disabled students the tools to succeed. They are all based on the assumption that people will lie to get accommodations, which, while it does happen, is such a statistically insignificant number that all this does is hurt people in the long run. 

Ask a disabled person how easy it is to get documentation for their accommodations. Oh okay. Ask how hard it was to even communicate with their doctors. I’ll tell you—I’m on week three for getting the documentation necessary just to be allowed to turn my webcam off. It’s a time-consuming process that eats even more energy than I have. And by nature of my disability, I am already running on little energy

Dropping out also means not getting a degree. Most jobs with only a high school diploma are often based in manual work or jobs in which one is expected to stand for hours. I just physically can’t do that. Medical bills are expensive. Getting on disability is a whole process that usually requires a lawyer which is expensive.

Disabled students are capable—we statistically score above average on most exams. We have a perspective that is valuable. We are experts at communicating—we have to be to coordinate our care. But this system isn’t built for us.

So to my professor, I do know why I’m here. I just don’t know how I’ve managed to stay here.

October is Disability Awareness Month

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