Karen Tang is a Killam Scholar and PhD Student in Clinical Psychology at Dalhousie University (Canada). Her research examines addictive disorders (e.g., video gaming) and mental health correlates. When she is not being a busy graduate student, Karen is advocating for mental health and diversity (including those disabled) in higher education. Follow her on Twitter @KarenTang_
By Karen Tang
If you take one look at me, you would never be able to guess I have a permanent, physical disability. I can walk unassisted, I do not wear a hearing aid, and I don’t have a guide dog strolling alongside me. But if you see me wearing my wrist and thumb brace, I’d look like I was an MMA fighter preparing for a brutal fight, as one of my peers jokingly remarked. However, the chronic pain is ever present. Numbing, ebbing, and throbbing. Always present. Always a symbol that I have a “hidden” (e.g., not tangibly visible) physical disability. I was different.
As an undergraduate student, I was diagnosed with a painful condition impacting both thumbs and wrists. It was my years playing badminton that rendered this otherwise temporary disorder to one that was permanent.
I was disabled at the age of 20.
Learning to ask for help was not easy. As I transitioned to graduate school, I had to face my new reality.
I realized that even if I tried and gritted at the pain through my teeth, handwriting my notes was no longer an option. I realized that I now write exams slower due to the pain, and had trouble finishing essay-type exams. And of course, having to fill out the bubbles on scantrons with the flick of my wrist? The bane of my existence.
That’s when I learned of my school’s Student Accessibility Office or Disabilities Services (check with your school as each institution has a slightly different name). Armed with a doctor’s note in hand, which detailed only the name of my condition and whether it was permanent or temporary, I immediately set up an initial first meeting. I was paired with a compassionate and supportive advisor who yearned to learn more about how to help me best. They asked what kind of accommodations might be most effective for me, and were quick to empathize with my struggles. Working collaboratively as a team, we determined which accommodations were best suited for my personal needs. Some common accommodations that are requested by students include (by all means this list is not exhaustive, so speak with your institution’s Disabilities Services):
- Communication accommodations: ASL interpreter, assistive listening devices
- Exam accommodations: a private exam room, extra time, access to a laptop for written exams
- Classroom accommodations: access to personal laptop for notetaking during lectures, a note taker, the ability to record lectures
- Assistive technology and alternative accommodations: speech-to-text software (e.g., Dragon Speech Recognition), Braille, subtitles
- Other accommodations: special parking permits, accessible
As for informing my professors about my accommodations, I find this seems to differ from institution to institution. University A had me pick up forms from Disabilities Services, distribute them to my professors, and then had them sign noting they received it. University B had my Disabilities Services advisor directly email the professor my accommodations. Either way, your condition remains confidential, and is never named in any of the correspondence with professors. It is up to you to share, if you so wish. I have found that professors don’t pry about your condition, rather they want to support you in any manner they can.
If you’re looking to apply to graduate school, I advise you to research the schools you plan to attend. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, reach out to the institution’s Disability Services staff to determine what kinds of supports are available. If you previously had accommodations from your undergraduate university—that’s great! You can often piggyback off of those and your accommodations may just transfer over. If you’re able to speak with a current student who uses Disability Services, connect with them and learn more about their experience. If you have the option of experiencing the campus in person, do a visit to gain a better understanding of the overall campus experience (and check out Disability Services while you’re at it). To really gain a good sense of the institution, you will have to seek information beyond what is shown on a website. Ask specific questions relating to your specific circumstances, such as “I find that given my chronic pain in my hand, I cannot type as fast when note-taking in lectures. What kind of accommodations may be available to me to bypass this hurdle?”
Lastly, asking for help does not make you weak. It does not mean you are at an advantage over other students just because you get to type out your written exams rather than hand-write them. Remind yourself that seeking help or assistance does not mean you can’t handle the demands of academia. Rather you are strong enough to know your personal difficulties. We all have weaknesses; it’s simply a part of the human condition.
Formal accommodations are vital. They are also protected by law. Educational institutions have a legal duty to maintain accessible, inclusive, discrimination- and harassment-free environments that respect human rights. Students with disabilities, be it a “visible” or “hidden” disability, have every right to feel valued and a sense of belonging. Most importantly, formal accommodations allow for equity and inclusion in our classrooms, that otherwise, may have disadvantaged some students from learning in the best possible manner. Formal accommodations level the playing field and provides students who otherwise would not be able to pursue higher education, a fighting chance in a world that is tailored to the abled.