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Disabled in Grad School: I, Too, Dread the Accommodations Talk

A student's perspective on discussing accommodations.

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November 26, 2017
 
 

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

I dread the accommodations talk.

I’m fine with it as a teacher. Then, I'm proud of my students for understanding their needs and caring enough about getting those needs met to undertake navigating the disability services office, getting the letter, and scheduling a meeting with me. It means they're somewhat self-aware and that they care about doing well in my class. When I had office hours, so few people came that I'd be proud of anyone who showed up to them outside an exam week. Students coming in with accommodation letters are no exception.

I dread the accommodations talk as a student.

I know my accommodations are completely useless to someone who doesn't need them. They're also unusual, to the tune of my school's disability services office having entered them into the system for the first time when I got them. I'm Autistic, and I'm usually but not always able to speak. I get to use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) in class, as needed. For me, that means writing or typing instead of talking. Given that I’m the only one at my school to have this accommodation, I’m not surprised that most of my professors have never heard of it. This can make the accommodation talk interesting.

As my best case scenario, I've had professors realize using AAC in class would give no advantage to a student who didn't need it. It actually slows me down and makes it harder to ask questions, compared to functional speech. These professors tend to merely glance at my letter, and a couple have even said they don’t need to see it.

As my most confusing scenario, I've had professors who were convinced that extra time for taking tests was going to be on my letter even though I never mentioned it. They continued to be confused by the fact this accommodation wasn’t mentioned in my letter, sometimes asking me again if I need it before the first exam. It doesn’t help that I'm the first person to finish exams, which often happens. As long as they don’t make a fuss about my AAC use, I can work with this. I just don't understand where they're getting the assumption about extra time.

As my worst case scenario, I had administrators respond to my saying, “I’m autistic,” with “People like that shouldn't be in college.” This was on a study abroad program. Things got messy, because the United States side of my program was bound by the American Disabilities Act and the Tianjin side was not. I did get to type instead of speak when needed, but I was also nearly sent home the first time I needed AAC, even though I’d disclosed ahead of time. It was hard to deal with, and it’s probably 95 percent of the reason I dread the accommodations talk. The other five percent relates to disability stories I’ve heard from others (we pay attention to how you talk about us!).

Then there have been classes where I didn’t have the accommodations talk ahead of time. I was afraid, and I thought (hoped) I could manage without my accommodations and keep my professors from noticing. Sometimes, it even worked. Other times … not so much. I, like other people registered with disability services, got documentation together and navigated the bureaucracy involved for a reason. Isn’t it better to make sure we get what we need, rather than pushing us to go without and risking an experiential lesson in why we have accommodations?

[Image by Flickr user Kevin Dooley and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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