Chronic Illness · Chronic Pain · Grad School · Mental Health · Personal · Recovery · Religious · Social Justice

Dear Professors, Please Don’t Consider Our Accommodations “Special Needs”

When we call disability accommodations “special needs,” it makes them sound optional. Burdensome. Not worth the effort, or unable to be done, unless you have special training. Here’s a thought: Special needs are more properly labeled human needs. Let’s create a norm of embrace by going above and beyond, rather than just trying to meet – and not always honoring – basic accessibility standards.

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You may be asking yourself: Why do would someone want to get higher education if they need extra support and accommodations to get it done? Because we have gifts to share.

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This is an edited and shortened version of a letter that I wrote to the diversity committee at my school about the feelings and experiences that can result from taking up the space I deserve.

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“In my educational journey, I was hoping to experience a baseline of trust and grace. Instead, I have often had to build it from the bottom up. I’m sad that professors often stick to black-and-white, hard-and-fast rules and deadlines rather than considering the humanity, needs, and hopes of the students with whom they work. Ours are not “special” needs; they are accommodations, and making room for everybody shouldn’t be special. It should be a baseline that someday we will no longer need to applaud because of course we want to make sure there’s a space for everybody at the table.

Many of my professors are great. However, there are some that make me feel isolated and uncomfortable. They act as if my doctor-prescribed and necessary accommodations are disturbing to others and them. Instead of always having people see that this helps level the playing field, I’ve experienced dirty looks when using a computer to type notes with less hand pain in a computer-free classroom. I’ve been told that getting short extensions on assignments when I’m experiencing worse symptoms than usual makes it “unfair” to other students – students who don’t face the same circumstances that I do. I could go on with general examples for a long time, so here’s a more specific one:

At the end of one semester, I was experiencing a particularly rough period of an illness. I asked for a 24-hour extension on a final. Rather than receiving the extension, it was suggested to me that perhaps a leave of absence was more appropriate. I had two finals left before I’d be done with an entire semester’s worth of work, and people who barely knew me thought that because I needed accommodations, I couldn’t make it through school. It was insulting, to say the least. I took those finals knowing that I had to prove myself, and that made them all the more difficult. I feel the same way when I have to hand in an assignment slightly late, or show up slightly late to class because of sleep troubles, with a professor who explicitly says that they hate late assignments or tardiness. It makes me feel like I’ll never measure up, and maybe I shouldn’t even bother trying. This thought pattern is ridiculous – and I can almost always see that – but when I’m in the midst of feeling that doubt and fear, it’s hard to remember.

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I think professors need to know that students with disability accommodations are not exaggerating when they say they need help. We’ve been socialized to take up as little space as possible. We hate showing what others perceive as weakness, and we are often hesitant to ask for help because it’s hard to know if we’ll need help again in the future. We don’t want to exhaust professors’ grace and patience with us. It’s easy to think that by the end of the semester, our professors will be frustrated with us – and it often feels to be the case. Our circumstances are unpredictable – I can’t look at my calendar and say, “The week of February 19, I’ll need extensions because I’ll be bed-ridden by pain” – so we know to only ask for help if we desperately need it. With this in mind, believe us when we do ask. Trust that we know ourselves well enough to know if something is too much for us; don’t make that assumption for us.

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Professors and fellow classmates, please see that my needs aren’t special; they’re real and valid, just like yours. Take time to learn more about more about disability and working with disabled people because just like other minority groups’, our voices matter. If you don’t listen to our voices, it’s hard to imagine us continuing to show up. If we stop showing up, it’s not only us who lose out, but you as well.

It is God who put a call on my life, and no human can stop me – and nobody at an institution that helps to shape a sense of calling and vocation should make me doubt that.”

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