Health · Mental health

Academia, You Need to Do Better.

Anyone with a chronic illness of any kind attempting to make it through the education system deserves a standing ovation. Anyone with a chronic illness who couldn’t make it or managed to make it deserves a standing ovation. Why? Let’s be real. The education system doesn’t exactly want to play nicely with those of us with chronic illness.

Browse #EverydayAcademicAbleism on Twitter. That hashtag is eye-opening and alarming. I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who had certain things happen to them in the name of simply trying to get a diploma.

Academia needs to do better. They already should have been doing better.

I’m writing this after spending the last ten days buried in school work. I recognize that I’m immensely privileged. I made it through HS, undergrad, and I’m in the last stretch of graduate school. I managed this with physical and mental illness in varying degrees of severity. Notice I say ‘managed’, and have been saying ‘managed’ throughout this post. I say ‘managed’ because it required a ton of work on my part because academia is an entity that normalizes struggling, stress, and sacrificing your health for the sake of a diploma.

I say ‘managed’ because, in high school, it was just widely pushed that we all had to struggle. I didn’t know there was help out there for me as I struggled to focus and get things done and excel in extracurriculars while being in pain and having depression and anxiety.

I say ‘managed’ because University is the same. You’re supposed to have all-nighters and cry over assignments. Stress is part of the college experience. No. The normalization of this is not okay. My university didn’t clearly broadcast the Office of Disability Accommodations as a source of help. I had to seek them out, research, etc.

I say ‘managed’ because I didn’t receive accommodations until the middle of my undergrad career because I didn’t know I qualified for them.

I say ‘managed’ because when I had my mental breakdown, I had to struggle to keep up despite having zero motivation.

I say ‘managed’ because, by the end of my undergrad career, I lost all my hair and walked across the stage in a wig thanks to lupus-induced alopecia from the stress of it all. But it’s just the college experience, right?

I say ‘managed’ because in graduate school, a course was particularly difficult, and the professor refused my accommodations and I didn’t know that I could fight for myself until it was almost too late.  That is unacceptable.

I say ‘managed’ because, despite accommodations, I’m writing this in the midst of a horrible flare that I received from final graduate work. I received ten days to complete the final three research papers that everyone had to complete in seven days. Yes, it’s seven days to complete three six-page research papers, and if you fail, you can’t graduate. There’s a lot on the line. I sincerely feel like this method of measuring graduate understanding is unfair for everyone, but I digress. I was thankful for the extra time–I needed it despite working on it literally sunup to sundown every day. And now I’m paying the price of pushing myself past my mental and physical limitations.

I’m exhausted. I can’t begin to express how much my body hurts. My seasonal depression, after miraculously being silent while I worked on the papers (I’m chalking it up to being so hyper-focused that my OCD and anxiety about this ‘exam’ sent my depression into the corner for a moment), is back with a raging vengeance. It’s currently mixing with my fears about finding employment, passing the ‘exam’ and being able to graduate, and finding decent insurance. All of this because I want this degree and academia wants to separate the ‘weak’ from the ‘strong’. I guess to them I’m the former.

Academia needs to take a good look at their current practices see how it is impacting both abled and disabled folks. It needs to examine current accommodations or lack thereof and listen to disabled folks, see where the problem areas are, and do what it takes to fix them so everyone can get an education without extra difficulty.

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2 thoughts on “Academia, You Need to Do Better.

  1. I loved, loved, loved going to college. I was a late bloomer, not finishing my undergrad until I was in my 30’s, and had really hoped to finish grad school. I love learning; I loved the environment, the interaction with students of varying backgrounds–far more diverse than my workplace. I miss that environment, and yet many things added to the point of my having to drop out of grad school, and I was just doing one class at a time.

    The work load per class wasn’t horrific, but that was one class at a time. When I was finishing my undergrad, all those papers at the same time nearly killed me. Literally. Four classes–barely full time, and I melted down. I didn’t come back for a long time. It took me over a year to pick up any book after that.

    I love learning. I know a lot of people who love learning, but the sheer volume of work required in a small span of time is more than enough to inflict real damage. Had it not been for a professor of mine sending me a wonderful email after I lost it in her classroom, I really, really would not be here today.

    Thank you for sharing this.

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    1. I’m glad your professor was kind about it. Grad school is, really any higher education, is a lot of work and there’s so many expectations. For abled people it’s a lot, but for those of us with disabilities it’s overwhelming. I’m glad to share my story. So many people suffer and consider not going back and I just want people to know that while it’s awful and hard that they’re not alone. I would love academia to change, and I’d love to help it change because it shouldn’t be so awful that we have to consider stopping.

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