Imagine being a college freshman living with a chronic health condition who only figures out two weeks before their final exams.
Picture being told that an incomplete would be “unfair to the other students of the course” despite trying to tell your professor that you need one after discovering the reason you’ve been sleeping 18 hours a day was because you had arthritis and were hospitalized. All of this while your insurance is fighting to avoid covering your now-needed medication.
It sounds like fiction but, no, that’s the reality I, along with others, experienced at the University of Michigan, as an 18-year-old. Depressed, abandoned and now angry, I got through this myself, with minimal support provided by the University. Now, I could talk endlessly about how the pandemic affected me and complain more about my circumstances. But this isn’t about that. Instead, I want to reflect on my disability and its intersection with University policy and how to make it better. My experience is something I loathe for myself, let alone being the norm for other students just struggling to exist (studies being an afterthought).
The Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) office is something that sounds great in theory. However, it really is the Wild West and at the discretion of departments, professors and whoever else runs this place. For example, in 2020, I got my first SSD letter and had a meeting with my “officer” from SSD, and they wrote in all these accommodations, such as flexible attendance, extended test-taking and flexible deadlines.
This sounds super helpful, right? Well, actually, the catch to all the anxiety-relieving accommodations is that the professors can still determine their own policies on an “individual level.” No matter what it is, including a hospital visit, chronic insomnia or even blood clots in your leg, these accommodations are to be used as recommendations for your situation and not actually policies.
One of my first experiences with this was a history class that sounded awesome, with attendance required. I explained to my professor that I’ll be there every day I can, because I have chronic insomnia and auto-immune baggage. I even offered make-up work. Instead, the choice to take a course I liked was stripped from me because I couldn’t meet a physical attendance requirement. I thought disabilities weren’t supposed to define a person like myself, but you really have no choice when a professor gets to use them as a reason why you aren’t good enough for their course.
I could go on and on about the negative experiences with professors, but the honest truth is that many are great people and super kind. The only issue is when you have a professor with a course that is required for your major who really couldn’t care less about your situation. This is something that I think is obvious, but let me spell it out: There should be absolutely no reason that a student with a disability should not be able to take a course because of their disability. That’s insane, that sucks and that’s my experience, so far. But I think it could change.
Has policy progressed during my three years? No, but things could get better. Recently, the SSD office launched a new accommodation app to centralize communication to professors for SSD students. It’s a great step, but it changes nothing about the enforceability of those accommodations. I wish there were more.
I have ideas to change things around here for students being screwed over for something they cannot control. First, offer more resources to SSD students. There are notetakers for those with visual impairments, and I think that’s excellent. However, not even all professors record their lectures for students with attendance-related issues, such as chronic insomnia, students with weakened immune systems during a pandemic and those with physical disabilities that make them unable to consistently travel to class. A start would be enforcing lecture capture for any professor with an SSD-eligible student in their class. Heck, why not all professors? It seems obvious in 2022. Most classrooms are outfitted with recording equipment, so the switch wouldn’t entail as much effort for the University.
Second, if a student has attendance issues, give them the opportunity to do extra work. One of the things I never understood is why professors acted so adamant about enforcing attendance, especially in the face of students with disabilities. The nice professors who seemed to actually care about me as a student and my dignity as a person accepted my offer to do a make-up reflection paper for every class I missed. The Psychology Department itself had this policy already built into its introductory courses last fall. To spread this option to all, enforcing flexible work as a substitute for missed attendance would be extremely helpful.
Third, stop providing inequitable policies, such as a certain number of days missed, as the sole option for students. One of the things that only sound smart if you don’t think about them is allowing students three missed classes for no reason to explain, or three late days with no penalty or anything that is a number that is postured for students to feel comfortable about stress. The obvious reasons this is inequitable is that these policies are enforced equally against SSD students. Often a student has special needs in the first place because they require more support than the bare minimum, catch-all policy offered to all the other students of a course. If you are going to have this policy, make an exception for SSD students or make a special policy tailored specifically for SSD students.
I could go on about more ideas. However, this is the bare minimum that needs to change. If there is one thing that students need to be aware of, it’s that inequity is still a mandated policy of the University by virtue of their inaction and their lack of advocacy for SSD students. I hope this changes, and I encourage anyone, SSD student or otherwise, to make substantial changes to their mission.
Tyler Fioritto is an LSA Junior and can be reached at email@example.com.