Coping in the classroom: "Invisible" illnesses require academic accommodations from University

Monday, February 12, 2018 - 4:34pm

For students like LSA sophomore Sari Grossman, who suffers from Crohn’s disease — a chronic gastrointestinal ailment resulting in frequent complications and trips to the bathroom — not a moment goes by without the thought her disease might flare up during class or a test. Public Health junior Madison Polay has similar worries during the day while coping with her Type 1 diabetes. Polay always makes sure she carries enough snacks just in case her blood sugar drops, leaving her dizzy and unable to concentrate in class.

“I always make sure I am eating regularly, food with carbs so my blood (sugar) goes up and I try and get it higher so my pump isn’t alarming when my blood sugar is going low,” Polay said. “I have to make sure that I am stocked with juice boxes and snacks in my backpack.”

“Invisible” diseases that afflict students, including Crohn’s, colitis, diabetes, Lyme disease, mental health illnesses and more, often go unnoticed. Many of these diseases require students to alter their academic routines in order to be successful at the University of Michigan.

The Office of Services for Students with Disabilities helps accommodate these students’ needs and works with University faculty to ensure their conditions do not impede their academic abilities through testing accommodations, note-taking services, real-time translations and more. According to the SSD 2016-2017 annual report, the office served 2,708 students, 14 percent of whom suffer from a chronic illness, making chronic illness the third most common condition seen by SSD. According to Megan Marshall, coordinator of services for students with chronic health conditions, visual and mobility impairments, the accommodations process is a collaborative effort and dependent on communication.

“Accommodations are 95 percent communications,” Marshall said. “(We) are taking a lot of time to make sure (students) are being supported in the classroom … and making sure that everyone feels good about everything; it’s a team effort.”

Marshall emphasized each student’s needs differ. When evaluating students’ accommodations, she looks over their medical reports from doctors, researches the condition and meets with students individually.

“I believe that people with disabilities know themselves best,” Marshall said. “It’s an individualistic process and every student is completely different than another.”

LSA senior Lauren Kimmel, president of the Crohn’s and Colitis Student Initiative, said she needs the support of the SSD in order to schedule her IV infusions when she must miss class. Public Health student Kayla Mandel, former president of the organization, said students with Crohn’s may need to take an exam in a separate room close to a bathroom and be timed separately.

“No one has the same manifestation of Crohn’s, but for me I fear... during an exam or a pop quiz, having to run to the bathroom and get back and having time being called,” Mandel said. “(I) fear that professors are going to think you are acting nefariously.”

According to Mandel, many students do not know how to receive accommodations for their illness.

“(The possible alteration) isn’t advertised, you have to seek it out. It’s not like the University emails me (about accommodations),” Mandel said. “They aren’t going to pull that information and inform me about it.”

Polay is not registered with the SSD and said she does not feel that she needs the accommodations. While taking an exam in a separate room would be helpful if she needs to check her blood sugar, Polay said she is concerned the isolated environment would harm her performance. Rather, she ensures she is prepared for an exam by eating before and making sure she has extra supplies in her backpack.

“I definitely think it would be helpful because it would take off that extra worry I have during an exam,” Polay said. “I don’t know if it would be beneficial (for me) because I just know that if you are ready and prepared for something and are surrounded by a bunch of people you do better than when you are just around yourself.”

Invisible illnesses often make students worry about how professors and other students perceive them in the classroom. Many of these students may have to step out of class to go to the bathroom or check their blood sugar, something that may take more time than a traditional bathroom break. An illness like Crohn’s can also deplete a student’s immune system, making recovery from a traditional cold more challenging.

“On the outside, you can’t tell if they are physical disabilities,” Mandel said. “They are called invisible illnesses for a reason, so a classmate might think you are slacking on something and didn’t turn in the assignment because you look hungover but actually you are recovering from a cold you got two weeks ago.”

Marshall said she works with registered students on self-advocacy in the classroom, a skill they can also use in the professional world in the future.

“I really think what’s difficult for these students is the invisible nature of it, and there is the feeling they need to prove that they might be struggling,” Marshall said. “Even if they might tell someone, there is a sense of not quite believing the individual … I work really closely with my students on self-advocacy skills, just because it's something you are going to readily need from time to time so they have those skills readily at hand.”