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3 Tips for Accessing Accommodations

Not long after I was diagnosed with axial spondyloarthritis, I spoke to my doctor about accommodations at college. My pain and brain fog add a difficult layer to learning, and accommodations exist for that very reason.

Yet after waiting in his waiting room for nearly an hour, my doctor looked confused when I asked if he would be willing to write me an accommodation letter.

“You don’t need that. That would disable you,” he told me, spoken like someone who doesn’t live with chronic pain.

I would now argue that my rheumatic condition disables me on its own. I also argue that disability and realistic limitations following a serious diagnosis aren’t bad things. Later on I received a letter from my a different doctor, my primary care physician, but this rheumatologist’s viewpoint couldn’t help but leave a poor taste in my mouth.

Going through higher education as a student with a disability is wrought with barriers

So much so that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports only 16% of people 25 and older had completed their bachelor’s degree compared to 35% of those in the same age group without a disability.1

Accommodations serve to level the playing field between myself and my able bodied peers. This has the long term goal of raising that 16% of disabled people with a degree. I believe we must open up conversations about accommodations to ease this stigma, both to ease these conversations in doctors office as well as in the classroom.

This is only one example of why so many students don’t register with their colleges’ disability offices. In many cases, uneducated doctors are only the first barrier in a line when trying to seek accommodations in the classroom.

Students are legally entitled to reasonable accommodations per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Yale has reported that while 11% of undergraduate students register with their colleges’ disability office, the actual number of students with disabilities is 2 or 3 times higher.2

So what can be done? These are the tips I give other college student seeking accommodations for their chronic illness:

1. Remember that self advocacy is the strongest tool you have.

If you find yourself in a situation where a doctor dismisses you upon bringing up educational accommodations, don’t take an initial rejection as something final.

As someone with a disability, you are entitled to reasonable accommodations. It helps me to keep that in mind when approaching these conversations. You are the best advocate you have, and no one will fight harder for you than you.

If worse comes to worst, I would ask your doctor to note their refusal to write an accommodation letter. Sometimes this can serve as a wake up call.

2. Stay educated on your condition

Whenever I approached my primary care physician, I had pages of notes about my condition. Pain scales, the nature of flares, notes on brain fog and slowed ambulation. While I had better luck with this doctor than the rheumatologist, I was not going to be caught unprepared. An educated patient is a prepared one.

I find that approaching appointments with facts and logical observations of my lived experience can ease some doctors into seeing you as a teammate in your care. Staying educated on your condition can also aid you if you find barriers when approaching disability services.

3. Be honest with your professors

When I was lacking accommodations, my professors served as my teammates. I told them the truth, told them about AxSpa and how it affected me in school, and asked for “unofficial accommodations.”

In most cases, my professors wanted to help me learn the best I could. So when I told them about my pain and asked for help, they were eager to aid me however they could. If all else fails with official accommodations, your professors may be able help fill in these gaps.

All of this is to say that higher education can and should be accessible to us. We bring a unique perspective to any and all job fields, and it is my hope that universities and doctors start to catch onto this.

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