Students at a university lecture.

When a Professor Said My Accommodations Were 'Unfair' to Students Without Disabilities

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Being an aerospace engineering major has been expectantly difficult, in unexpected ways. I knew this would be a hard career path for me to follow. As a woman, I have experienced sexist behavior in my flight training before and predicted its presence in this male dominated degree as well. I have a type of dyslexia, called dyscalculia, that effects the way I see and work with numbers. So, I anticipated my disability would cause me to struggle while studying rocket science as well. However, I never would have thought simply having a disability would cause such an issue.

Because of my disability, I get certain accommodations from my university. I am allowed a calculator on every exam, I get extended time on exams and take them in a reduced distraction room that is separate from the rest of my class. These accommodations are meant to aid in “leveling the playing field,” so to speak, and every professor is legally required to provide them. Even though they must provide them, not all my professors have been happy about it.

A little over a year ago, I was discussing my accommodations before an upcoming exam with a professor of mine. Even though he signed the agreement to the accommodations from the university, he was still confused about the whole thing. He then proceeded to express his feelings of how my accommodations were “unfair to the other students.” I knew then that the semester was going to be an uphill battle.

It seemed as though at every opportunity, my professor made taking the class more difficult for me. I tried to avoid setting up my accommodations with him and sought out help from the graduate teaching assistant (GTA) instead. Before the next exam, I was discussing the accommodations with the GTA when my professor interrupted us just as I was reminding him that my extended time is double the class time. My professor informed me that he wasn’t required to give me the double time for my exam and he would consider the extension.

A wave of anger washed over me. I reminded him of the contract he signed and that he legally must provide the accommodations. I panicked and tried to calculate my exam time with my start and stop times. I struggled with it as mental math is something my disability greatly affects but I had to make sure I was being provided for since my professor wasn’t. Luckily, he allowed for the correct amount of time, out of the kindness of his heart, I’m sure.

Eventually, the final came. Throughout the semester, I would typically start my exams at the same time as the rest of the students and go longer. For the final, I was worried this would cause a problem for me. I had another final for a different class shortly afterwards and felt as though that did not give me enough time to prepare for the next exam. So I proposed to my professor that we start my final exam 30 minutes earlier.

He dragged his feet over this trivial matter of just 30 minutes. First, he couldn’t do that because he arrives on campus at 8:00 and not 7:30. He told me starting that early was a lot of effort and he just didn’t see how it would be worth it. So, I suggested the GTA proctor it instead. That wasn’t acceptable either. I then recommended that the department secretary provide it. That also wouldn’t work because the department office opens at 8:00 and not 7:30. He eventually told me he would think about coming in at 7:30 and he would let me know.

I did end up taking my exam 30 minutes earlier, but my professor never let me know of his decision. I was left guessing at which time my exam was until that morning. I showed up at 7:30 just to be safe and caught him right outside his office.

My professor’s actions left me feeling isolated and as though my aptitude was not up to the standardss of someone who truly belongs in engineering. This experience further increased my depression and anxiety as well. My university had failed me by failing to train their faculty. I have since learned that faculty members are not required to take any kind of training from the university regarding students with disabilities.

After this experience, I have since advocated my own concerns and ideas for improvement to several campus officials. Despite some positive reactions, I feel as though not much has changed. Even in this current semester I have experienced discrimination. When explaining to a professor that I am training a service dog that will start coming to class, he inquired if I have asked the rest of the students if they were OK with me bringing a dog. He suggested that the class vote on the matter, as he thought it might be distracting to everyone else.

What will it take for my university to start listening to my concerns and train their professors? When will I be provided what I need to be successful without it being a question of fairness to those without disabilities?

After the comment about my service dog, I went to the office that provides the accommodations for students with disabilities. They were shocked about what had happened and informed me of my options. They also notified my department chair and he finally agreed to mandatory training at the next faculty meeting, something I had previously suggested with no results.

After the mandatory training, I have been able to bring my service dog to aid with my depression and anxiety symptoms, and receive my accommodations for dyscalculia without much struggle. There is always room for improvement, however, and I will continue fighting for it.

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Thinkstock photo by Monkey Business Images.

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Why My 10-Year-Old Daughter Wrote a Book About Disabilities and Adoption

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My daughter Mariah is 10 years old. We met her for the first time when she was 4 years old and living in a Ukrainian orphanage. She had been there her entire life. Mariah was born prematurely and as a result has cerebral palsy. In Eastern Europe, children with disabilities are often not valued as members of society and their parents are encouraged to abandon them at the hospital. Mariah had spent four years without proper nutrition, therapy, intervention, or a family. At the time of our embassy visit in Kyiv, she was 4 years old, unable to walk or stand, and weighed 24 pounds.

Adoption is entering into a child’s life and embracing everything about them that they’ve been carrying alone. As a parent, its not easy to jump into a book that’s already 12 chapters in the making and figure out how the story needs to go. We fumbled along for some time with the best ways to help Mariah. Part of figuring out how to help her was to first figure out what she needed help with!

During our years of trying to get Mariah the appropriate services in the Special Education system, she experienced discrimination, a lack of understanding from staff and peers, as well as massive damage to her already fragile self-esteem from being punished often and singled out for behavior caused by her physical and emotional differences.

We made the choice to homeschool two years ago, and as a way to help Mariah process all that has happened in her young life, I encouraged her to write about it. I told her that if she wrote a book, I’d help her edit and publish it, so write she did!

Owning her story and becoming a published author has been a wonderful thing for Mariah. This is something she did that is 100 percent hers. She plans to continue writing about life with cerebral palsy because she wants to explain what makes her different, but also show what makes her the same. She says differences in her abilities often cause her anxiety when meeting new people. She wonders how they will view her. Writing this book has empowered her to feel like finally she is able to affect what is happening in her life, and life isn’t just happening to her.

Mariah wants to see this book in school libraries, and as required reading for staff and students to help educate about adoption and disabilities.  She hopes that if kids see this book in the library, they’ll choose to read it and gain a better understanding of how to be a friend to peers who might struggle with being different. She wants school staff to read her book to gain a better understanding that not all disabilities are visible. Dyslexia, dysgraphia, anxiety, visual impairments and PTSD are common diagnoses among both adopted children and children affected by cerebral palsy. These invisible disabilities were largely ignored while Mariah struggled for years. She hopes to raise awareness of the devastating impact that ignoring learning disabilities can have on a child.  As she puts it, “I wrote this book for kids like me.”

Mariah’s book “Gotcha – An Adoption Story” is available on Amazon.

Mariah holding her book.
Mariah holding her book.

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The Hurtful Words About Learning Disabilities I'm Still Struggling to Move Beyond

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Back in 2013, my high school history teacher told me after class one day that I was going to be living off the government, on the streets and would never be able to do anything with my life because I was “stupid.” He said I should be ashamed about having a disability.

I told many different people including friends, teachers, the principal, and my parents about what he had said to me, and they all looked at me in disbelief, saying “He would never say something like that,” or “I don’t believe you,” and so on. He was the most liked teacher in our school. Teachers, students, and parents loved him, and he got away with saying those things.

I have a learning disability, in almost everything: math, reading, writing, social things, memorization/memory and much more. It also doesn’t help that I have clinical depression and anxiety. 2013 was my senior year of high school. I was just about to graduate in a few short months and I was pumped to see what the world was going to throw at me. School was very hard for me to get through, and some of my grades showed that, especially in his class. When he said those words to me, I felt like everything I was working for was going to be for nothing. I kept on thinking to myself, why should I try if there is nothing for me?

I’m just starting college at 21, and it has been very hard to get myself motivated to do anything. I kept on telling myself that I’m never going to do anything with my life because of my disability. I hated myself for not being able to figure a simple problem out for a college class. I hated how guilty I felt when I had to tell my professor that I had a disability. I hated the looks people gave me when I told them I needed something to be repeated or spelled out. I hated not having the motivation to get up and do anything. I hated not understanding the assignment, and the embarrassment of asking someone for help.

I hated being different.

It has been almost 5 years now, and I still have those words stuck in my head. I wish I could tell my past self that those words don’t matter because they aren’t true. Heck, I wish I could remind my present self that his words don’t matter, but it’s hard when part of you believes them to be true. I wish I had a motivational ending to my story, but the only advice I can give you is don’t give up. I know it’s a cheesy line, but if you give up you are giving in to those words. Prove them wrong!

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What People Don't See About My Nonverbal Learning Disability

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Most people are surprised after they hear that I have a nonverbal learning disability and I am able to speak. Most people are also shocked to find out that I have any disability at all, because I have a seemingly “typical” life with a college degree, a job, family and friends, and my own apartment. Unfortunately, this is the side effect of having a disability that is not well-known or even researched enough to reach a consensus to put in the DSM.

When people look at me, they often don’t see that I have trouble processing their body language. Their perfectly innocent facial expression could confuse me. Their tone of voice may sound harsh to me and make me upset. If they tell me something sarcastic, I may or may not get it right away, or I may not understand it at all. If they are laughing at something, I have the tendency to take it very personally. They don’t see that I have trouble meeting new people or in the past, holding down a job.

When people look at me, they don’t see that nonverbal learning disability causes me to have trouble organizing and keeping my life together. I have trouble with time management and I am always running behind. I always end up losing my keys, or I forget I had an obligation that day. I have trouble sticking to a schedule to keep my apartment clean, and I will often just say “forget it” because it becomes too overwhelming for me.

When people look at me, they don’t know how much trouble I have navigating the streets. I get lost frequently and take wrong turns. I still have to use my hands to determine left or right. I cannot go anywhere without my phone GPS, and people don’t understand why I have to have my phone charged at all times.

When people look at me, they don’t see that I have poor fine motor skills. I cannot open the childproof caps on medicine bottles. If something is screwed on too tightly, I cannot open it until someone is around to help me. I have trouble picking up small items and I have little grip strength. When people see me, they don’t see that I have visual spatial issues. They don’t see that I can’t drive because I have poor depth perception. They don’t understand why it’s terrifying for me to climb down stairs or take an escalator, because it feels like I’m falling. They don’t understand why I am constantly bruised and scraped as an adult because I tripped into something, or fell because I tripped over something.

When people see me, they don’t see that I have sensory issues. The small noises people make will get to me and cause anxiety. If someone is chewing too loudly, it will make me angry, especially if I’m trying to concentrate. A lot of scents are too much for me and cause headaches. A lot of fabric is too itchy for me to wear, and I’d much rather be in sweatpants and a hoodie.

When people see me, they don’t understand why I am so anxious and reserved. They don’t understand that because I’ve been through so much and I’ve felt shunned so much of my life, I have trouble coping with the world around me. They don’t understand that living life is overwhelming for me and I just want to stay home a lot of the time. They don’t understand that what I go through is exhausting and takes a lot out of me. It’s exhausting having to explain what my disability involves and why I behave a certain way.

Nonverbal learning disorder is legitimate, and while I’m fortunate that I have a milder case and a great support system, I still struggle. It is my hope that I can raise awareness and hopefully someday, nonverbal learning disorder will find its way into a future version of the DSM, so future generations can get the help they deserve.

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My Vivid World With Nonverbal Learning Disorder

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One of the last things people learn about me is that I’m on the autism spectrum.

When I’m telling someone about myself, that’s usually the last fact included. It’s not that it isn’t important. It’s just something I usually omit because once people know you’re on the spectrum, it can reshape their perception of you and they may define you by it.

I was born with NLD, or nonverbal learning disorder. It’s similar to Asperger’s syndrome, distinguished by only a few divergent traits. I have only ever met one other person who has it. NLD affects everyone differently. I’ve searched in online groups for others who function in the same way, but so far, nobody else’s version seems identical to mine. It would be great to find someone whose case I could relate to.

While I can’t explain what living with the disorder is like for everybody, I can describe how it is for me.

To imagine how I’ve spent most of my life, try to remember the drunkest you’ve ever been. Not giddily tipsy, but crashing-into-walls sloshed. You’re easily distracted yet struggle to multitask. You get lost all the time and can’t drive. A short leap looks like a mile’s trek, and a stranger’s silence sounds like a prime opportunity to treat them to stories about your most awkward first dates and complain about your bacne. This is hyperbolic, but it’s how I felt throughout all my years growing up — without the influence of any substances.

My disability was first identified in fourth grade. I was desperate for a diagnosis so my teachers would know it wasn’t my fault. They’d get frustrated because they thought I was smart, but I couldn’t follow directions. Despite my knack for writing, I wasn’t allowed into the gifted program. They only included kids who had straight A’s in every class.

I was clumsy in many ways. Synchronized dancing in theater camp was a hilarious nightmare. I was hapless at sports. I once managed to stub my toe while my foot was three feet above the ground.

The social clumsiness was a lot more painful. I had no verbal filter. Ideas were constantly bursting into mental subthreads, as if my brain were the original Reddit — including the trolling. It felt like word bubbles appeared above my head and would pop unless I filled them in immediately. I expressed thoughts with little to no awareness of how cutting, excessively unabridged, or just plain weird they were.

Other kids teased me, but they usually wouldn’t take it too far in my presence. I could eviscerate them with comebacks that left everyone laughing. People seemed to laugh at me and with me in equal measure. I had trouble keeping friends. They rarely confronted me directly, but I’d hear what they said to each other. They called me a “ditz” and an “airhead.” They said I was always seeking attention. The last judgment was true, although I felt a lot of them were doing the same. They were just less obvious about it, so my lack of subtlety allowed them to point at me and direct people’s notice away from their own similar behavior.

It wasn’t until I was 20 that my head began to clear. The spatial disorientation, obliviousness to my surroundings, and struggle with transitions is still pervasive. But my social awareness is now sharper, and sobering up to it was mortifying. I began to profusely apologize to those I’d offended in the past, handing out regrets like street flyers. Eventually I came to stop over-apologizing and strive for more balance.

Others have told me I’m insightful. That might be true, but I’m not perceptive. It took me years to grasp the distinction. My consciousness does not exist in a linear and uninterrupted flow, but in snapshots with vacant spaces in between. In childhood I used to think of them as “blank-outs”; those lapses in which my brain briefly freezes and buffers. It’s like living within ellipses, jumping along islands instead of walking a continuous strip of land.

This also means my mind doesn’t create an internal map of my whereabouts. When out in public and trying to find my way, it’s like I’m spinning and perpetually dizzy. This makes me a prime target for predators who notice I look lost and try to coerce me into their cars.

For all of these reasons, I cannot move freely throughout the world. Instead I navigate through cyberspace, imagination, and ideas. I travel in stories and songs, with words as my compass. My husband says I seem to experience language in entirely my own way, and it’s true. Words are their own dimension. They’re like an additional sense.

Because most of my journeys are not physical, my artistic and aesthetic taste is vivid sometimes to the point of garishness. I can’t surround myself with muted colors and grayscale music. I need atomic glitter bombs and guns that shoot rainbows. I need songs that flutter with caffeinated beats. I crave whatever makes ears tickle, eyes pop, and hearts roar. Maybe people with more external adventures prefer to settle into a mellow existence in between. That’s completely understandable, but it’s too low-key for me.

People expect me to have more tattoos because I’m so stimulated by visuals. I don’t need them. I’m made of images and phrases and stains which I carry under my skin and express when I choose to. So is everyone else. Many of my most creative friends are inked, and I love getting lost in the stories of their designs. I just prefer to keep my skin a blank page.

Some friends jokingly ask if I’m tripping when I write like this. I’m not inclined toward drugs. Maybe it would make little difference if I did use them, because either way I’d be surfing on brain chemical waves, but it’s already intoxicating to inhale words and pass them on. To snort colors and patterns. Inject musical notes. There is no withdrawal and it costs you nothing. It’s all free, and it frees you.

These types of mental vacations might make up for my inability to physically navigate if NLD didn’t also affect my career options. Because I can’t drive, and public transportation has to be planned so carefully, I have mostly been limited to working from home. I’ve only recently branched out. It can take me five hours to learn a simple bus route.

Doctors can’t discern my IQ with the usual tests because there’s such a chasm between my spatial and verbal intelligence. I spoke in full sentences at 9 months old but couldn’t tie my shoes until third grade. I can explain how a color looks and feels to someone who has never seen it, but I have to count on my fingers for simple addition. Sometimes language can be a zero-sum game. Once I’m locked into its dimension, words are all I see and I stumble over everything else.

When people hear that someone has a learning disability, they often make negative assumptions about our intellectual capacity. Years ago my dad was driving me to school and he wanted to park closer to the building because I could only recognize the location from one side, even though I went there every day. He told the parking lot attendant I had a learning disability and asked him to let us through. The guy appraised me as if I were a small child and said, “Can she get herself inside?” I was right next to him, but he addressed my father, as if I couldn’t answer the question.

This is the backdrop of my life, and it will be for as long as I live. But as distressing, discouraging, embarrassing and infuriating as these struggles can sometimes be, I don’t think I would exchange them for a chance to be “normal.” NLD may be a disability, but it’s my disability. By blurring my vision in certain areas, it’s helped me see so much more clearly in others. And it’s allowed me to show others what I see, to share a communal vision.

NLD may have been delivered to me in a heavy box which I often find myself caught inside. But in the end, it still came as a gift.

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When People Say My Son With Invisible Disabilities 'Looks Fine'

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My son is 12. At first glance he looks completely typical. He’s athletic, muscular, handsome, and quick to smile. Gymnastics are his favorite sport. He was thrilled when I signed him up for classes. He’s good at gymnastics because running, jumping, and strength training come easy for him.

What no one can see is the PTSD he carries from years in an orphanage. No one knows he just learned to speak English; his accent is hardly noticeable now, but expressive-receptive language disorder presents the same in any language. Severe dyslexia that went undiagnosed and without intervention for most of his life can make reading and writing a colossal task for him. He feels “dumb” and struggles with self-esteem. I am trying to boost his self-image by involving him in things he is good at.

Auditory processing disorder is invisible, but the effects are not. It often looks like “not listening,” but his brain is scrambling to figure out what you want him to do. He wants to please, but sometimes he cannot compute what is said in what is considered a reasonable amount of time. I homeschool him now because in public school, his anxiety and fear of getting things wrong became overwhelming. He is terrified of disapproval, but could neither read nor clearly understand what was being said. The “simplify instructions” and “repeat instructions as needed” accommodations in his IEP didn’t seem to matter if he was raising his hand to ask just one.more.time. Frustrated at the lack of proper accommodations, he often had meltdowns after he got home.

“He looks fine” is a phrase I came to hate. Looks can be deceiving. He is smart, funny, and amazing, but the challenges he deals with are far from “fine.”

A gymnastic coach told him last week in front of the class, “You have slow listening.” He was really crushed by it. The place where he excels most pointed out his weakness.

It hurt me to hear that. Yes, he does have slow listening, but it doesn’t mean he is not listening. It left me angry, and confused. Do I speak with his coach? Do I ignore it?

Auditory processing disorder. Dyslexia. Expressive-receptive language disorder. Does anyone really take the time to look these up and understand what they mean besides parents? I write diagnoses down on forms, yet watch my boys get called out for aspects of their disabilities as if they are at fault.

Invisible disabilities are both a blessing and a curse. There is no parking tag, no hearing aids, no wheelchair. People with invisible disabilities blend in and are expected to act like everyone else. When they do not, the first action often isn’t to offer help, but to shame.

My daughter with cerebral palsy takes gymnastics at the same gym. The coaches are fantastically accommodating with her physical limitations. They are encouraging and push her to be the best she can be. There is no comparing her to the typical kids in her class. No one would ever tell her she has “slow running.” She already knows that, of course, just like my son with auditory processing disorder knows he has slow hearing. Criticizing a child for an invisible disability is no less devastating than if they were in a wheelchair and someone demanded they walk faster.

Parenting kids with both invisible and and physical disabilities is a difficult balance. I sit and watch as time after time, people are openly sympathetic and accommodating to my daughter who is fiercely independent, yet ignore the not-so-visible needs of my sons who just want to do well. This parenting journey has opened my eyes to many things I never knew existed. Daily, I witness the struggle of looking the same when everything works differently. Sometimes I want to explain it to the world, and some days I just wish I didn’t have to.

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