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Getting ADA Accommodations When You Appear Neurotypical

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For someone who has bipolar disorder, I’m what most people would call extremely “high-functioning.” The past year, I’ve worked full-time, went to school full-time, ran a side business in my spare time and took care of my household responsibilities while participating in my marriage. It was a lot, but I thrived in my routine. Needless to say, most people would never guess I was on the verge of disability four years ago due to my illness, but I was.

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However, now since I present as someone who’s entirely neurotypical, it can be really hard for me to admit that I’m not — that I actually struggle quite a bit. This past fall, I did what I considered to be the unthinkable the previous 25 years of my life: I filed for Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodations through my university.

It took a lot to do. I had to fight through the pride that I’d built up claiming I didn’t need accommodations, not to mention actually validate that I had a serious enough mental illness to qualify for services through the ADA office. My whole life, I was taught that I didn’t need help — I was “smart enough” to get through school without accommodations. The truth is, it didn’t really matter. This past semester, I needed those accommodations, and without them, I most likely would’ve ended up dropping out of school.

I thought it’d be a hard process too. I thought there’d be a lot of paperwork and fighting and advocating for why I needed services, but in reality, I submitted a request for services through my school, they asked for a note verifying the information from a medical professional, and I gave it to them. Within 24 hours after that, I had services. Let me tell you, they ended up saving me.

For me personally, my services were that I could have more absences than was allowed. I’m student teaching and my university only allows three absences. However, knowing that I have appointments and sometimes need mental health days, I knew this probably wouldn’t be enough. Maybe I could work it out, but if I couldn’t, what then?

So, after a lot of contemplation, I decided to request extra absences so I could meet my medical needs. And my oh my, did this save my college career multiple times. I had a hospital stay and no one questioned it. I mentioned I had ADA accommodations, and that was that. A couple of times I needed a mental health day. I mentioned I had ADA accommodations and my university had to accept it. Suddenly, it felt like I was untouchable.

Then, when student teaching took a turn for the worse and went terribly due to a monstrous host teacher, I contacted the ADA office and they fought for me to change placements and complete student teaching in a different school — something my university almost never allows.

Looking back I feel silly. When I think about this summer and the embarrassment I had about requesting services, I wonder why I felt that way. Why did I feel like my mental illness wasn’t bad enough? Just because I appeared “normal?”

I remember actually worrying if I was being overdramatic. What if the ADA office said, “No?” What if I didn’t actually need accommodations and was being a baby? What if my mental illness wasn’t really as bad as I’d experienced it to be? What if it was all in my head? I had so many doubts.

But now? Now, the only regret I have is not requesting accommodations sooner. When I mention I have accommodations, I don’t get looked at weird like I worried about. I get met with concern and understanding. I get met with people taking my disability seriously, which I never in a million years thought would happen. I was so focused on the shame of needing accommodations that I never thought about what they’d add to my life — how they’d protect my well-being. Not to mention, my entire college career.

So, if you have an illness, even if you don’t think it’s “that bad,” and there are accommodations you feel would be helpful, I urge you to go for it. As I said, my only regret in all of this is that I didn’t advocate for myself sooner when I should have. Under the ADA, schools and workplaces are required to accommodate you as long as the request is reasonable. Use that to your advantage. Don’t put yourself through a struggle you don’t need to be put through.

And I know, trust me I know, that it can come with a lot of shame, questioning of yourself and wondering if you really need services, but if you’re wondering about it those services would probably be extremely beneficial to you and your wellbeing. So, go for it. The worst your workplace or university can say is, “No.” Which, in some cases, you can challenge.

Because the one thing I’ve learned over the past three months of having accommodations is that in the eyes of ADA, mental illnesses are treated just the same as physical illnesses — even if the vast majority of society can’t manage to do the same yet.

Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for the help you need. That help could change your life for the better. Not to mention, give you protections you wouldn’t otherwise have. So, just please don’t be afraid to go for it. Getting that extra help and protection isn’t a weakness or flaw. It’s something you deserve.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Originally published: November 18, 2020
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