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To the Teachers Who Question Accommodations for Students With Invisible Illnesses

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Dear Teachers of Students With Invisible Illnesses,

I know you are compassionate people and really do try. You chose to work with young adults. I don’t think you chose teaching because you like kicking people when they are down. I’m sure you feel you are doing the best thing for everyone when you don’t honor a student’s accommodations so you can “be fair” to the other students.

But there are some things you may not realize.

You may not believe these students have actual medical conditions because when you see them, you are usually seeing them at their best — on the days they are able to make it to class and get their work done. But please understand, many medical and psychological conditions are cyclical. A student might be fine for a month or more and then have a flare-up that’s so bad she can hardly get out of bed. Just because a condition isn’t there 100 percent of the time doesn’t make it not real.

You also may not realize that often those with invisible illnesses are great actors. They work hard to cover up the fact that they feel bad. They might be fighting an internal battle just to make it through the class and learn something — and it’s possible you would never know how hard they were struggling while sitting right in front of you.

It’s easy to think that someone who consistently is late to class or doesn’t show up is lazy. High school and college kids ditch class all the time. You probably think your strict attendance policy is to help them show up. But for those who have diagnosed mental, physical, or mental and physical issues, it’s a totally different ball game.

My daughter has several “invisible illnesses.” She has fibromyalgia, dysautonomia, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder along with some other issues. You don’t see her crying because she’s hurting so badly that she can’t stand up to pick out her clothes for the day. You don’t see her not eat because she is nauseated from anxiety because she’s behind in her schoolwork. You don’t see her try to “be normal” (for once) and go to a sporting event during a school break only to have it wipe her out for days afterward.

I understand you probably have students in your classes that don’t care. They don’t care what they learn; they don’t care what grades they make; all they care about is hanging out with friends and partying. But that is not my daughter, or most students with chronic illnesses and disabilities. I can’t speak about every student with an invisible illness, but I have known several. Generally, they are incredibly hardworking and care so much about doing a good job and making great grades, even with all of the obstacles they deal with daily.

These young adults often have more than the average number of doctor, therapist, and specialist appointments that take time away from attending class and getting homework/studying done. Not going to class is a necessity at times for these kids because they can’t deal with the pain or aren’t able to concentrate. They know if they make it to class, they will be held accountable for the information, so sometimes they are absent because they know they won’t be able to retain what was said. It’s better for them to wait and get the notes later when they are able to focus.

Their anxiety often increases with every class missed. This starts a horrible cycle. Class was missed so the notes have to be obtained, which takes time and effort. If there are questions about the lecture or assignment, a peer or professor has to be contacted to make it clear. If there was a quiz, test, or in-class work done, time outside of class must be found to make it up, which takes much more time and effort than just doing it in class. If there is a test review, these students miss this important benefit.

Spending time catching up from the missed class(es) means there may not be enough time to get the new homework or studying done before the next class. So even if they’re able to get to the next class, they are behind. They are trying so hard to catch up but “brain fog” (yes, that’s a real thing) won’t let them concentrate. New material is much harder to comprehend if they haven’t been able to fully understand what was discussed earlier. Their anxiety increases, which makes it harder to focus on catching up and usually makes the underlying condition worse, getting even more behind. And the cycle continues…

Think about it logically… Why would a formerly good student choose to do all that extra work day after day if it wasn’t necessary? Yes, some students get to high school or college and decide that fun is more important than grades, but those students also don’t work constantly to try to make up what was missed.

This cycle is complicated further when a student feels the teacher or school won’t understand and thus doesn’t feel comfortable disclosing a disability or requesting accommodations. In this situation, the student struggles alone.

These students with health issues essentially have to teach themselves the material. I don’t want to offend, but it seems like some of the best professors and teachers automatically assume each student who isn’t on time at every class is lazy and doesn’t care. In many cases, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Another argument I sometimes hear is: “When they get out in the workforce, there won’t be those accommodations.” I understand this point. As a mom, I am concerned about this point. I don’t want my daughter to rely so much on her accommodations that she won’t be a good employee or have a great career.

But there are several problems with that argument. One is that an employer is paying you to work; in college, you are paying for the education. The school is essentially the employee. So the school should do what the student (employer) needs in order to get the training needed to later enter the workforce.

Along those same lines, when these young adults go out to find employment, they can request job accommodations, as is their right under the Americans With Disabilities Act. They can look for jobs that could accommodate their needs. Jobs that include working from home, gig work, freelance, or those with flexible work hours are becoming more popular these days. Will these young adults always be able to get these jobs that will work around their disabilities? Maybe not, but if they know that there is no way they can work a typical 9-5 job, then they’ll have to figure that out. Penalizing them while doing what it takes to get a degree won’t automatically mean they will be able to work a standard job later.

Another problem with that argument is that a young adult is just figuring all this out. Most would agree that being a teenager or young adult can be a difficult time of life in the best of circumstances. Many young adults with chronic mental or physical illnesses aren’t diagnosed until their late teenage years. Even if diagnosed as a child, learning to deal with these issues on your own is entirely different than when your parents or teachers were there to help you.

Think about a 10-year-old diagnosed with diabetes. At first, his parents and teachers help with managing the disease. So by the time he gets to college, he should have experience in watching what he eats, independently testing his blood glucose, and figuring out how much insulin to inject. But in college he has to also be in charge of making sure he stays on top of ordering insulin; that he gets the supplies needed for testing and injections; that he knows what is going to be served at the cafeteria or an event so that he can bring something different if needed; and that he knows how to inform his teachers and other peers about what to do if he has an issue. This is a lot to handle for someone who has already been dealing with it for years, but it’s even more so for someone just diagnosed.

If you find out you have a chronic condition that even doctors don’t fully understand when you are a teen or young adult, it makes this already difficult time of life much, much harder to navigate. This age group doesn’t have the life experience to know how to navigate the medical system; in fact, many don’t know how to make a doctor appointment on their own. When you find out you have a lifelong condition that is manageable once the right therapy is found (which could take months or years) but isn’t curable, it makes getting a homework assignment done on time not as much of a priority. Give this student a few years working with doctors and specialists and management might be a whole different story.

I know you want to help all the students you are teaching. Please remember that these young adults deserve the same education as others do, even if it takes more effort to give them that education. Work with them within the limits of their accommodations. Instead of looking down on them because they were late, recognize how hard it is for them to make it to class at all. Make them feel comfortable about coming to you when they run into issues because of their diagnosed conditions. Listen to their concerns about their grades and their later careers being affected by something they don’t understand and can’t fix. Above all, trust, support and validate that you realize they are trying as hard as they can… just like everyone else.

Another Mom of a Hardworking Young Adult With an Invisible Illness

This story originally appeared on Spotlight on Stigma.

Getty image by Prostock Studio.

Originally published: December 3, 2019
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