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How Ableism Contributed to Me Leaving Graduate School

A few weeks ago, I finished reading the book “Life of the Mind Interrupted” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal. This book completely changed how I view the struggles and barriers I encountered while in college, both undergrad and grad school.

I don’t remember how I came across the book, but it’s about mental illness and disability in higher education. The entire time I was thinking about my college experience and how much extra effort I had to put in due to my cerebral palsy and mental illness when at the time it felt like all that extra work was “what I had to do to survive.”

I was working on my undergrad from 2011-2014, and I was in the graduate phase of a program in physical therapy from 2014 to October 2016 when I had to leave because my mental health was tanking and it was no longer safe for me to be at school 400 miles away from home. Therefore, it is possible that my experiences with accommodations in school would be different if I were currently in school in 2021.

While there were many frustrating situations due to lack of accessibility, there were a few moments where I was seen by my professors as a whole person and they recognized I needed help in ways they could not provide.

In this book, the author debates whether or not faculty should disclose their mental illness to students as well as if students should tell their professors about their physical and/or mental illness. She talks about how grad school is difficult while living with a mental illness and all the stigma that comes with choosing or needing to disclose it to faculty.

The book reminded me of how hard it was to get accommodations and how professors should strive for universal accessibility in the first place. In order to get accommodations, I had to register with disability services and inform my professors that I was approved to use the accommodations. I was to be allowed to get notes from other students, have extended testing time, and have a table and chair in each of the lecture halls.

Students with disabilities are required to jump through hoops just to get their basic educational needs met.

I think of the weeks of emails back and forth with disability services each semester trying to get tables and chairs in lecture halls. I remember having to drag tables and chairs in from the halls and needing to ask classmates for help because the tables would often be removed from the lecture halls. This accommodation was so I could sit in class and try to focus while not being in constant pain from juggling papers on my lap in the auditorium seating.

Per disability services, the professors were supposed to secure a note-taker for me and I would receive the notes through the professor so I could stay anonymous among my classmates. I remember asking professors for note-takers and having them respond that I needed to connect with someone on my own, which I wasn’t comfortable with, so it just never happened. This happened during grad school and perhaps I should have been advocating for myself among my classmates instead of the professor. I did my best to take as detailed notes as possible, but I often had a hard time focusing in class, so I missed important concepts frequently.

The book talks about the need for professors to use trigger warnings that alert students of difficult topics that may trigger someone. This reminds me of the time during a neuroscience lecture when the professor brought up suicide less than a month after I tried to take my own life during winter break. I had a quick discussion with the professor after class in the front of the room (with a few students around) asking for trigger warnings in the future. Later, I was talked to about the “inappropriateness” of me asking for a warning while standing in the front of the classroom after class.

If I remember correctly, I was told I should have set up an individual meeting with the professor specifically to talk about this topic. Meeting with professors in their offices takes a lot of time and energy I did not have due to my disabilities, so when I knew it could be a two-minute conversation after class, I chose that option to save whatever precious energy I could. I never really understood why my professor thought that was an inappropriate time to discuss it because, as the student, it should have been up to me to judge my comfort level with privacy talking about this subject in the manner I did after class.

Professors need to be sensitive and respectful towards students with disabilities and students who may be in crisis. The book suggests professors should have a plan in place that includes someone they can turn to that can help the student if they themselves can’t handle it on their own.

I’m reminded of the time I broke down crying during a practical and then was called “unprofessional” by my professor because I couldn’t keep myself together. I already was barely surviving finals week and went into the practical shaking and trying not to cry. Being called unprofessional hurt because I had experienced a physiological response of crying due to stress. Would they have said the same thing if instead, my body decided to get sick to my stomach as a physiological response to the same stress?

I remember labs throughout the semesters when we learned different techniques physical therapists use. I recall trying to accommodate the activities to work for my body with very little help from lab instructors circulating in the room. It was difficult to try to ask for help in lab because I have severe performance anxiety, but I don’t remember lab instructors asking if I needed help often either. The lab instructors were to provide guidance to the students to help them learn the techniques properly. Instead of using my own physical therapy appointments to do my strengthening exercises and soft tissue massage, my physical therapist and I would try to figure out ways for me to be successful with the techniques.

The book helped me recall a crisis moment in my faculty mentor’s office where she called my on-campus therapist to help. He then canceled two clients to meet with me for two hours. Another professor told me it was OK to go home to rest and watch the lectures online later if that would allow me to focus better on the material. She was the only professor I remember who was so open and accommodating like that.

Perhaps the best meeting with a professor was when she recognized I was not OK from a mental health perspective, took me to the ER for help, and ultimately got me out of the dangerous situation of being in grad school. After that experience, I left grad school to work on my mental and physical health in a more supportive environment.

When my professors recognized I was not doing well on the days I was struggling, I felt more safe in talking to them. It was helpful for them to point out when I was not doing well because often I am not able to tell until it’s too late. Feeling seen and heard are some of the most amazing feelings a person can experience.

What I’m realizing after reading this book is how much extra pressure was put on me by some professors and staff who did not step up and help with accommodations or recognize the need to respect someone’s mental health the same as a physical condition.

I fought like hell to stay in PT school, and it still wasn’t enough, but I’m realizing my lack of success wasn’t all my fault. There were plenty of missteps by faculty and staff that, if corrected, could have helped me succeed in school.

That makes me really sad and angry at the same time. Would I still have had to leave school if I’d received all the accommodations properly? I’ll never know. I often wonder where I’d be if accommodations were put into place effectively, but this is all in the past and I need to work to forgive all the people involved who could have done more because it was their job and didn’t.

Identifying all the ways others could or should have stepped in to help is freeing in the sense that I don’t have to feel as though I was a huge failure for needing to leave school. I know now there were others who shared some of the responsibility.

Getty image by Anna Semenchenko.

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