A Millennial's Guide to College With a Neurological Disability
School is difficult. Wonderful, mind-expanding, and so very important, but difficult nonetheless. For me, as a college student with a neurological disability and an associated chronic illness, this difficulty pertains less to the academic subject and more so to my means of interacting with that subject. Since an acute flare-up of my Lyme disease in 2014, my brain and body have never been the same; sensory processing difficulties have made reading, writing, and sometimes speaking taxing, retaining information difficult, and staying neurologically-present in overwhelming environments near-impossible.
Before I was disabled, I didn’t have to think twice about succeeding in classes. Save my usual millennial attention span and affinity towards scrolling through Facebook on my iPhone under the table, I was a “successful” student. I spoke up in class without stuttering, comprehended material the first time I read it, took tests in the allotted amount of time, and ran on five hours of sleep without a problem.
But things are different now, and so the way in which I approach my education is different as well. I have a disability, but I am also disabled — disabled by an educational system that was not designed for the way my brain works. And so the responsibility has fallen on me, as it does on so many with disabilities and their loved ones, to try to accommodate myself — and try I have.
After much trial and error, I’ve found some tools that make the classroom more bearable for me as a neurologically-disabled person. Here’s my ever-evolving list:
Mac Text to Speech Tool
I have a Mac computer, and have adjusted my system preferences such that when I select a group of text and press a keyboard shortcut, my computer reads the selected text out to me. For other Mac users, this can be done by clicking on “System Preferences” in the computer dock, selecting “Dictation & Speech,” and toggling with the setting under the “Text to Speech” tab. I use the “Alex” voice and I swear he sounds more like a friend than a computer robot to me by now.
This program scans and reads PDFs and text files out loud, and also highlights the text as it is read. It isn’t free, but your school disability services office may generate a free log-in for you to use. Just make sure you ask your professors to email you the PDF files of all handouts and readings. You can also request to have your textbooks transferred to e-text files through the disability services office.
Learning Ally is a database of academic audio books specifically for the disabled—you have to provide documentation of your disability for a membership. They have a variety of textbooks available and the fact that they are read primarily by elderly women and not a robot (Sorry, Alex!) is really cute and comforting. They have applications for the computer, tablet, and phones as well, so you can listen to your books on the go.
This is another resource for audio books, though they do not have many textbooks available. Their novel collection is impressive, though, and their prices are competitive.
I use these to reduce the contrast between black and white text on paper handouts (or even my phone!). While purple is the color that works best for my brain, they’re available in a variety of different colors that adjust to your personal preferences.
Dragon Dictation Phone Application
This application is free for smartphone users and is more accurate than using the iPhone’s built-in speech to text features. I just open the app, lecture to it, and email the text to my computer so I can edit it into academic assignments.
This is the computer version of the free phone application—it allows you to speak into the computer to type, but also to control your computer. Takes some getting used to, but is incredibly helpful for anyone who struggles to type and get around a computer manually.
FM Listening System
While my hearing is not at all impaired, my ability to focus on one particular sensation in an overwhelming room is limited. Having an earbud in my ear that spits out exactly what my professor is saying helps me to stay grounded.
This pen is so cool, and would be helpful to anyone, disabled or not. It comes with a matching notebook and not only transfers all of your written notes to your smartphone, but also audio records and links its audio recordings to the notes in your phone. For me, this is helpful because instead of taking notes, I can doodle and scribble — which is one of the ways I stim — and go back and listen to exactly what my brain might not have fully comprehended by clicking on what I drew.
Sensory stimulation is extremely important for me and to many with sensory processing disorder. Without it, I drift into what I affectionately (and sarcastically) refer to as my “brain palace.” So during class, and during any situation where I want to remain present, I like to play with Theraputty, which is both visually and tactilely stimulating. It’s fun to fidget with and even more fun to try and remove from your favorite jacket when you get it stuck in the pocket (the sarcasm returns).
I use these for similar reasons that I use the theraputty—putting pressure on color pencils feels nice and moving my hands around helps me pay attention to what is being said in the classroom. It’s also proven to reduce anxiety, which all students (and humans) could use a little less of!
Chewing gives me additional calming sensory stimulation, and trying to ruin whatever I’m chewing on is an added challenge. There are plenty of chew toys out there for those with special sensory needs, and some are really discreet—I have a cute pendant that looks like a purple gemstone.
Above all, it has been crucial for me to remind my professors and myself about my condition. It’s easy for me to convince myself that I’m exaggerating my condition, because I look perfectly “normal” and can pretend exceptionally well. I am not exaggerating. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with my current state and to learn what helps me be more comfortable within it. Remembering this makes it easier to self-advocate and do what I need to do to remain well.