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I'm the Student Holding a Hunger Strike on Princeton's Campus for Disability Rights

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When I was 9 years old, I struggled to read Dr. Seuss books. I knew I had severe attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities, but I had big goals. I wanted to go to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. Like me, President Wilson had difficulties with reading and writing his entire life, but he accomplished so much.

Two decades later, my reading level isn’t much better, but I did get accepted to the Ph.D. program at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, after having attended McGill University and Yale University.

But not too long after I got to Princeton, I became nervous. Scared, actually. Because I saw the patterns around me. I heard what professors and staff had to say. As a student with an invisible disability, I felt I wouldn’t fit in unless I blended in. But when I tried to blend in, I lost hold of why I was accepted into Princeton in the first place, what made me unique: the way I think.

Throughout my time there, I was told that just because I was admitted to Princeton, that did not mean I would be accepted. To be welcomed, to fit the Princeton mold, I felt I would have to hide and downplay my disabilities as much as possible. I had to fake it until I made it, and I thought I could, but I was wrong.

You see, Princeton has a problem: It treats visible and invisible disabilities differently. Disabilities like mine aren’t part of its culture.

Princeton was happy about the parts of my disability that benefited them — my creativity, my ability to make connections and see the things that were hiding in plain sight of my neurotypical colleagues and peers — but administrators didn’t want to deal with the tougher side of my disabilities. For example, I needed a low-distraction learning and testing environment not only because I have ADHD, but also because I rely on computerized auxiliary aids that have auditory components like a smart pen for note-taking, Dragon Dictate and text-to-speech software.

When I tried to speak up about disability harassment and discrimination (some of which was unintentional but none-the-less problematic), I thought I would be protected. After all, I just wanted the issues to be addressed, and I wasn’t looking for trouble.

During my last semester, administrators systematically removed previously approved accommodations; consequentially, I was held to a higher standard than my non-disabled peers. I was terminated because I didn’t meet Princeton’s “academic standards” for a comprehensive exam by less than 4 percentage points (I earned a B rather than a B+).

Rather than being accommodated, I was punished. For something I couldn’t help. For things that weren’t critical to my program of study. For the very things I’d disclosed when I applied to Princeton.

Princeton was wrong. And it’s OK to be wrong. But it’s not OK to ignore complaints, to violate my right to confidentiality or to create blatantly discriminatory policies — all of which happened to me in my last semester at Princeton. Perhaps the cycle of discrimination and retaliation could have been prevented had I listened to my gut earlier and more often. I didn’t sufficiently share what was happening with my professors (and others at Princeton who may have been willing and able to help). I didn’t know who to trust, I was scared of further retaliation, and I couldn’t emotionally handle, let alone communicate, the depth or breadth of the pain, humiliation, vulnerability and anxiety I was experiencing.

Based on my experience with people from other schools, my experience at Princeton is, sadly, all too common at colleges and universities across the country.

Right now, Princeton doesn’t have enough incentive to change; they will do what they need to do to look good. And that’s not unique to Princeton. Recent actions at other universities have shown that people in power turn a blind eye to discrimination of marginalized students groups because they’re comfortable with the status quo, and by extension, the biases in their campus climates. Many college administrators are not living their values. In response, students are protesting, occupying presidents’ offices, etc. on campuses across the country. But I fear my current efforts will have limited impact without the assistance of the disability community, their families and friends. Please join me on Facebook and Twitter in pressuring Princeton to identify, discuss and remove the barriers that led Eve Woodman, Princeton’s longtime head of the office of disability services, to warn me throughout my tenure at Princeton that invisible disabilities like mine are “not part of the zeitgeist of Princeton.”

I went to Princeton because I want to change the world for the better. And even though I didn’t want this to happen, my current situation and my academic affiliation gives me a chance to have a meaningful impact.

That’s why I’m holding a hunger strike on Princeton’s campus — to underscore the need for change.

The past few years have been terrible for me, but if there’s a silver lining, it’s that I have become more aware of the individuals and groups who have been hurt and oppressed by my own inauthenticity and hubris. For too long I have been ashamed and inauthentic with myself and others about the connection between my anxiety, ADHD and print disability and my Princeton experience.

I can no longer be silent and forgo the opportunity I have been given to help catalyze serious change. I am hoping you will join me in ending the academic stigma around “thinking” differently and “mental” disorders and ask Princeton to reflect deeply on how its policies, procedures and institutional structure and culture is compromising the rights of people with disabilities.

There’s nothing wrong with the way I think. In fact, the reason I was dismissed is the same reason I was admitted: I think differently. And that’s a good thing.

Update 5/29: Princeton University provided the following response to The Mighty’s request for comment:

Out of respect for her privacy and the confidentiality of the processes we follow, we are not willing to discuss her case.  The University has always been sympathetic and attentive to Ms. Barr’s concerns.  We believe this matter has been handled fairly and consistently with the established University processes for providing all reasonable accommodations for disabilities, and for addressing complaints.

The Office of Disability Services (ODS) has a careful and holistic process through which their staff work individually with each student to provide necessary academic accommodations. The overwhelming majority of accommodation requests are approved by ODS. The Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Equity & Diversity has a well-publicized grievance process that gives thorough consideration to any complaints about discrimination of any kind.

Please also refer to the Graduate School site, which clearly outlines the criteria for candidates to continue toward completion of the degree and reasons for the termination of enrollment.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: May 20, 2016
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