Breaking News: Invisible disabilities can’t be seen

I live in a country where, if you don’t look too closely, all people are considered equal. Let’s get really frisky here and look a bit more closely. Zoom in on higher education in my area. Colleges and universities are, I believe, required to have a department dedicated to meeting the needs of students with various disabilities.

My former university, being massive, has a large department of that type, supported by an on-campus medical and psychological complex. Granted, it’s a university, so some of the psychologists are actually still psychologists-in-training, and many are recent graduates with little to no real-world experience who leave after a year or two for a better job. Continuity of care is essentially nonexistent, therapists constantly say things like I’m new at this and Maybe someone better qualified would know, and the single psychiatrist on staff comes in once a week and has an alarming tendency to fall asleep during consultations. (He fell asleep while I was talking, woke up when his timer went off to signal the end of the session, called me a name nowhere near my actual name, and tried to prescribe me completely contraindicated things. Guess who gave up on medication pretty quickly.) The medical section was better, or at least, I never had any problems or extensive confusion with them beyond what I would expect from any reasonable doctor; however, they did once ask my cis brother if maybe he’d considered pregnancy was causing his allergies. (And had been causing them since he was a toddler? Yes, I’m sure that’s the case.)

I had a nice therapist in the midst of my brain crisis, even if he did look an awful lot like Peter Kavanaugh. He let me call him Chuckie, even though his name maybe started with an L, and he never once fell asleep during a session. However, it was Chuckie’s first year out of school, and I was not at all reassured by his constant referencing and obvious check-listing in the DSM while I was talking. I’m actually capable of marking lists and doing the math for a diagnosis from the comfort of my own couch. Chuckie may not have been the world’s most experienced therapist, but he tried, right? It’s not really his fault I spiraled down for several months before eventually dropping out. He’s the one who arranged for it to be a medical withdrawal, at least.

All the same, I look fondly on those horrible spiraling months, because at least it looked like someone was helping. There is no such option at my current college. I have been assigned both an academic advisor and a “counselor” – I went to see the counselor once, more to scope her out than anything else, and was told that I can sit in her office to do homework if I do it in absolute silence, but otherwise, I’m not her job. Apparently, you have to be registered with disability services to see the counselors.

Okay. So I go to get registered with disability services, since it’s something I need to do for non-psychological reasons anyway. First, it takes two months for them to call me back. Then, they keep moving and canceling my appointments until I give up and just walk into the offices one day when I have eight hours to spare. They saw me eventually, only to reject every scrap of paper I brought with me as not evidence enough of a disability. Up until I moved to the city of this college, I saw a therapist for a handful of psychological issues? I can understand how they won’t accept his letter; it’s a few months old and I haven’t seen him since then. But the letter from my neurologist: pip has Diagnosis X, which causes occasional periods of confusion and memory loss lasting up to several days. Yes, it’s absolutely unclear how that could impact my schoolwork. The woman I saw at disability services said, in an effort to help, “You just don’t look disabled. Do you have any real disabilities? Ones that people can see?” I cannot articulate how badly I wanted to reply Don’t you think you’d be able to see if I did?

I’ll be okay, I tell myself. Professors in my tiny department understand my diagnosis and will work with me. But I have no official fallback plan. I have nothing to take to my clinical sites to say I am nearly always good to go, but you should know about this anyway. Because I’m not registered at school for the accommodations I’m getting anyway, I won’t be permitted to have those accommodations when I take my board exam next year. All because some disabilities are still considered not to be real. I certainly feel like I’m considered equal in this wonderful country of equality and equal-ness.

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One thought on “Breaking News: Invisible disabilities can’t be seen

  1. I think this may help you http://www.pacer.org/publications/adaqa/504.asp

    “Q. Do I have to provide documentation of my disability to request accommodations?

    A. Schools may request current documentation of a disability. If a person obviously uses a wheelchair or is blind or deaf, no further documentation may be necessary. For those with hidden disabilities, however, such as learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities or a chronic health impairment, it is reasonable and appropriate for a school to request documentation to establish the validity of the request for accommodations, and to help identify what accommodations are required.

    Q. What kind of documentation might be necessary?

    A. Documentation should be completed and signed by a professional familiar with the applicant and the applicant’s disability such as a physician, psychologist or rehabilitation counselor. It should verify the disability and suggest appropriate accommodations. If previous documentation exists, it will likely be sufficient unless it is not current (usually no more than three years old). If no current documentation is available, it is the responsibility of the student to have new documentation prepared. This can mean paying to have an appropriate professional conduct a new evaluation. It would be prudent to get an evaluation the year before you leave high school. This information is confidential and not a part of the student’s permanent record.

    Q. Are students with disabilities required to disclose their disability?

    A. If you do not require any accommodations, you can choose to keep this information private. If you do need accommodations because of your disability, however, you must disclose in order to receive them. A school cannot provide any service, modification or accommodation when it does not know one is required. It is a student’s responsibility to make their needs known in advance. This process is often facilitated by an Office for Students with Disabilities. It is then the school’s responsibility to work with the student to make reasonable modifications or provide appropriate services in a timely way.

    Q. Are schools required to make testing accommodations for students with disabilities?

    A. Yes. Schools must establish a process for making their tests accessible to people with disabilities. Schools can do this by providing appropriate accommodations to students with disabilities. Remember, each student’s needs are individual, but examples of accommodations include allowing a student extended time to complete a test or providing a distraction-free space, sign language interpreters, readers, or alternative test formats. [Note: Testing accommodations are also required of agencies which administer college entrance exams, the agencies or businesses that administer licensure and certification tests that establish one’s professional credentials such as bar exams, etc., and the businesses that offer classes to help individuals prepare to take these exams.]

    Q. What is the purpose of testing accommodations?

    A. The purpose of providing testing accommodations is to enable individuals with disabilities to demonstrate their mastery of the subject matter being tested not to provide lesser academic or professional standards for people with disabilities. Accommodations may affect how a test is taken, but not what it measures.

    Q. What should I do if my instructor refuses or neglects to make the accommodations I requested?

    A. Sometimes individual instructors are not familiar with the requirements of ADA or Section 504, or the purpose of accommodating students with disabilities. It is not unusual to encounter instructors who feel classroom or testing accommodations give students with disabilities an unfair advantage over other students. It is a school’s responsibility, however, to educate their faculty about the purpose of accommodations and their legal obligations, and to assist them with the logistics of providing accommodations. Many postsecondary schools have an Office of Services for Students with Disabilities that serves as a liaison between students and faculty, and can advocate for reasonable accommodations. If your school does not have such an office, government-funded programs are required by law to have an ADA/504 Coordinator. You can contact this person at your school to get help to resolve the situation or file an internal complaint if necessary.

    Q. What if informal attempts to resolve the problem are unsuccessful?

    A. If your situation cannot be resolved informally, you can follow an institution’s internal grievance procedure. All government-funded educational institutions are required to have an internal grievance procedure. You also have the right to file an ADA or 504 complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education. You have only 180 days after the date of a discriminatory action to file a complaint. Such complaints can take considerable time for the OCR to investigate. You may opt to file a private lawsuit in federal court. If you are successful in your suit, the ADA provides for “injunctive relief” (this means providing the access that was denied or not provided) and attorney’s fees. Damages are generally not available unless it can be established that the discrimination was intentional.”

    Make sure you know your rights. The Americans with Disabilities Act exists for a reason. I don’t know if any of this helped you or not, but I hope you can work something out.

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