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Disabled in Grad School: Informal Accommodations

Thinking about the informal support some graduate students with disabilities might need to succeed.

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September 13, 2018
 
 

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

This post is part of a (somewhat loose) series about being disabled at university, with a focus on graduate school: problems we encounter, how we deal with them, and what you can do that will make things easier for fellow graduate students with disabilities.

As a graduate student in neuroscience, I have formal accommodations. I also have things I do, don't do, or do differently for disability reasons which aren't formal accommodations, or are based on my formal accommodations but aren't exactly what my paperwork says I get.

I don't mean that some professors decide they don't need to see my paperwork before honoring my registered accommodation of text to speech for class participation when I can't talk, though that happens. I also don't mean professors take my accommodations letter the first time I take a class with them and then don't care about seeing it again in later semesters, though, again, this happens.

I mean, I fully understand why working from home isn't always a great idea. So do my major professors. However, my lab is currently sharing space with an off-campus company while the university builds new engineering buildings. There's a shuttle during the school year (but not the summer), so I can physically get there. But getting to my lab involves crossing a floor that's got exactly the wrong kind of noise, to the tune of my losing speech about half the time I go there. Even in the lab, the noise and lighting drain my energy pretty quickly. (Think of it like working while riding an exercise bike. You could, but you're going to run out of energy faster.) So, I do most of my work from home.

I should probably take more of the advice about building a home workspace, but it's tricky since I'm still living in what's basically an (undergraduate) program-specific frat house. I mean, I chose my living situation for disability related reasons, too. I think most people are familiar with the idea that some things (most things) are harder under stress. My skills get strained in a weird order, so speech and "how to make food happen" are usually the first two things to go. That means I need a meal plan and may need to arrange to get on a meal plan of some sort even when I'm not a student anymore. Oh, and sensory issues make the main dining hall inaccessible. The food is fine, I just can't be there. It's worse than it is in the lab. So my one place to consistently have food in front of me really should be smaller and quieter—ike the dining area for a frat house with a chef.

I mean that I work under the table. Literally. My lab mates know which table I'll be under with my laptop and headphones, with whatever I'm reading, with the wearable sensor I'm sewing back together because it got ripped up in testing this morning and we need it again this afternoon. The smaller space is more comfortable, the table over my head partially protects me from the glare of the fluorescent lights (but not from their sound), and no one can even accidentally startle me with my back to the wall and a lab table extending around me on either side.

Or I mean that my paperwork says I get to use text to speech when I can't talk, but text to speech is really my least used alternative to speech. If there's a side board I can reach from any seat, that's now my seat. I'm bringing a marker and an eraser to class. If I'm involved in a small group discussion, I'm using FlipWriter.

Formal accommodations are important. They're legally protected. I use them in all my roles and honor them as a teacher. But, especially when there's no rule preventing your disabled student, colleague, or teacher from doing something for a disability-related reason, think about the precedent you want to set. The accommodation of not being called on without a raised hand could help students working in a second or third language.

Would you want to out yourself and go get paperwork, just for a comfortable seating arrangement that didn't cost anyone extra? And if not, what options can you make available to everyone, as part of a universal design framework?

[Photo of the table Alyssa works under in the lab, taken by Alyssa.]

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