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

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

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.

Setting up formal accommodations at university is often complicated. It requires diagnostic paperwork. It involves knowing which office handles your accommodations. Is it through Disability Services for Students? University Disability Services? Some other office with a similar name? It involves meetings every semester with the disability office, getting an accommodations letter, and often meetings with professors. It's no surprise to me that two thirds of college students with disabilities don't get accommodations because they just don't make it through this process. My own accommodations were delayed by not knowing how to get them.

The process gets trickier as a graduate student. My university’s disability services page for graduate students discusses academic accommodations, but their page about graduate assistants seems to assume we're working with disabled undergraduates, not that we're disabled graduate assistants. Do I still go through Disability Services for Students if I need accommodations as a teaching assistant? Do I go through human resources? Do I need to deal with both offices, or should I be going through some other office entirely? In my first year as a graduate assistant, my department didn't know. The graduate assistants union didn't know. Disability Services for Students didn't know. Nobody knew I handled my accommodations informally throughout my masters program. In our most recent contract, it’s been specified that we still use disability services for students—because I asked the union about it.

Even if it's quite a bit of work, it's reasonably clear how to get class accommodations as an undergraduate student at my university. It's reasonably clear how to get class accommodations as a graduate student, too. Getting accommodations as a graduate assistant, I (now) know who I’m supposed to talk to.

Arranging accommodations for my doctoral comprehensive exam was more complicated.

First, my accommodations are simple but unusual. I'm Autistic, and my ability to speak is highly variable. When speech isn't working (well enough), I use some alternative form of communication. I might write on a side board. I might type. I have a text-to-speech program on my laptop, and applications designed for communication support on my iPad. As a teacher, I've written answers to student questions on index cards and left the cards with them. I know I’m the first person at URI to have this accommodation and the one professor I sent my (old) accommodations letter to before our meeting wasn’t sure what “use of Text-to-Speech computer software as a tool for real-time class participation, as needed” meant in practice. So no matter the context, I’m giving extra explanations and possibly demonstrations of my communication devices.

Since I can and do use a variety of alternatives to speech, my best “alternative communication method for in-class participation” will depend on the context. For that reason, I'm now supposed to “consult with the course instructor to determine the most effective method on a course by course basis.” I asked for this change in accommodations wording, which I probably only got because I’m the first and only person at URI with this accommodation. I like my new wording, but it does create additional complications when trying to handle accommodations for my comprehensive exams. Who am I consulting with now? Nobody knows! Do I discuss this with my major professors? Do I convince my whole committee? Am I negotiating with the graduate school? I don't think most accommodation letters explicitly include this sort of negotiation, so there probably isn't a single answer.

I discussed what alternative to speech I would use in my oral comprehensive exams, if needed, with each member of my committee and several people from the graduate school office. I actually wound up talking to three different deans of the graduate school along with an enrollment services representative. In fairness, I talked to two of those deans because they’re also neuroscience faculty and I ran into them at a neuroscience event while sorting this out. Talking to the five members of my committee, the enrollment services representative to the graduate school, and merely one dean would probably have been sufficient. They all agreed that leaving my laptop screen projected to the room after my presentation finished, then typing to my committee on the projected screen, would be a reasonable accommodation for my oral exam. That's still a lot of people to talk to and time I otherwise could have spent preparing for the actual exams.

Then there's the question of where I'm sending my letter from disability services. When I'm taking a class, the letter goes to the professor teaching the class. Who does the letter go to for comprehensive exams? Does it go to my committee? Does it go to the graduate school office? Does it go to both my committee and the graduate school office? I didn't know. My major professors didn't know. My committee didn't know. The graduate school thought they wanted a copy, probably, but even they weren't certain. Just in case, I forwarded my accommodations letter to both my committee and the graduate school. I thought it was a bit funny to be sending the letter after negotiating my precise alternative communication method for the exam with eight different people, but better safe than sorry, right?

What gets to me, even more than how many different moving parts were involved in setting up my own accommodations, is that I'm still the lucky one. This adventure didn't involve any professors who argued that my accommodations weren't reasonable. It's not the same thing as accessibility, thanks to all the extra work involved, but I got my accommodations. No seemingly unrelated barriers popped up when I pointed out that my disability related needs could, for the first time, affect an exam.

As a postscript, I am happy to report that I passed my comprehensive exams. I also kept my ability to speak throughout, but as long as I’m set up to use AAC, I don’t care much how well speech is working. Some things that can knock speech out are problems for other reasons, like the sounds and lights of a passing emergency vehicle, but the purpose of my AAC is to ensure (non-)speech itself isn’t an issue. As far as I’m concerned, competence at anything, including teaching, presentations, and “oral” exams, means competence at it regardless of how well speech is working (or not working) at the time.

[Comic by Jorge Cham used in accordance with permissions found on the comic’s about page]