MSU: Accommodations Are Not a Cheat Sheet

This piece is written as part of our Disability Justice on Campus Day of Action campaign.

Written by: Sam Fierens 

          “We demand that universities train all professors about the role of Disability Services, reasonable accommodations, accessibility, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.” That shouldn’t even be necessary, right? We should expect that our professors are aware of our rights and university policy, right? That isn’t asking much, is it? Well, let me tell you, with a resounding “NO” that it is NOT, in fact, too much to ask. However, it would seem that my university has a different opinion.

          Michigan State University (MSU) was founded in 1855 as the first land-grant university in the history of the United States. MSU's “Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities” (RCPD) was created during the 1971-72 academic year “as MSU's response for equal access to a university education for all students”. Now that sounds all fine and dandy for such a historical university, does it not? Unfortunately, I can say from personal experience that the university I love so dearly, my home, is one of the prime examples as to the necessity of demand number four. I remember my first meeting with my RCPD person well; after turning in all the necessary paperwork filled out by my therapist, I finally met with someone who could help me with accommodations.

I was a bit nervous, but mostly I remember the relief that washed over me, finally, I thought, someone understands.

          I was fourteen years old when I was diagnosed with ADHD and major depressive disorder, and while I managed to do well in my small high school, I learned it was more difficult to get accommodations at one of the largest universities in the country. So, sitting in front of an RCPD advisor, I felt relieved that I would finally be given equal opportunity like my neurotypical peers. After reading through my paperwork, my advisor came up with a list of accommodations for me, and my excitement greatly diminished. Most of my options focused on my inattentive ADHD; for example I had “preferential seating,” meaning I needed to sit in the same seat in my classes, and I was given the option to wear headphones during exams so as not to be distracted.

          When it comes to academics, my ADHD is the least of my concerns, I am medicated and do quite well left to my own devices. It is, and always has been, the depression that is my most daunting adversary. But the only “accommodation” I received for depression was that I could miss a few classes here and there. How many? To figure that out, I had to bring my accommodation form to each of my professors and explain my situation. Then, I had to ask how many classes I would be excused from-- ah, yes, because I know ahead of time just how depressed I am going to be. And, if after using all my extra “passes” I should find myself too bone-shatteringly, mind-numbingly depressed to get out of bed one day, then I should simply shake it off, or power through, and go to class anyways.

Of course, you and I both know that mental illness doesn’t follow a schedule.

          My depression doesn’t care if I need to start or finish a homework assignment; it doesn’t fret about missing class; my depression simply exists as a heavy weight on my GPA. So, leaving the RCPD office with my accommodations in hand, I couldn’t help but feel the same hopelessness and disappointment creep in. These so-called “accommodations” were, quite frankly, a thinly veiled attempt at silencing neurodivergent folks who demanded equal opportunity. They felt half-hearted and insincere. Nevertheless, I entered my first semester as a sophomore at Michigan State University prepared to feel shame as I attempted to explain my needs to a new round of professors.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the shock and embarrassment I felt from the event I am about to recall.

          It was a Tuesday, my first class with a new professor, and he was going through the syllabus as normal. When he arrived at the section about RCPD accommodations for disabled folks, my ears perked up. The usual rehearsed speech was given in a monotone voice about how those of us with the necessary paperwork must see him after class and discuss our reasonable accommodations with him (yes, they really are called “reasonable” accommodations here). So, at the end of class, I took a deep breath and mentally prepared. I introduced myself and handed him my very reasonable list from RCPD- this is where it would all go wrong. “So what do you need?” He asked, rather curtly. Surprised, I went to gesture to the paper in his hands, when he suddenly yanked it out of my grasp.

“I didn’t ask you what the paper said, I asked you what you need.”

          He sounded irritated. I was shocked. Was this some sort of test? Did he not believe that I needed these university approved accommodations? “I have been a teacher for over thirty years,” He continued haughtily, “These all say the same thing. I don’t care what this paper says, I asked you what you,” he paused and glared at me, “need.” The snide sarcasm in his voice was so clear, he might as well have put air quotes around the word with his fingers. So, I stuttered out some answer that probably wasn’t an accurate representation of what I needed. I remember the feeling of shame, the tears that sprang to my eyes, and the heat in my cheeks, but I cannot remember how he dismissed me after verbally assaulting me. He made it very clear that he, a professor, looked down his nose at these “accommodations” that were all the same; apparently, they were all just a way to get ahead and cheat.

In reality, disability accommodations are the opposite of cheat sheets: they exist to level the academic playing field.

          Looking back now, I wish I had whipped out a fiery retort and called him out on his ableist behavior. However, I was ashamed and scared. I was shocked and embarrassed. My illness and my needs were discredited in one blow. Because of this experience I can say demand number four is necessary.

I, and countless others, have had to deal with harassment and judgment from professors, simply based on our desire for equity. I insist that my university does better in training its faculty on disability services.

          On this Disability Justice Day of Action, I am calling for accountability in institutions of higher education and demanding that us neurodivergent and disabled folks are given the respect, opportunities, and rights that we deserve.   

Stefanie Kaufman