Managing your diabetes can be time consuming, even frustrating at times. But it shouldn't stop you from getting a good education—whether through vocational training, an undergraduate program, or a graduate program. If you have diabetes, though, you'll need to do some careful planning in order to receive the accommodations and services you may need to be successful.
Know Your Rights
The most important thing to know before you begin thinking about higher education is that new amendments to federal anti-discrimination laws make it easier than ever before for you to establish your diabetic condition as a disability. While you may never have used this word in regard to your disease in the past, doing so now can help to protect you from discrimination while pursuing an education. Those with disabilities are protected through two federal laws: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504). The ADA applies to state and private colleges, with the exception of religious colleges. And Section 504 applies to any college, even religious colleges, that receive federal funds. Along with state and local anti-discrimination laws, these laws protect you from exclusion from school programs and activities, help with a financial aid package that takes into account the costs of managing your diabetes, and assure reasonable modifications at school when necessary.
Choosing a Career Path
While this is good news, you need to keep in mind a few things. One is that the goal of federal anti-discrimination laws is not to give you an advantage over your peers. If you don't have the qualifications to enter a particular school, for example, they won't help you to get in. And even if anti-discrimination laws afford you entrance into a program such as pilot training or truck driving, upon graduation, you must abide by physical requirements that may exclude you from a career in the field. It's important to research requirements for schooling as well as careers so you can make a good decision about your career pathway.
How Your School Must Accommodate You
Another thing to remember is that unlike elementary and secondary schools, colleges and vocational training programs have no responsibility to identify you as having diabetes or to offer you services or accommodations. It is up to you to tell the school about your condition and to request the help you need.
Here are some examples of the modifications you might ask for:
- The right to check your blood sugar in the classroom or lecture hall.
- The ability to keep a refrigerator for medical supplies in your dorm room.
- Permission to take a break between sections of long exams in order to check your blood sugar, and get a snack if needed.
- The right to take a break during a clinical assignment or internship to check blood sugar and eat a snack.
- Permission to reschedule a test if you are experiencing low or high blood sugar levels that interfere with your ability to think.
- Excused absences for diabetic complications and medical care; ability to make up the work you missed.
- Permission to schedule classes in a way that allows for regular meal times.
- Ability to receive help with meal planning from dietary services.
Modifications that aren't likely to be allowed are being given a lot of extra time for an exam (over and above an extra break) or a waiver from course requirements. You also are unlikely to get any sympathy for leaving a test due to blood sugar problems if you haven't informed the professor that you have diabetes in advance.
The best way to protect yourself from discrimination once you're admitted to school is to find the office of disability services on campus. Here, trained personnel will help you to make a plan for notifying your professors and other school personnel about your diabetes and requesting necessary accommodations. You may need to provide a letter from your doctor outlining your diagnosis and limitations and your need for specific modifications.
You can get more information about your legal rights and schools' legal obligations as well as strategies for working with your school to obtain reasonable modifications and accommodations in a publication offered by the American Diabetes Association. “Going to College with Diabetes: A Self Advocacy Guide for Students” is available online at diabetes.org/collegeanddiabetes.