For good measure, I turned in my senior thesis two days early. No one would be able to say that my wheelchair gave me an ‘unfair advantage.’
One question to go.
I took this final exam 7 years ago, so I couldn’t tell you what the question was. But I can tell you what I do remember: I was stretching my right hand against the edge of the desk, contemplating the answer, when it began to cramp up again.
I picked up the full water bottle sitting on the edge of my desk with my left hand and used my right hand like a pincer to open it. My bladder had behaved thus far, so I allowed myself a small sip.
The thirst was uncomfortable, but a trip to the bathroom to catheterize would result in an unfinished exam. Discomfort, it was.
I began to write, pausing every paragraph or two to restretch my right hand. I assured myself that my professor had mastered the art of reading scrunched-up handwriting, which is what happened when I wrote with a cramp. I had to write quickly, because the 3-hour exam would be over soon.
Thankfully, I finished with just enough time to look over my answers, and then proceeded to chug my water bottle.
‘That wasn’t so bad,’ I thought. ‘I didn’t need the extra time after all.’
In college, I learned that students with disabilities such as myself needed to register with the disability services office before making a formal request for accommodations.
The requests would then be listed in a letter, a copy of which was given to each professor at the beginning of each semester.
The letter wouldn’t disclose the nature of the disability — just which accommodations to provide. It was then the professor’s responsibility to grant the accommodations. Common practice is for the student to give the letter to the professor, though not always.
I’ve never understood why the student, rather than disability services, would ever be responsible for hand delivering the letter to a professor they’d just met. It can be daunting to disclose a disability to someone who is responsible for your grade, without knowing whether there might be pushback.
A Boston University professor recently questioned whether students who asked for extra time were cheating. An invisible disability is terrifying to “out,” but having a visible one comes with its own set of insecurities.
Every time I wheeled into a classroom, I wondered whether a professor would see my chair and think that I was incapable of handling the same volume of workload as my able-bodied classmates could.
What if my professor was like the BU professor? What if asking for accommodations was simply seen as cheating?
As a result, I withheld many letters from professors and never pressed for classroom accommodations beyond what seemed obvious from looking at me.
This would include wheelchair-accessible buildings, sufficient notice for classroom location changes so I could plan my route accordingly, and a 10- to 15-minute break if a course lasted 3 hours (for catheterization).
But I could have — and really, should have — utilized more after I met with disability services in college.
Disability services told me what was available. I could have been given extended exam time because my right hand still has some nerve damage (I am technically a quadriplegic).
I could have included that I might arrive a few minutes late to class depending on elevator speed or shuttle availability. I could have requested a notetaker (because, again, my hand). I could have requested that someone pick up library books for me.
But these were services I pretty much ignored. Even if disability services reminded me about an accommodation, I rarely brought it up with a professor. Why ask a faculty member for something I convinced myself I could get by without?
I first used a wheelchair in high school, the result of a motor vehicle accident. Many of my classmates then saw my wheelchair as the reason I was admitted to competitive colleges. There were times when I even believed it myself.
I was determined to prove that my wheelchair had nothing to do with my success.
This chip on my shoulder, I would later learn, was called “internalized ableism.”
And boy, did I internalize it. I did everything in my power to resist using the academic accommodations in college and my master’s program that were legally mine.
I took my own notes, avoided drinking water during longer classes, fetched my own library books (unless they were impossible to reach), and never asked for an extension.
For good measure, I turned in my senior thesis 2 days early. No one would be able to say that my wheelchair gave me an “unfair advantage.”
But in truth, my wheelchair — or my paralysis — never gave me an advantage. If anything, I was at a massive disadvantage.
Catheterizing takes about 10 minutes, which meant that at least an hour of my day collectively was already committed to relieving my bladder. My notes were a mess on days when I didn’t bring my laptop. And my right hand cramped up during midterms and finals — not just once, but many, many times — making it unpleasant to complete.
On top of that, I dedicated 15 hours per week to physical therapy.
And everything takes longer when you’re sitting down. This includes showering, getting dressed, and simply getting from point A to point B. My regular lack of time meant that I was forced to dedicate less time to my schoolwork, my social life, and sleep.
I ignored the fact that my accommodations existed for a reason. Even after I knew my professors, I still felt a need to avoid what, to me, seemed like asking for a favor.
I had to come to terms with the fact that I had an honest-to-God medical condition that legally mandated accommodations. Pretending that I was somehow above an approved accommodation only harmed my own college experience.
And I’m not alone. The National Center for Learning Disabilities reported that out of 94 percent of students with learning disabilities who received accommodations in high school, only 17 percent of them received accommodations in college.
Students may avoid registering for services perhaps because they, like me, feel determined to be as independent as possible, or are nervous about “outing” themselves.
The disabilities support system at many colleges can make it difficult for students to prove that they have a learning disability.
In some cases, students may not have known about the disability registration process, but it’s also very likely that stigma still plays a role in under-reporting.
One college recently was even reportedly discriminating against students who disclosed a mental health issue in the admissions process.
Clearly, these students are underserved and something needs to change.
As I’ve gotten older (and my sleep has become a more precious commodity), I’ve realized that I can no longer be ableist towards myself.
Currently in a doctoral program, I’ve learned to speak up for myself and use my accommodations.
I have requested that classrooms be moved to buildings more suitable for wheelchairs, and asked for extra time on a long exam because I knew I would have to catheterize mid-exam. And I do this now without apologies, hoping that others in my community will feel empowered to do the same.
But concerns over time management shouldn’t be the final straw to prompt me — or any student — to seek and use accommodations. Nor should it ever fall on the disabled individual to simply “manage” at the expense of their own health or sleep.
People with disabilities comprise the largest minority in the country, and anyone could become disabled at any time. Everyone needs accommodations at some point in their lives; some will need them in college.
But this would require that universities prioritize disabled students — not as an afterthought or obligation, but as a sincere commitment.
Increasing funding for disability services, offering professional development to educate staff and faculty about accommodations, reaching out to both abled and disabled students, and actively recruiting faculty with disabilities could all help to normalize accommodations and reinforce the idea that disability is diversity, and diversity is cherished.
Imagine how students with disabilities could thrive on a campus if they knew their disability would not be stigmatized, but welcomed.
It’s difficult to internalize ableism when disability is normalized, and when a college has the infrastructure to accommodate without the student fearing judgment.
Accommodating my disability has enabled me to finish the same amount of work I would have finished without the accommodations — but with my well-being intact.
There must be a change in the culture of higher education. Disability isn’t purely a medical condition; it’s a natural state that contributes to the diversity of a campus.
As increasing numbers of universities purport to value diversity, it follows that institutions of higher education should want students with disabilities on campus. They should work on behalf of these students to succeed.
Valerie Piro is a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University, where her work focuses on poverty in the early medieval west. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, and Hyperallergic. She blogs about life with paralysis at themightyval.com.