How I Navigated Higher Education With a Disability and How You Can Help Your Child Do the Same

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*Note: This article originally appeared on The Mental Illness Happy Hour

Attending Armenian schools in Los Angeles throughout my childhood was rough. Sure, I was distractible in class and sometimes spoke out of turn, but that’s not why peers and teachers kept their eyes on me. That attention came from my facial and vocal tics, which led to a Tourette Syndrome (TS) diagnosis around age 9 that I carry to this day.

TS is interesting because tics are so obvious; you can manage them for so long before people literally see your disability. And once you tic, people often ask why you’re “making that face” or “humming so much.” I’ve rarely minded those questions because I see them as opportunities to teach others about my disability, and I especially love seeing the shock on their faces when they learn that not all people with TS curse constantly. The difficult part of growing up with TS was the associated stigma, especially within the Armenian community. Of course, peers made fun of me, but what surprised me was that my school’s faculty didn’t believe that I had a disability despite several doctors’ notes, let alone provide accommodations. My high school math teacher once yelled at me in front of the whole class to “stop faking [my] illness!”

Graduating high school was a relief, but I was still concerned about how college peers would treat me and how I would be received by faculty and staff. Well, I’m glad to report that I successfully managed undergrad (UCLA as a freshman and sophomore before transferring and graduating from Cornell University) and grad school (Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UCLA) with a disability with the help of incredibly supportive faculty, staff, and peers. Now I want to offer some pointers you can share with your child so they can do the same.

Before College

There are two important tasks to complete before entering college. The first is obtaining recent documentation of any disabilities. I strongly encourage having an assessment report with recommended accommodations to present to school staff. The second is contacting the college’s disability services office (these go by different names across schools) to request a meeting for as early as possible (e.g., the summer before classes start). During this meeting, your child will meet with a specialist, such as a psychologist or social worker, to discuss how their disability impacts their ability to succeed in school in and out of the classroom and why they are seeking certain accommodations (e.g., extra time for tests, note-taking support, etc.). These specialists are often sensitive individuals who want to help, so I encourage students to discuss everything openly. In addition, they’re the ones who ultimately grant accommodations.

During Classes

At the beginning of each quarter or semester, the disability services office usually prepares letters or other forms of notification for students to provide to their professors. These letters do not disclose specific disabilities but simply state that a student is registered with their office, and they indicate accommodations the student is obligated to receive (immediately contact the disability services office if a professor presents any difficulties). Students should hand over their letters to professors privately (i.e., not during office hours when the presence of other students can make this meeting very awkward) during the first two weeks of classes, before any exams, to ensure a smooth process. Most professors have experience with students receiving accommodations, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. In addition, students should send copies of syllabi to the disability services office so the office personnel can schedule their exams.

Social Life

Navigating higher education with a disability transcends receiving accommodations and includes a student’s social life. I found that while many peers continued to ask about my disability, few people ever ridiculed me. Rather, they were genuinely curious upon meeting me but quickly stopped noticing. I certainly hope other individuals with disabilities could have similarly positive experiences. Given that I had never received accommodations until college, the initially uncomfortable experience was talking to my friends about why I wouldn’t be joining them in class for an upcoming test, or, if I had not discussed this prior to an exam, why I hadn’t joined. How students should approach disclosing disabilities or accommodations to friends depends on their comfort and trust level, so it’s difficult to provide general advice. Yet, most friends will be understanding and supportive. Ultimately, in the late Dr. Seuss’s wise words: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

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