I’ll never forget one of the most enjoyable moments of my freshman year at IU-Bloomington. I lived in a small dormitory so there were only 10 rooms on my floor. As the fall semester began, evenings often entailed having pizzas delivered while hanging out in one room or another as we all broke the ice with our new “neighbors.” Music has always been a popular way for college students to get to get to know one another. Today we post preferences online about the digital music we’ve been downloading. Back then, we played records on stereos. The person with the best set of speakers had bragging rights – and, yes, I know I’m dating myself.
As I got to know the other guys who lived on my floor, what struck me was that each person liked a different type of music. Mike really liked jazz and introduced several of us to Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. Eric loved California singer/songwriters and had every album of artists like Jackson Brown, the Eagles, and Linda Ronstadt. I was surprised to eventually learn, after hanging out in Andy’s room a few times, that classical composers like Bach and Beethoven could actually be enjoyable, too. What finally struck me about these music/pizza nights was the realization that our differences – rather than our similarities – enriched the enjoyment of making new friends. I had felt so much pressure in high school to conform; to be just like everyone else; to want to be the SAME. How liberating to encounter a new environment where the things that made me unique also made me – and others – much more interesting.
Over the years, I’ve recalled those pizza/music nights when providing academic coaching to high school and college students with disabilities such as LD/dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger’s, depression, and anxiety. These diagnoses are often referred to as “hidden” disabilities because others may not know you have such a diagnosis unless you tell them. Some of the students I’ve worked with have been very comfortable and open about their disability. It’s just a part of who they are and they let people know about this aspect of themselves easily and early on in a new relationship. Other students have worked hard to keep this a secret, worried that they will be thought of as “less than” – or a slacker who just wants an unfair advantage – if they disclose this information to others.
Sadly, these fears can be reinforced by actual experience. There is still a lot of ignorance in the world. Some people do think (mistakenly) that people with LD or ADHD or depression or anxiety aren’t very smart or aren’t trying very hard. When a student tells me they worry that others will think this about them, I always think of a powerful quote by Eleanor Roosevelt: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. Meaning, if YOU know you are smart and working hard and just as good as everyone else, than another person’s uninformed opinion about you really shouldn’t matter. A recent research article explored this topic from students’ perspectives. Read “College Student Disclosure of Non-Apparent Disabilities to Receive Classroom Accommodations” at http://www.ahead-archive.org/uploads/publications/JPED/jped26_1/JPED26_1_FullDocument.pdf
In nearly 30 years of watching students decide how to handle disclosure as they transition to college, it seems like two things are usually true:
- Thinking about how and when you might want to tell others about your disability is a very personal decision. You have the right to make this choice on your own and handle it in the way that feels most comfortable to you. That said…
- Keeping your disability a secret, unfortunately, can erect an invisible wall between you and others. It takes a lot of energy to keep that wall in place and can result in others not truly knowing who you are.
This newsletter issue focuses on the topic of stigma. If you are reading this article and have a hidden disability, you may be trying to decide how to handle disclosure yourself. As a college student, you have to disclose your disability to the Disability Services (DS) office in order to receive accommodations such as extra test time or books on tape or notetakers. Then, you typically have to share a letter from the DS office with your professors to put those accommodations in place. Fear about being stigmatized keeps some students from pursuing accommodations, which is understandable but also a shame. Sometimes the only person who really suffers from this fear is the student, who would benefit from the level playing field created by the accommodations.
Even if you don’t need or want to use accommodations, you may find it helpful to meet with your professors during their office hours. They can help you think through paper assignments, give you good suggestions about studying for their exams, and even offer career advice. Again, some students with hidden disabilities resist meeting with professors for fear of being “found out.” A group of students from the University of New Hampshire share some remarkable insights about how they handled disclosure and self-advocacy issues. Maybe you can relate to what they have to say. Read more at
Whether or not you ever talk to your professors about your disabilities, remember that they have a great deal of knowledge to share with you! They can become mentors, especially if you are majoring in their discipline. They can also be intimidating, due to their expert knowledge and seriousness. Colleges recognize that many undergraduates can be nervous about using office hours to get to know their professors and seek their help. Cornell University recently published some tips for students to help them feel more comfortable about talking to faculty. Read more at http://lsc.cornell.edu/Sidebars/Study_Skills_Resources/office_hours.pdf
I recently attended the 8th International Conference on Higher Education and Disability in Innsbruck, Austria (http://www.trac.uno.edu/conf/). It was amazing! Nearly 70 people from 20 countries around the world gathered for five days to discuss effective ways for colleges and universities to provide respectful, equal access to students with disabilities. One of the most popular sessions was conducted by a remarkable undergraduate named Thomas Gaertner. He is from Germany and studies physics at the University of Innsbruck. Thomas gave a talk about his college experiences, including accommodations for his LD and mobility issues. He challenged colleges to be more accessible but also focused on his own responsibilities to know himself, understand his needs, seek help when needed, and to be realistic about the impact of his disability while also pursuing his dreams. Students have always been my best teachers, so I’ll give the last words of this article to Thomas:
“It is really great that the university provides you with assistants, but in the end, it is still up to the individual student to fulfill his duty. In the end, we as students have to be the ones who are going to take the first step. We have to ask ourselves: ‘Do I really have what is needed for studying? Am I already mature enough?’ We are the ones who have to climb the ladder of success, because nobody is going to do that for us. Therefore, a university can only help you in giving you the same chances as everyone else has. This being said, a university fortunately does not only provide you with specific knowledge in your field of interest, but also with certain soft skills.
One day, you are going to start working on this ladder of success as a mature adult and in getting so far, you will also have to accept sometimes that there might be limits and borders you might not overcome (yet). You have to accept that you might not be able to tackle two studies at the same time or that you might need more time. You maybe have to find another field of interest that suits you and your skills and wishes better. Sometimes you maybe have to reorientate yourself, gain more knowledge, try another time and in this way overcome your previous limits. I think it is important that you keep in mind that we want to be treated equally, but that also implies that the help we receive must not take all the weight from our shoulders and above all must not violate the exchange of knowledge for our fellow students. All of us have to accept that sometimes it is not worth chasing dreams that we won’t be able to fulfill. Sometimes it is better to move on and find something that really can fulfill us.”