I had the chance this week to do something really cool – I was part of a panel for an Intro to Disability Studies class at a local college, where I, along with the other panelists, got to talk about accessibility, disability, ableism, intersectionality, and my personal experiences with all of the above. It was a really great class, and the students were so open and interested and receptive. It also made me a little bit introspective, too, and made me think back on my own college experience, and what’s changed for me since then.
When I went away to college, it was the first time I’d ever spent more than one night away from my parents, and definitely the first time I’d ever had anyone other than my parents help me with my needs. I was only 20 minutes from home, but it really did feel like a different world at times. I had to learn, very quickly, how to be in charge of my own care, and how to balance academics, extracurriculars, a social life, and my care needs. It was a lot of new, all at once – when I was also trying to adjust to college-level classes, and to make new friends after mostly having the same group of friends since fourth grade.
While my college was actually pretty great about accommodating my disability, I was still the only visibly disabled student I ever saw around campus. So, in an effort to fit in – subconsciously or consciously, I’m really not sure anymore! – I tried to downplay my disability and my needs as much as I could. I did make sure to get a private room and bathroom, and things like that – I knew that my physical needs had to be met in that way, those things were unavoidable. I never tried to pretend I wasn’t disabled… but I did try to minimize it. I tried to appear as normal as I possibly could. I didn’t ask for extra time on exams, even though writing things out definitely did take me longer because my muscles are weaker. I didn’t even ask for an accessible desk in lots of my classes! In the big lecture halls that had the little tables that flip up from each chair, I just awkwardly pulled up kind of sideways to one of them and made it work. I wanted people to think that my disability wasn’t a big deal – that I wasn’t someone who made a big deal out of (in)accessibility.
But looking back? I really regret it. I wish I had understood then what I do now – that accommodations like that aren’t to give me anything special; they’re to get me to the same level of functioning that other people are already at. I already struggle enough just by living as a disabled woman in an extremely inaccessible world – I didn’t need to force myself to struggle more by not asking for accommodations that were being willingly offered to me.
It took years (and definitely didn’t happen all at once, there was no lightbulb moment), but the me of today is so much more willing to be open and upfront about my needs. I’ll ask to not having any meetings before 10 am, because getting ready in the morning is a time-consuming process for me. And I advocate, where I can, for increased accessibility – for me, and for the community as a whole. I’ve talked about bathroom accessibility in speaking engagements before! Obviously, there are still things about my life that I like to keep private, but I’m definitely not trying to hide my needs anymore.
Now, I’m so much more open, comfortable, and accepting of my disability. And I don’t think 18-year-old college freshman me would ever believe that 17 years later, I’d be sharing so candidly about my life – and that I’d actually be happy and excited to do it. It really feels like growth.