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As the School Year Starts, I’m Grateful for the ADA

As another school year starts, I look forward to heading back to the classroom. I love class when I’m teaching it. I hate it when I’m there as a student.

I’m getting a PhD at the moment, so it’s not that I don’t love learning. It’s just that, for me and for many others, attending class as a student brings up a host of insecurities, anxieties, and traumas, built up over decades of previous school attendance.

In grad school, I fell apart with test anxiety. An open-book, open-notes quiz was enough to keep me up worrying until 4 a.m. the night before. I’d show up the next day on three hours of sleep, barely able to complete the quiz despite spending all week preparing for it.

Fortunately, I finished up the part of the PhD where I have to attend class a few years ago. Now I go to the classroom to stand at the front and teach.

As a student, I learned how to ask myself, “What do I need?” and “How can I alter my situation so I can get what I need as best as possible?” I feel fortunate for the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives students like me the right to “reasonable accommodation.”

If you suffer anxiety, ADHD, depression, or any other mental or physical disability, you have a legal right to reasonable accommodation. You and your fellow students should be assessed on a level playing field.

Leveling that playing field might require giving students with ADHD additional time to complete an exam, or giving some flexibility with attendance and deadlines to students with conditions that can flare up at unpredictable intervals.

When I teach, more often than not, my students with disabilities are not aware that they are entitled to accommodations. Sometimes students don’t want to see themselves as disabled (and yes, that can be a bitter pill to swallow). But I don’t like watching students fail tests they’d be capable of passing with the accommodations they need.

It’s not weakness or cheating to take advantage of your legal rights.

In undergrad, I skipped a lot of classes and fell asleep while attending the rest. I thought I was just lazy, and I’ll bet my professors did too.

Now I know I was never lazy: I had a migraine every day and I suffered from mental health problems. Being sick isn’t the same as being lazy.

Embracing my status as a person with a disability has improved my life drastically. I can explain myself simply to others in a way they can understand, and I can ask for what I need in order to succeed.

It’s enough to say, “I suffer from chronic illness” or “I wasn’t feeling well” without providing details, without opening myself up to judgment by those who will never understand.

Our society has a long way to go before it will ever be easy for those of us with mental and physical disabilities to navigate it, but the Americans with Disabilities Act provides us with some legal rights to negotiate — and receive — what we need to contribute to society.

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Jill Richardson is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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