I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis in August 2011, two short weeks before fall semester began at my local university. Assuming that my R.A. was progressing slowly, my rheumatologist did not discuss with me the symptoms I might begin to experience. Instead, I did my own research, felt reasonably satisfied that I had a pretty mild R.A., and headed back to school.
My semester was a horrendous, stressful mess. My arthritis advanced far faster than anyone expected, and I missed more classes than I attended. Every day, my stress levels rose, my sleep schedule fell further out of whack, and my arthritis grew more painful and limiting. I had a doctor’s note, and while my professors seemed understanding, many were unwilling to give concessions. My attendance grades suffered terribly.
I made it through (somehow) with decent grades, but my body and mind were devastated. College is rough no matter who you are, but trying to balance schoolwork with my ever-menacing R.A. brought on more stress than I have ever experienced before.
It was only after I had completed my terrible semester that I finally took the advice of my favorite professor, who had encouraged me to seek out Disability Services. At the time, I didn’t feel as if I deserved help; I had yet to accept my debilitating illness as a disability. After watching the quick work stress made of my already deteriorating body, though, I realized that I needed some support.
My university’s Disability Services Office advocates for any student who falls under “disabled” requirements, as described by the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (Current ADA text can be found here). Sufferers of widespread, chronic and debilitating pain generally fall under this category.
From the minute I sat down with my new advocate, I knew I had done myself a grave disservice by shying away from this valuable resource. My advocate listened intently, took extensive notes, and provided me with the professional support I needed to focus on school. I came to realize that Disability Services was not there to make the conditions of my degree easier, but instead to provide knowledge and advocacy, taking away the stress of managing and explaining my R.A.
Together, we worked out a number of little solutions that might make my semesters less stressful, from the use of my laptop for note taking to removing or lessening attendance requirements. I distributed these solutions to my professors in the form of an impact letter describing the ways in which R.A. affected my education; professors had to sign a form verifying that they had read and understood my impact letter. By requiring me to seek out my professors myself, Disability Services encouraged open dialogue about my disability, and ensured that each and every professor met my educational needs.
I will never have to advocate for myself again. If ever a professor refuses to make changes, my counselor with Disability Services will stand by my side. When my arthritis began to take over my life, I wondered if I would ever graduate.
Having a chronic illness is life changing, whether you are still a student or are far beyond school. Take advantage of the helpful resources provided for you, and reduce everyday stress on your already struggling body.
(More information about the ADA can be found here)