My leap of faith
Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, p. 8
Disclosing my mental illness is a decision that I approach with a great deal of caution. It is one that is filled with dread and uncertainty, as it is impossible to predict how people will react, and my past experience has left me with doubts as to whether my mental illness will be accepted with any semblance of compassion. However, this perspective has changed with my recent journey.
As part of my recovery, I decided to return to university to upgrade my skills. It was a terrifying endeavour compounded by the fact that my doctor and vocational rehabilitation counsellor urged me to self-identify as a student with a disability. They explained that if during the course of my studies I became ill and required accommodations, it was necessary to have all the documentation in place prior to becoming ill. With much trepidation I complied, and in retrospect it is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
My experience at school as a consumer has been amazing. The process began with meeting with a counsellor to determine what accommodations would be required and submitting various forms to document my disability. I started this process fearful as to how I would be treated once I revealed that my disability is a mental illness; however, this issue was quickly resolved. My counsellor was knowledgeable and supportive. He assured me that under no circumstance would the nature of my disability ever be revealed to anyone outside of disability services for any reason. The process was clearly explained and I was provided with information about all the services available to me.
My accommodations included extensions on assignments for medical reasons, extended time on exams, only one exam per day, rescheduling of exams for medical reasons and a note-taker. I was given a generic letter for my professors indicating the need for these accommodations. I was terrified to speak with my professors regarding the accommodations that I was entitled to use. My first thought was that since I do not appear to be disabled, my professors would assume that I had a mental illness and would react with ignorance and hostility to my request for special treatment. My fears however were quickly dispelled upon meeting my first professor, who was unshaken by my disclosure and didn’t feel that I needed to provide him with the letter — he believed me.
When I started my course I was adamant that I would not use my accommodations; I didn’t want to be any different from the other students. Much to my surprise, however, my professor encouraged me to use them, and he was interested in knowing if they made a difference for me. Prior to each exam, he came to me to see if I wanted to use my accommodations and asked how I was doing. He even asked if I had any suggestions or comments on his teaching style from the perspective of a student with a disability, and whether there was anything he could do to make his lectures accommodating for other students. All of this made me feel like he genuinely cared about how I experienced his course.
Regrettably, I don’t think I could ever convey how profoundly this professor affected my experience at university. The stress of exams, assignments and of coping in a new environment became lesser issues, allowing me to focus completely on learning. The accommodations provided me with a sense of safety, as there was a process already in place if I needed it. This made all the difference for me, since it had been five years since the last time I worked or attended school; my confidence was shaky to say the least. I also found that taking that first step of speaking to my professor at the beginning of the semester helped, as I was no longer a nameless face in the crowd. Approaching him for help when I was having difficulty with the course material was less daunting since I had already spoken with him. All of these supports made it easier for me to manage my illness and enabled me to surpass my educational goals.
Each semester, it became easier to walk into my classes and disclose my disability to my professors, and I can honestly say that everyone treated me respectfully and was very accepting of my request for accommodations. The only hurdle in the process was that none of my professors knew the process for implementing accommodations, for example scheduling my exams in the disability office. I found however that locating the information that professors required and being able to explain the process to them made things easier. I’m tremendously grateful for my experience and the compassion all my professors demonstrated.