Sunday, 7 March 2021

Academia Won’t Change By Itself

Written by Manya Singh 
My first year of college was my first experience with using disability accommodations.
I didn't tell anyone I used these accommodations.
Luckily, the classes I shared with friends tended to be big lecture classes, and if anyone mentioned not seeing me in the lecture room, I'd make an excuse about wearing black, or sitting in the back... and then I'd change the subject. I was so embarrassed.
My university had a policy that you had to submit accommodation letters to faculty in person, and my anxiety would bubble just under the surface as I arrived at office hours, quickly shoved the letter towards the professor, and attempted a smile before leaving without making eye contact. I knew that these professors got these letters each year, and they had already received the electronic version of mine from the coordinator, and still, the experience of having to identify myself in that moment was awful.
And then, out of nowhere, I started falling asleep.
I can remember the first time very clearly. I was in an advanced math class, as I'd qualified to skip regular algebra, and I was the youngest in that class. The teacher was great, and a legend among the students. I had always done well, especially in math, but I really wanted to impress this teacher with my attentiveness and work ethic.
But one day, I woke up to someone shaking my shoulder, and as I jerked back into reality, I caught the disapproving glance my teacher sent my way. My peers around me tried to hide their chuckles, and the student behind me told me my teacher asked her to shake me awake. I was humiliated and shocked, and I'm sure I left without giving the teacher an explanation... because I didn't have one.
For the next seven years, I would try a million things: increasing/decreasing sleep, giving up coffee, different protein powders, yoga, CrossFit, various vitamin regimes, and lots and lots of medical testing. I probably got tested for anemia, thyroid problems and diabetes every three to five months. Nothing ever worked and testing was always negative. I fell asleep almost every day, in almost every class. I was so embarrassed, especially in college. I knew that professors were thinking that I had stayed up too late partying or cramming or watching TV, when really, I had been in bed by 10:30. I sat in the back of the classroom and rarely participated, because I felt terrible.
I felt like I was inhabiting the body of someone else, a body that would not cooperate with me.
At 19, I was tested for sleep apnea, and I started treatment for that. It had been ruled out initially because I tested negative as a kid. The sleep apnea treatment helped a little, but I still fell asleep in classes. For two years, I waited for my "sleep debt" to end, but it never did. There were some other big changes in my life around this time, including having committed to coming to graduate school. I was tired of being tired, of feeling like less than a whole person, always embarrassed and anxious and hating myself. I started treatment for more severe, clinical sleep disorders.
And it worked. It's not perfect, and the effectiveness of my treatment depends on me committing to my routine, and to maintaining my health more rigorously than the average able-bodied person. My body isn't like most people's bodies, and that's frustrating, but I'm grateful that I've found effective treatment, and I'm okay with this being my reality for the rest of my life.
(It takes an average of seven years to diagnose sleep disorders, since the symptoms overlap, and tend to be ignored or dismissed. sleepfoundation.org is a good place to start if this resonates.)
The experience of my disability contributed to me feeling embarrassed and ashamed of it, but the reality is that there are many disabled people and students, with all kinds of disabilities, who feel the same way. For large segments of society, disability is bad, and we are meant to be embarrassed for being bad. Disability is not bad, but this notion being false, does not lessen the impact.
In academia, this is best represented by the statement: "Well, nobody needed accommodations when I went to school." Impostor syndrome impacts everyone, but it is different for disabled students because it interacts with, and is intensified by, the history and continuation of ableism in academia.
In college, I was co-president of the disability club on campus, and I helped a lot of students navigate accommodations. I would often get a message like, "[Insert example of not complying with official accommodation letters here], is that legal?"
I feel disgusted that there is a need to talk to students about how to negotiate accommodations, as if they are being held hostage, when they've already jumped through administrative hoops to get official accommodations. Each time I've had to do that in my own life, I have felt smaller, and I hate watching others feel that way too.
You feel like you don't belong,
like academia would be happy if you just gave up and left,
like "accommodations didn't exist back in my day" because disabled people have never
and will never be welcome in academia.
An administrator once told me that academia would improve in the next ten to fifteen years, as the people within it filtered in and out. I remember thinking: Is all we can do wait? Did we say the same thing ten years ago?
Have we always been waiting for academia to change on its own, rather than actively trying to change it?
When do we accept that hasn’t worked?
About the Author

Portrait picture of
Manya facing the camera
and smiling.
Manya Singh is a doctoral student in botany studying how drought impacts plant-soil feedback in invasive grasses. She has been active in student advocacy, with a focus on disabled students, since 2017. Follow her at manyasingheco.wordpress.com.

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