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Fighting the invisible battle: trying to succeed in school with a hidden disability

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Like what you’re reading? This story is from our Accessibility Issue! Check out the other stories here. Want to see more? Of course you do.

By Sarah Krichel

Jamie Thompson* had two hours before her psychology exam when her chest began to tighten, her breath running shorter by the minute. She could feel one of her regular anxiety attacks creeping up. To avoid the freezing panic in the middle of her exam, she reluctantly decided to take an Ativan pill—something she only does when she feels there’s no other option.

Thompson was having suicidal thoughts all week. She was tired, and in that moment she didn’t care about the consequences of the medication.

She pulled the zipper on her bag, grabbed the pillbox, flipped off the cap and popped the tiny pill. Ativan is known for causing dizziness, muscular weakness, distorted vision and an overall lack of coordination.

Ten minutes passed. She felt the side effects of the anxiety-reducing pill: a dream-like trance, sometimes peaceful but sometimes bleak—it was always a hit or miss.

She knew that when she went into her exam, she’d have to rely on a brain that refuses to function properly.

Despite studying hard and having an academic accommodation that provided her with more time to write, she looked down at her exam and couldn’t make sense of any of the sentences. She could clearly read the words, but couldn’t answer the questions.

Thompson knew the only thing she could do was “bullshit her way through it” for partial marks. This is how it’s always been for her, and how it will be for the rest of university.

Often, invisible disabilities are considered less significant than physical ones. But this idea perpetuates an exclusive and harmful stigma surrounding “disability,” causing many students to feel ostracized or unacknowledged in their daily struggles.

She knew that when she went into her exam, she’d have to rely on a brain that refuses to function properly.

Hidden disabilities, particularly mental health issues, have become a crucial topic on many campuses.

Most recently, an article was published about two students who committed suicide within this school year at the University of Waterloo, leading to 7,800 students signing a petition demanding reform in the school’s current mental health support system. Another article was published about four students who committed suicide within this school year at the University of Guelph.

Ryerson’s academic policy was last updated on Sept. 1, 2016 and it’s currently in the process of an extensive review.

The current academic accommodation system has several measures to aid students experiencing illnesses, disabilities, grief periods, prejudice, procedural errors in evaluations or religious and spiritual holidays.

Last year, 2,033 students registered for academic accommodation support, according to MarcEmond, acting assistant director of academic accommodation and learning. In the 2018-2019 school year, 3,119 students are expected to register at the support office.

The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) has also spoken out about improving mental health services on campus.

The Wellness Centre—an RSU initiative for inquiries on mental health and university resources—was supposed to be completed last year, but the opening has since been pushed back to September. In the meantime, many students are forced to go without support for their invisible disabilities.

Thompson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

She also experiences endometriosis and various symptoms, such as muscle stiffness that cuts her circulation to a point of numbness, as a result of her anxiety.

She doesn’t leave the house without her pillbox—containing Adderall, Ativan, lithium, Tylenol 3s and Tylenol Extra Strength—and she doesn’t finish a day without taking at least one of these meds.

The process of registering for academic accommodations or consideration can be overwhelming because of the complexity and consistent referrals to other offices, so Thompson gave up on the system. “There’s just no point sometimes,” she says.

Last year, 2,033 students registered for academic accommodation support, according to MarcEmond, acting assistant director of academic accommodation and learning. In the 2018-2019 school year, 3,119 students are expected to register at the support office.

In the midst of the fall 2016 semester, Thompson had another episodic breakdown, requiring her to submit a student medical certificate to get a midterm rewrite—her third sick note submitted in two years. Ryerson’s medical certificates can be acquired online. The official document provides the reason why a student was not able to perform adequately on a test, an assignment, etc.

When she submitted the medical certificate to her program director, they requested to speak with her because they “had some concerns” about her bothering instructors too frequently.

The main message was a range of offers of different types of accommodations, in exchange for Thompson to not hand in more certificates.

Following the meeting, Thompson felt pressured to never get sick again. She didn’t want to be defined or validated by the documented severity of her illnesses.

From then on, she felt like she would need to try harder than everyone else to keep up. Thompson would rather force herself to somehow not have any anxiety or panic attacks than put her faith in the institutional system.

She says the feeling of being generalized and dismissed holds the risk of pushing students into a deeper depressive state.

Thompson isn’t the only student whose marks suffer from her invisible disabilities.

According to a 2016 study from the Ontario Canada Reference Group, one of every three students will deal with anxiety issues surrounding their grades.

Other grade-compromising factors for students are depression, which affects about 22 per cent of the surveyed student group, and learning disabilities, which affects about six per cent.

Michael Friedman is another student who falls into that “one in three” statistic. The fourth-year social work major has no problem being social and friendly to strangers, even though it’s common for anxiety to be depicted as “awkwardness.”

When Friedman walks onto a campus with 36,000 people, he immediately hears a voice telling him, “They don’t like you. They won’t like you.” His palms clam up, he gets overheated and he can feel the anxiety turn into a physical pain in his chest.

Still, he says no one believes he has legitimate mental health issues because he was undiagnosed for so long.

“Are you sure?” his friend asked him when Friedman finally opened up to him about his disorder. “But you’re so social!”

Not being able to speak in front large crowds has impeded Friedman’s ability to do well in school. He did not raise his hand once during his first semester of university. Over time, his anxiety accumulated lower grades. When he did try to participate, his heart would pound.

it’s common for anxiety to be depicted as “awkwardness.”

When Friedman was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a form of cancer in the soft tissue of his scalp, he spent his chemotherapy relaxing and focusing on recovering. He lost his hair from the aggressive treatments, but he saw this time period as a “break from reality.” His depression and anxiety were on hiatus.

According to Friedman’s doctor, Ewing Sarcoma has a 98 per cent survival rate. But Friedman didn’t realize that once his final treatment of chemotherapy was finished and he was considered cancer-free, back to his old routine, his social anxiety disorder and depression would return—and more aggressively.

He was officially diagnosed with social anxiety disorder after his treatment finished.

Both Friedman and Thompson hold either little faith in the Ryerson support system or have had to face the stigma of their disabilities from their peers. They have to plan for dealing with the individuals who call them “liars” and “fakers,” because the alternative of just being believed is so rare.

It’s late, and I’m messaging Thompson to confirm last-minute details for this article.

After an hour of waiting for her to respond, I think nothing of it. I later receive a message telling me she had a breakdown, and that she’s on Ativan. I notice the typos in her messages and the rant-like responses.

When Thompson swallows an Ativan, she thinks ahead two years, when she’ll have to make her case to the grad school she applies to. She’ll have to somehow convince them that her lower-than-needed grades should be excused, and that she should be deemed smart enough to go to their school.

From where she is now, she’d like to see some progress in the perception of what it really means to be disabled. She’d like to not have to define herself by her prospective life paths with her disabilities, convincing others they’re valid.

She’d like to not have to debate her value and worth with a complete stranger.

The morning after her exam is a regular one. The symptoms don’t carry over but they will start anew. She wakes up, gets out of bed and pops a T3.

She doesn’t need any water.

She’s ready for her next day on campus, fighting the invisible battle.

*Name has been changed.

A previous version of this article stated that four students committed suicide within this school year at the University of Waterloo. Two students in total committed suicide at this school. The Eyeopener regrets this error. 

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