ny person with a health issue — visible or not — has to navigate certain difficulties in their day-to-day life, and can be easily criticized by those who may not understand what they are going through. In the most recent U.S. census, nearly 19 percent of the population was documented as living with a disability. Despite such a significant percentage, there remains a negative stigma associated with individuals with disabilities that can make these individuals feel unacknowledged or like burdens on society.
UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP, serves 6 percent of the entire student population, yet there remains a general lack of awareness surrounding the challenges and barriers to living with disabilities on this campus. Any health condition can be difficult to live with, and that difficulty compounds when you are also balancing the demands of academics and campus life. As a student living with a physical disability, I wanted to share some of my tips for how to navigate student life with these challenges.
Know your resources
I’ve found that living independently as a student without the support system of family and friends can be especially challenging. In this case, it is important to know what resources are available to help you feel more supported in the college environment. On campus, the DSP is a valuable resource for students with documented disabilities. DSP officers meet individually with each student in their program to determine what type of accommodations the student might need to be successful in an academic setting. These accommodations range from extra time in exams to lab assistants to allowances for occasional, disability-related absences. My experience with DSP has been wonderful. My accommodations allow me to have a more level playing field with my peers, and they give me the flexibility to put my health first, even as a UC Berkeley student.
It is also important to recognize the impact a physical disability can have on mental health. Mental health issues were one thing I did not expect to experience, especially since my disability is physical. As my physical disabilities began to have an increasingly negative impact on my quality of life, I realized that it was important to give my mental health the same attention I was giving to my physical health. When seeking resources, I found that the campus Tang Center has reliable and safe counseling available to all students. It also offers five free counseling sessions so that any student, regardless of their disability status or insurance plan, can address their mental health concerns with a licensed professional. Some counselors even host support groups and group therapy sessions specifically catered to students with particular disabilities, mental illnesses or past traumas. I was in a support group for a semester, and I found it to be an invaluable experience. These groups are certainly worth checking out if you feel you might benefit from a weekly check-in with a professional and with peers who are in similar situations.
Get a good feel for the campus
My disability and the physical pain that stems from it impact my mobility a great deal. So, I realized how important it was for me to know my surroundings well before I became fully immersed in life on campus as a student with a disability. If you have any physical disability that can impact your ability to get around, I suggest walking to each building you have a class in before the semester starts so you can learn where the stairs, elevators and ramps are located. Each building also has procedures for how to evacuate wheelchair personnel in case of a fire or other emergency. If you are familiar with the building before classes start, you will feel much less anxious about getting around.
Mental health and physical health go hand in hand, and it is important to treat them together. I’ve learned that maintaining your health is more than just trying to fix, or alleviate symptoms of, the most obvious issue at hand.
UC Berkeley also offers an amazing golf-cart service called Loop. If you are approved by DSP for the Loop service, you can download an app on your phone that you can use to call a golf cart to pick you up and take you to your desired location on campus. It’s like Uber on campus — but it’s entirely free! My disability has made me a very slow walker, and I cannot walk up our hilly campus like I used to. I use Loop on days when I feel like giving myself a little break from the exhausting uphill climbs. If you feel you might qualify for this service, make sure to schedule an appointment with a DSP officer. Even if you don’t use the service on a daily basis, it is a useful option to have in case your disability ever flares up.
Take care of your mental health, too!
As I mentioned before, it can be easy to let a physical disability affect your mental health. Make sure you are checking in with yourself, your friends and family, and even professionals, if needed. In addition, take the time to practice self-care and acknowledge your physical and mental health needs. Self-care does not always have to be the stereotypical “treating yourself” that encourages self-imposed rewards in an attempt to secure satisfaction and happiness. Self-care is something that should be constant in your day-to-day life. It can be as simple as making sure to take your medicine, drinking plenty of water, eating full and healthy meals, going to physical therapy, and making sure to exercise your body in the best way for yourself.
Mental health and physical health go hand in hand, and it is important to treat them together. I’ve learned that maintaining your health is more than just trying to fix, or alleviate symptoms of, the most obvious issue at hand. It is about checking in with yourself, noticing the symptoms in your body before a flare-up and making sure to give yourself consistent breaks. Living with a physical disability takes a great toll on your overall health, and I suggest prioritizing your mental health as much as your physical health.
Let your professors know
Professors at UC Berkeley encounter hundreds of students every day. They generally are not inclined to learn the details of each student’s life unless the student makes an effort to help the professor understand the situation the student is in. In my experience, instructors are really receptive to hearing your side of the story when you are telling them about the reasons behind the accommodations you need for their class. DSP is not allowed to release any information about your condition to anyone, and so can only list out the accommodations they have verified for you to your teachers. So, if you find yourself needing to use the accommodations more frequently than anticipated or you are having a tough time keeping up in the class, having the teacher know more details about your disability can really help them understand how they can best support you.
My condition makes it very difficult for me to make it through the four-hour-long lab classes I have to take. I was extremely anxious to tell my lab GSI about my disability and the way it could potentially affect my performance in the class. I even planned out and practiced what I was going to say to him word for word before I actually went to tell him. I was so grateful that I did go up and disclose the important information about my condition in the beginning of the semester because I felt more supported as the class went on: I was able to take breaks in the class period, have assistance on certain procedures, and I felt more comfortable asking for extensions or help on class assignments! I meet with all my professors now at the beginning of each semester, and it takes away a great deal of anxiety for me as the academic semester progresses.
Let your friends and extracurricular groups know
As a person with a physical disability, I know there are things you have to take into account in your daily life that your friends never think twice about. Make sure you let some of the people around you know what those little things are. This can make them more aware of your situation and more receptive to helping you if you ever need it. This also will help if you ever need to reschedule something or if you have to miss a club meeting. Much like the above tip, letting your peers know about your disability and the challenges associated with it can eliminate any anxiety you might feel about flare-ups or times when you simply need a break. Your friends will understand what you’re going through only if you tell them.
It is exhausting living and navigating college life with a disability that can so easily drain so much energy out of your body and mind, but it certainly can be done! Make sure you identify and are comfortable with your resources, take the time to recover from flare-ups and give yourself proper care on a day-to-day basis.