A lesson in accommodations

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In the first semester of my freshman year, I only passed my astronomy class for two reasons: The nice girl who sat next to me would share her notes and her snacks (we’re still best friends three years later), and I took an incomplete in the class because I was too depressed to take the final exam.

During the days leading up to finals week, I had a severe reaction to the antidepressant Zoloft, which has a “black box” warning detailing an increased risk in suicidal ideation for people under the age of 25. I dreaded the thought of having to take exams while delirious and depressed and worried that I would barely be able to read the words in front of me.

I didn’t know that mental health accommodations were available to me at the time. I called my older sister crying, and she let my adviser know what was going on. My adviser gave me a call to let me know that she had postponed my last two exams and that I could take an incomplete grade in those classes, so that I could finish them later with no consequences. She arranged everything with my professors, told me to have a nice winter break and let me heal in peace when I thought I was doomed to fail my first semester.

When I returned to school, a friend who lived in my dorm room hall dragged me to register with the Disabled Students’ Program, or DSP. This would allow me to continue to receive accommodations, such as deadline extensions, additional time on exams and additional excused absences.

But no one told me I had access to those accommodations. It took a dire circumstance for me to learn about incomplete grades, and my friend was the one who told me about DSP and forced me to register for it.

Access to accommodations is the sole reason I am able to remain in school while severely depressed. Without them, I would miss too many classes to pass any course. I would receive lower grades on my exams because of an inability to concentrate for long periods of time. My accommodations don’t give me a leg up over my peers; they put us on an even playing ground.

Not all professors are equally understanding about DSP accommodations. Some of my professors are eager to make their classes accessible and welcoming to all students. I bonded with a former creative writing professor over the disabilities we lived with, and she even referred to us as kin. She is the professor who has been the most innovative and thoughtful about accommodations; when I couldn’t physically make it to class, she let me call in. I was still able to take part in and contribute to the class discussion when otherwise my illness might make it impossible to take a small seminar class like that.

But there are other professors whose classes I avoid because of their ultrastrict attendance policies, who believe that the only meaningful way to be in a class is to be physically present. Yes, there is no way to exactly replicate being in a lecture or discussion. But when my professors insist that attendance is non-negotiable, they are essentially telling me that the only possible way to be a student is to be a neurotypical one. My time in school can still be meaningful and useful to myself, my classmates and my professors, even if I am sick and can’t always make it to class.

My mental illness makes school harder for me, but the reverse is also true. Academic stress is one of the top aggravators of my depression. I don’t handle stress well and tend to hide under the covers as deadlines slip by.

UC Berkeley students are all too familiar with stress. In a 2017 survey, 56.4% of students found their academic issues to be “traumatic or very difficult to handle.” At a place, such as UC Berkeley, where some students are struggling to keep their heads above water, students with mental illnesses are at risk of aggravating their conditions.

While school is difficult, I can’t imagine what the real world will be like. As the date of my graduation approaches, I am not sure what will happen when I enter the workforce. In the workplace, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects against disability-based discrimination as long as I can perform with “reasonable accommodations.” So far, I have been lucky to have jobs with compassionate supervisors, who have given me all the accommodations I’ve needed and more. Although I have the support of so many people who want to help me, the real world presents its own challenges that I will have to navigate. I am not ashamed of needing accommodations, but I worry that others will not understand the severity of my mental health issues. They’re just something I need to be able to have the opportunity to do as well as everyone else.

Salwa Meghjee writes the Thursday column on destigmatizing mental illness. Contact her at [email protected].