June 3, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 65°F


Commentary: Students with disabilities need more support

Editor’s Note: This is a guest commentary. The opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.

In my first semester at Ithaca College, I came down with a case of pneumonia. I was sitting in a squalid dorm room with a 104-degree fever. I went home and I missed a week of classes.

I have a medical condition where I have a terrible immune system. I knew college was going to be tough with getting sick and I had fortunately already met with the Office of Student Accessibility Services during orientation to get an accommodation plan. The workers were wonderful; it was clear they understood my needs. They warned me, however, that they had no control over professors and that it was still possible that my accommodations wouldn’t fully be met.

When I returned from my absence, still coughing, I met with a professor for my favorite class — my first class in my major. They asked me to attend office hours, but I was in class at all the available times. They then told me that after missing only two classes, it would be impossible for me to catch up and that I should drop the class. I felt helpless.

I looked for others on campus with disabilities, perhaps a club or space on campus for those without perfectly able-bodies to relate to each other and share experiences. There were none.

Though I have been someone with a disability since I was young, I don’t think I truly understood what it would mean for my life until I went to college. From shifting between classes, work, clubs, meetings, etc., the day of a college student is packed and usually physical.

I’m someone who has always loved a busy life. I’ve always packed my schedule with things, throwing myself fully into all of my commitments. I love to meet new people and learn new things. I’m dedicated and a hard worker and my calendar is usually booked from sunrise to sunset. It was clear after visiting campus during my senior year of high school that the college would be the perfect place to continue the busy lifestyle I thrived in.

After returning home from my first campus tour, my mom asked my dad and I what we thought. My dad said, “It’s a big freaking hill,” a quote we still laugh about. I didn’t think of how inaccessible South Hill might be when I got sick during my studies. 

I’ve learned that I constantly have to self-advocate and think of other pathways for myself when I can’t meet the normal requirements for an able-bodied person. When I need to miss class, I can’t just fall back on my accommodations. I must decide if I should go to class in pain or take the risk of losing points, even though I want to be there.

Being disabled on campus means a million questions are constantly on your mind. If I’m in pain today, will the elevator be working, or will I have to go the back way? Will I be able to park close enough without getting a ticket? If I can’t make it to class, will the professors Zoom me in? Will they understand that I truly want to be there?

Fortunately, not all professors are like the one from my freshman year. In fact, I am getting over pneumonia for the second time, and all of my professors have been extremely accommodating. Perhaps it’s the pandemic bringing a new level of understanding.

I want to be clear — I love Ithaca College. I’ve loved my time here and I would not have chosen anywhere else to get my education. Still, the accessibility of campus needs to improve. My friend who received knee surgery should not have had to go through the dining hall’s kitchen to use the elevator. I should not have to have restless sleep about missing class when I’m sick. My friend who fell ill should not have had panic attacks about her grades from the Intensive Care Unit. 

Though diversity support at the college needs to improve overall, those with disabilities are almost always left out of the conversation. While the pandemic may have helped the rest of the population to get closer to an understanding, I hope Ithaca College will continue to push for better support for students of all abilities.

Megan Handley (she/her) is a senior Television and Digital Media Production major. Contact her at mhandley@ithaca.edu.