Why We Need More than the Student Disability Office

I started this blog during my senior year of college. I attended the University of North Texas and I also worked there. I had a unique college experience – I really hated going to school at UNT. As a student, I was pretty miserable. Don’t get me wrong, I had some memorable professors and took classes I liked, but that was a small fraction of the whole. I had mostly awful professors who taught classes I hated.

As an employee, however, I was in heaven. I was in “the business” as everyone who works on film or visual media or video or WHATEVER you want to call it – calls it. It’s pretty unheard of to get paid to edit video while you’re still in school – and I wasn’t even a film student! I worked for a very very small production company that made videos for the distance and online learning programs UNT offered. By small I mean there were three of us. I seriously miss it every day. There is no other job like it. I was basically paid to get a film student education without having to interact with any film school people. Well, except Jeff. But Jeff is cool.

Anyway. Another thing that made my student experience unique was that I basically attended every class UNT has to offer – I was there to film them. Including grad school (which is why I will NEVER attend – I know what I’d be getting in to) and even classes for professors. I’m not sure if all universities do this, but UNT holds huge seminars, conferences, and classes to help teachers become better teachers. They have guest speakers that come in and explain every single resource available to professors.

After attending these teacher classes, I can confidently say that there is absolutely no excuse to be a crappy professor at UNT. The one that hit particularly close to home was the seminars on the Student Disability Office. I glared daggers through the viewfinder every time these guys talked.

I was a student who fell through the cracks. Sure, I graduated, and I even won academic awards. But not to toot my own horn – it was all me. I never had a mentor. I had ONE professor who took even a vague interest in helping me, and it was in the last semester of my senior year. I left with a degree, some awards, but mostly bitterness and exhaustion.

But here’s what the disability office has to say to the professors that frankly let me down.

First, they have some cute intern girls come up and introduce the idea of the disability accommodation services. They talk about the teacher’s role in a student’s illness. They explain that many more students have a disability than are registered. Sometimes this is because they had a bad experience in high school with disability accommodation. Other times they just don’t think they qualify for help if they don’t have a wheelchair or something visible. Still other times they don’t even know that services exist to help students like themselves.

They encourage teachers to reach out. If an otherwise good student starts missing lots of class or not turning in assignments, consider that something may be going on. Ask if everything is okay outside of school and how they’ve been feeling. Ask if they’re having trouble with the material and if there’s anything you can do to help. Remember that roughly 1 in 2 students have some sort of chronic medical problem. Try to be there for them. If all else fails, give them the packet of student resources. This includes information on the disability accommodation along with the student clinic, study help programs, financial and even legal aid. If the problem persists and you suspect they have a learning or physical disability, there are people in the disability office who’s job it is to reach out to the student – putting the problem out of the teacher’s hands so they may rest with a clear conscience.

Every single professor at UNT hears this speech every single SEMESTER. Twice a year! And not one professor has ever reached out to me this way. Quite the opposite. When I’d get a flare and miss class, I would at best not have it acknowledged by my professor except by docking my grade and at worst I’d get lectured. No questions asked, the professor would either keep me after class or email me and say that they know the semester’s almost over and it’s tempting to slack off. They always say I’m clearly smart or witty or a nice person or any number of positive affirmations that don’t really amount to anything. They’d say they’d seen it time and time before. A creative person has a hard time with structure. Many young people don’t understand that in the real world there are consequences. I could go on and on. Professors always thought they could save me from the college partying dropout syndrome. Never mind that I was generally antisocial, had absolutely no friends, and dressed “like Punky Brewster” as my boss so eloquently put it (I ain’t even mad).

Every single professor I’ve had save one, who was one in a million, defaulted to thinking the problem with all “problem students” is laziness.

Even though twice a year they devote an entire day (EIGHT HOURS of this, guys) to learning that laziness is pretty much the lowest thing on the student problem spectrum. These girls go on and on about how even if it’s not a serious problem, it’s probably not laziness. It may be as simple as “having trouble fitting in” but in college it’s rarely just plain laziness.

So what’s the problem? Where’s the lapse? The class says “don’t do this” yet all professors do it. Why?

I can tell you exactly why.

After the cute interns are done with their kumbaya speech, the head hancho gets up there and destroys any ill student’s chance of being taken seriously.

The head of the Office of Disability Accommodation is…. well…. for his privacy we’ll just call him Mr. Sleazy.

Mr. Sleazy gets up there and opens by listing a few long words ending in “itis” or “osis” or whatever and polls the audience on whether or not they think it’s a real ailment. Already I’m offended. He then goes on to explain that not only are students frequent liars, but a lot of medical jargon doesn’t necessarily mean the kid really needs help. He cites an incident in which someone made up a disease and it ended up becoming a frequent diagnosis. I forgot the name because my mind was always a blank slate of white hot rage at that point.

He has this “everybody’s got something” attitude, and talks about how students will do anything to get out of work. He discourages directly talking about illnesses because it’s taboo and should be kept private. I know a lot of people share the view that medical problems should be kept as a don’t ask don’t tell kind of subject, but once it’s interfering with education it might be time to talk about it in my opinion.

Oh, but I’m not the expert. No, the expert is Mr. Sleazy. He says we don’t talk about it. He says his office will get help to the deaf kids, the kids with wheelchairs, etc etc. But aside from that, try not to get involved. It’s not his jobOHWAIT yes it is.

Obscure references ftw

In one of my first posts, I cited the language on the Disability Accomodation Office’s homepage:

“You will learn to be the primary liaison to faculty and staff concerning your accommodation needs…Because eventually you will join the workforce and you’ll find that it is solely up to you to advocate for your accommodations.”

That language has since been taken down, it looks like. I’m glad, because when I read that, I see “we’ll make you do our job for us.” Students can advocate for themselves but there is a point when someone needs to step in. Or at least not just assume the student needs to be saved from laziness – a tactic which stems directly from this ONE MAN. At this particular university anyway. I truly hope other places are better.

My doctor directly advised me not to go to the disability office, since chronic pain is not really a “disability” in their sense of the word. Fair enough. I spent a lot of time and energy advocating for something for me and other students who fell through this crack. I lobbied for an office of mediators who could educate professors about the invisible illnesses and assure them of their legitimacy. I put up posters and wrote letters. And I kept getting sent back to the disability office.

When I would ask them for a new way to help students with invisible illness, they always assured me that program existed. I’d try to get in contact, get help, and get involved, but it always sort of dissipated.

Finally, I got in contact directly with Mr. Sleazy. I told him I’d heard his talk on his services many times. I told him that I’d fallen through the cracks of what they offer, and that a vast number of other students do as well. We exchanged some emails. I explained that I had a chronic pain condition. I explained the only “accommodation” I needed was understanding and belief. I urged him to educate our educators. He seemed enthusiastic. He wanted me to personally help him correct these things. He seemed apologetic. He wanted to meet in person, if I wasn’t too overwhelmed and had time. At this time, I’d already graduated but was still working full time at the school.

We scheduled an appointment to meet.

I left work early. I had a seat in the waiting room. I waited for about an hour. Finally, he comes walking in. I have the advantage – I recognized him, but he wouldn’t know me. I watched. He went to the secretary. She told him his appointment (me) was waiting. He said to say he was busy, say to reschedule. He went to the vending machine, bought a bag of chips, went into his office (which is all glass) and sat down to eat them. He wasn’t busy. I saw that he was just as I suspected. He knew I was sick, that I’d be taking time off work, and that in short the appointment wouldn’t be easy for me. And he blew it off.

His secretary turned to me with as much professionalism as she could muster and said “Mr. Sleazy has gone to lunch. Would you like to make an appointment for another time?” I told her no thank you and left.

Honestly, everyone I’ve talked to in that office has been pretty kind. They seem like they want to help. But Mr. Sleazy has all the power, and at some point I get referred to him. There’s no going around him.

UNT professors have been taught by this man to be suspicious of all students. That laziness is the most rampant ailment on campus. I want to tell them that sometimes, the student that seems laziest on the outside is working harder than anyone else. I want to teach them about chronic pain, mental illness, and all invisible illnesses. I want to open college up to those with illness. People shouldn’t have to be ashamed of themselves for needing help.

In the workforce, yes, you’ll probably have to advocate for yourself. But if there was a general awareness and acceptance that there are some problems you can’t see just by looking at a person, we’d be a lot more likely to succeed.

I truly feel like I’ve done all I can to help UNT. I’ve moved on and moved away. My heart is still in it, but the way is barred by this one office and this one man. I truly believe that for things to change, UNT needs a separate office to help students with invisible illnesses that are overlooked by the disability office. Either that, or some restaffing needs to happen. This office broke my heart, and I know I’m not the only one. I think I could have enjoyed being a student. I’m sad I missed out on that.

13 thoughts on “Why We Need More than the Student Disability Office

  1. You were so generous for even trying to instigate change. Kudos to you! Mr. Sleazy needs dismissed. All people who treat others that way need dismissed (obviously we’d want to check to make sure everything was okay and see if we could offer some help or a shoulder first–and then, if it’s just meanness–let ’em go.) But there are so many out there like that. It’s just not right.

    1. It’s just crazy. I don’t know if he’s just THAT self-absorbed or totally ignorant or what. But yeah, I’d really like to see him go. I did send this article to the UNT twitter feeds but no response. That’s another big problem – he’s on a pretty high pedestal. It would probably take a lot to remove him.

  2. You’re kinder than I would have been, because I wouldn’t have left. I would have made sure it was a noticeable issue. Am I a grown up? Yes. But we deserve respect and that was freaking RUDE of that man. I would have simply refused to leave.

    The snowflakes did definitely make this hard to read. I’ve a headache today. The meaning is definitely well felt in this post. I start every course at college letting them know that I deal with this, that I might go behind on projects at times, but I always catch up by the end.
    I don’t ask for special privilege and generally take it if they dock the grade. But usually I get through okay.

    1. Oh and this is very different from highschool where I dealt with teachers who felt i was being lazy when I had the migraines and endo pain so bad I couldn’t move. Missed 28 days of school one year.

      1. Whoa, 28 days! That’s crazy! I’ve heard that the situation in high school is very different. I was undiagnosed in high school so I didn’t have to deal with it too much. Endo pain started really becoming an issue my junior year, but it wasn’t too bad yet so I didn’t miss school. I did push myself too far in sports often though. It was stuff I’d always been able to do, after all. I fainted twice, but I didn’t know why so I don’t think it was avoidable.

      2. I had issues age 11 on up. But it was getting worse. I couldn’t move even it hit and was generally 8 days, most of which was bad and had migraines with them. Ouch on fainting 😦 I worry for my daughter.

    2. I do kind of wish I’d made a fuss. But I dunno if it woulda been worth the energy. I always get through classes ok, I just hate that profs assume I’m lazy when I do fall behind. Boo!

  3. Rachel, I recently took over supervision of the Office of Disability Accommodations, and would like to hear more details regarding your negative experiences so that I can better address them. I know in the short time I have been supervising the ODA that the Director usually goes out of his way to assist students with accommodations, but I also don’t see every interaction he has with students. I also have not been to one of his faculty orientations, but plan to go in the Spring to hear what he is saying to the faculty. Since the university is closing for winter break at close of business tomorrow, could we maybe set up a meeting (phone call would be fine if that works better for you) after the 1st of the year? I hope that I can get more information from you on these issues and figure a way to remedy any shortcomings of the office and the office’s leadership. Students are our first priority and I want to do what I can to make sure that no one falls through the cracks. You may contact me at naegeli@unt.edu.

  4. it’s so disappointing that Mr. Sleazy is the kind of person we have to deal with in order to get proper accommodations. I’m sorry you didn’t have a great “student” experience!

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