Receiving accommodations for invisible disabilities is not “lucky”


Before arriving at Mount Holyoke College, I had never received any sort of accommodations for the conditions that I learned to cope with on a daily basis. In fact, I had never even been aware that I had any disabilities.  Like many others who suffer from disabilities that are not visible, I had learned that the ailments I faced everyday were ones that I had to personally learn to cope with, and adjust my life accordingly. 

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, including a major bodily function.”

Once I settled into my second semester at Mount Holyoke, I was awakened to a full and correct understanding of what constitutes a legitimate disability. To our college’s laudation, we have a forward-thinking and innovative department for those with disabilities, AccessAbility Services. 

With this positive awareness has come a negative micro-cultural phenomenon on campus bred from the previously mentioned familiarity. Mount Holyoke students have become so familiar and comfortable with the topic of accommodations that they often forget that accommodations are given to students for a serious and needed purpose. 

Although the accommodation in thefollowing story has been changed for hyperbole, its premise is still true. A student who is unable to walk due to a physical impairment was given the accommodation of an electric wheelchair to get around campus with the same ease as those who are able to walk unassisted. The student was open about their disability and corresponding accommodations and eventually their friends also began to feel comfortable commenting as well. Every time they walked to class with the student they would moan, “You’re so lucky you have an electric wheelchair so that you don’t have to walk to class!” 

As you read that modified story, I am sure you not only thought that the student’s able-bodied friends were not only ridiculous, but that they were also being rude and inconsiderate. You may have also thought that that story was too far-fetched to have been true. The fact is that the story is true, the only difference is that the disability was switched to one that is visible. The story is true because the student was me. 

Unknowingly — or knowingly — able-bodied students at Mount Holyoke share similar sentiments to the friends in the previous story about accommodations such as air conditioners, comfort animals, excused absences, extended deadlines, extra tardies, extended test times, etc. What they don’t realize is when they tell the student struggling with an internal or mental disability that they are “lucky” to have their accommodation, they are not only negating the necessity of that accommodation, but also the seriousness of the disability. Just because the student’s disability isn’t outwardly handicapping them does not mean it isn’t significantly inhibiting their life.

This feeling of liberty to comment on other students’ accommodations comes from a lack of education and understanding surrounding the variety of disabilities. Nonetheless, ignorance is no excuse. 

The impact that this negative dialogue has is more significant than may be thought. Because I have been told how fortunate I was to have the accommodations that I have and because my disabilities have been downplayed, up until this year, I was unable to give myself the permission to say — or even think — I have a disability. 

Despite the fact that I have struggled more days than not, I felt that my struggles were still comparatively insignificant due toothers’ flippant attitudes and comments about my disabilities. 

Usually I would quietly listen to the opinions of others on my disabilities, but I have come to see how crucial my accommodations are for me. Only recently have I realized that some do not have to worry everyday if the food they are eating will send them into anaphylaxis or if they will wake up having difficulty breathing. Some don’t have to worry, but some do. 

I would gladly trade my air conditioner to not have to remember to take four puffs of my inhaler daily, carry an emergency inhaler everywhere I go and always be aware of the air quality. In fact, I would trade every accommodation I have to not struggle or worry if I had the choice. But that is the whole point: people with disabilities do not have a choice; they have conditions that are genetic or otherwise imposed on them. 

So, to those who can focus easily in class or can go a day without tightness in their chest or can live free of wondering when the next panic attack will strike: please don’t call us “lucky” because those who do have to face these and so many other struggles are receiving tools to help us function — please know that luck has nothing to do with it.