For the past 5 years, I’ve been inexplicably physically fatigued, which has had exorbitant consequences in every facet of my life, most prominently, in academics. In high school, I was always one more overslept class away from being kicked out, and at the beginning of every term, I was placed on disciplinary restriction for weeks on end.
I’ve seen an endless parade of doctors, mental health professionals, been misdiagnosed and put on various medications that impeded my health even further. Some days I slept 15, 18, even 20 hours consecutively. I struggled to stay awake in between the classes I managed to attend, extracurricular activities, and homework. By some miracle, I managed to graduate and get into college. Of course, nothing changed when I entered college this past fall.
The college I attended was much less forgiving (in comparison; I would hardly call the administration at my high school forgiving) about the missed classes, and I “voluntary” went on leave, in the sense that they gave me a choice between a leave, or not miss a single class and make up all the missed work and exams for the term in the 2-3 weeks left until break, which I would no doubt fail to do and have to possibly face more severe consequences. I was extremely upset at being shoehorned into this decision, and about having to stay home for a year, but I had no other options.
I returned home, I was met with more tests, more doctors, more misdiagnoses, and more medication. I said “yes” to every form of treatment a doctor offered me. I kept to strict guidelines for my diet, exercise, and bedtime. I filled out dozens of job applications. I read every book I could get my hands on and took scores of free classes and moocs I found online. I knew my every move was being closely scrutinized and pathologized. I knew I had to do everything in my power to get myself out of this purgatory.
There are detrimental consequences to being on leave: student loans accumulate, medical treatment is expensive (and overrides the expense of part-time classes), you’re exiled from your on-campus support network, and the readmission process is nebulous and anxiety-inducing. I’m sure I’m not the only student to be forced to return to a distressing family environment. The institution that claims to care about its individual students and their well-beings are implicitly telling you you’re not welcome, you’re no longer a part of this community.
The harsh, punitive policies undoubtedly foster a lack of perceived discretion over students’ lives. Your education, the future you imagined for yourself is yanked from under your feet. School is strongly tied to my sense of identity and self-worth; I worshiped Hermione Granger for the greater part of my childhood and my adolescence. [ta nehisi french learning] Articles about students battling their college’s medical leave policies crop up every couple of months, detailing the horror stories they went through in trying to get readmitted, many having to wait 2 or 3 years before they were permitted to return to school.
I remembered those articles and felt an impending dread upon waiting for my administrative dean to call me this afternoon. Her call was a Kafkaesque mishmash of the impersonal, bureaucratic language cited in those articles. “We just need more time to assess how you’re responding to the changes you’ve made in your life, to make sure you can thrive emotionally and socially in a rigorous environment” “You have made tremendous efforts and progress” “It’s obvious that you are a very bright and capable student”
“This was a very difficult decision to make” I hope your work continues to be as successful” “I know this is a very challenging time amidst some disappointing news” “I’m hopeful with a continued pattern of all of the hard work you have already been doing, that this will set you up for a smooth return for the spring semester. ” “Please remember you have done nothing wrong and your strength throughout all of this is evident. ” I had braced myself for this outcome, but the reality of the situation is so much more crushing than anything you can fabricate in your head.
Through the exasperated hyperventilation and tears, I tried to probe for more details, to no avail. I was met with the same cold, obfuscating response: “We need more time for assessment. ” Another student locked out of the ivory towers for the vaguest, flowery, bullshit feigning-as-empathetic excuses only America’s elitist -sorry- most elite, academic institutions can unapologetically spew. The teachers who knew me best in high school told me I could go to Harvard. They told me I was going to achieve great things.
They told me I was going to do something one day. Look at me now: stuck in an abusive home, in a town in which I know not a single person outside of my family, still undiagnosed, filling out applications for one minimum wage job after the other. How could this happen? I am not, nor have I ever been, mentally unstable or suicidal. I am not, nor have I ever been, a risk to others or myself. Doctors reiterated through several emails and calls how unsafe, deconstructive, and tumultuous my home environment is.
The best thing for my well-being would be to return to school; it would be counter-productive to further extend my leave. I’m convinced “there are just some people who aren’t best suited for this environment” is a tired justification for ableism. Administrators are choosing what’s easiest and safest for them at the expense of what’s best for the student. The aim might not be to explicitly humiliate and isolate students suffering from health issues, but their callousness and adherence to draconian policies certainly achieves such.
Is there no obligation to help students return to school and succeed? Are school administrations really looking for students to be magically cured and meet an invisible standard of “healthy”? Why are these standards not applied to “normal” students, given the pressures of competitive academic environments? There should be no detrimental consequences to being open and truthful about your struggles with mental health. Unfortunately, elite institutions are more concerned for their own images and are disturbingly willing to flush out anyone threatening their brand name.
Students’ presences should not be contingent on whether the legal risks outweigh the student’s contributions to their institutions. The lack of empathy is deeply concerning, as is the attention to pondering the legal implications over fostering healthy environments and interactions. I’ve been disillusioned with academic bureaucracy ever since my mystery ailment brought on unreasonable punishment from my high school’s administration. I don’t expect to be coddled or pandered to, but I do expect to be treated like a human being. I’m well aware that universities are corporations that act in their financial interests.
The ugly nature of the system to dispose of students when their health brands them a liability is no less repulsive, nor any less worthy of repudiation. There have been numerous conversations about the toxicity and damage caused by systemic institutions, and how ameliorating their ramifications cannot be done through complacency or equivocation. ~~~ Even with the lack of clarity regarding what my affliction is, am I not protected under the ADA? Legally, schools can’t require that an illness of any kind is cured, or that disability-related behavior does not recur unless it is a direct threat to the student or other students.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act forbids organizations from “excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services. ” What happens to students, like me, who don’t have the means to pursue litigation? its impossible to protest, to take action, especially because you’re not taken seriously and you’re branded as “unstable” Some students are perpetually unhealthy. Some students will never be cured, and will suffer relapses for the rest of their lives. Should they really be denied an education on the basis of their (dis)ability?