My semester started recently. For weeks prior, while I fretted about not finalizing my syllabi and gulped copious amounts of late-night coffee to finish writing my book draft, Erin Breedlove’s post on the five things professors should know about students with disabilities rattled around in my brain. (As did this response to her post from the perspective of a professor who works with students with disabilities.)
Finally, with my new fall routine taking shape, a certain little person’s first birthday under our belts (!), and yes, lots of coffee, I have the mental space to piece together my own thoughts on the topic.
I have a somewhat unique perspective on students, teachers, and chronic illness. As a lifelong patient, my entire career as a student has taken place within the context of chronic and often serious illness. As a full-time faculty member with seven years of college instruction behind me, I’ve seen a lot from the other side of the desk, too. I wrote in detail about navigating college with chronic illness in Life Disrupted but here are some brief thoughts for students:
Communicate with your instructors. It is your choice as to how, when, and if you disclose illness and/or disability to your professors, but what I tell students who do fill me in is that I can only help them as much as I am informed. If I know there is a medical situation, or a hospitalization or other event, I can help formulate a plan that minimizes stress and allows students to focus on the most important thing first: their health. I am happy and willing to oblige, but it is much easier to do that if I am aware of at least the basics, rather than finding out after weeks and weeks of missed classes/work that a medical problem exists.
When I was an undergrad and grad student, I usually had a brief chat at the end of the first class where I succinctly described my situation in the context of how it might impact my attendance—for example, infections worsen quickly so I might end up in the hospital unexpectedly. I usually ended by saying while I hoped there would be no complications that semester if there were, I would communicate them as promptly as possible.
Document as much as you can if you know you will need accommodations. With documentation from disability services, medical/health professionals, etc (whatever the particular institution requires), instructors can do a lot to help students with illness succeed in the classroom. Without them, our hands are somewhat tied.
Be proactive.This has a lot of applications. When planning course loads, consider time of day. Some students struggle with early classes, while others know their fatigue or pain is much worse later in the day and earlier classes make more sense. If your conditions are worse in the winter, see if you can spread out classes over the summer session so the load is a little lighter during known trouble times.
If you can, try to be proactive when you feel a flare coming on, or experience a decline in health status and fall behind in work. Even a simple e-mail can do a lot to decrease the stress that goes along with being overwhelmed when you know you are falling behind. Though a bit of an extreme of an example, when I was in the ICU right before exam period in college, I was able to send some brief e-mails just to let my instructors know I was an inpatient and that I would be in touch to make up all missed work as soon as possible. I never experienced anything other than concern and cooperation from my instructors in situations like this.
Since I’ve had many students with physical and mental health conditions in my classes, I know most instructors do, too. I think the Chronic Illness Initiative at DePaul University (where I’ve had the good fortune to teach a course on chronic illness) is a wonderful because it helps serve as a liaison between students with illness and their instructors, but certainly most of us teach without this type of resource. For those in academia who want to help their students, here are some considerations:
Understand the challenging nature of chronic illness. Many of your students who have disclosed illness will not “look” sick and their conditions may flare and worsen unpredictably. The student who was raising her hand in Monday’s class could be incapacitated by Wednesday. We’re more familiar with visible physical disabilities and there are more clear-cut guidelines and accommodations for physical disabilities—chronic illness is a comparatively grayer space.
Be as flexible as you can while still maintaining the classroom’s integrity. If you know there is a verified medical situation, work with your students to prioritize deadlines and assignments so they can catch up without putting their health in jeopardy to do so. Of course you need to be fair to the rest of the class and need to ensure the student in question completes the work required to pass the course, but helping students focus on the most important assignments and being flexible with deadlines can do a lot to keep students from slipping too far.
Hold your students with illness accountable. This is a tough one, but so important. If you’ve worked out a viable plan to catch up on work that all parties have agreed to, then barring further complications or health crises, the student should come through with the work. I can say this without compunction because I’ve been on the other side, and I’ve made those agreements and taken those extensions and kept my word. Students with illness warrant accommodation and flexibility, but being accountable is a critical life skill for them, too.
And of course, above all, respect for both sides goes a long, long way.