To All the Professors and Teachers of Those with Invisible Illnesses

AUG. 10, 2020

By Tracy Riggs


I know that you are compassionate people and really do try. After all, you chose to work with young adults. 
 
However, it seems that even some of the best professors and teachers are not fully honoring students’ accommodations, particularly when their disability is invisible. Maybe this is because you want to "be fair" to the other students. 
 
Possibly, you assume a student who isn't on time or present at every class is lazy and doesn't care. And it makes sense to think that someone who consistently is late to class or doesn't show up is lazy. There are many students who are. High school and college kids ditch class all the time. And your strict attendance policy is most likely meant to help them show up.
 
But I want to express to you, that in some cases, this couldn't be further from the truth. For those who have diagnosed medical conditions, often all they want is to be well enough to make it to class.

Things to Consider About Invisible Illnesses 

You may not believe that these students have actual medical conditions because when you see them, you are usually seeing them at their best: on the days they are able to make it to class and get their work done. There are many medical and psychological conditions that are cyclical. A student might be fine for a month or more and then have a flare-up that's so bad they can hardly get out of bed. 
 
You also may not realize that those with invisible illnesses often mask the fact that they feel bad. So even when they do make it to class, they still might be struggling, and you would never know. 
 
You see, my daughter has several "invisible illnesses." She has fibromyalgia, dysautonomia, major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
 
You don't see her crying because she's hurting so badly that she can't stand up to pick out her clothes for the day. You don't see her not eat because she is nauseated from anxiety about being behind on her schoolwork. You don't see her try to "be normal" and go to a sporting or social event only to have it wipe her out for days afterward.
 
I can't speak for every student with an invisible illness, but I have known several. Even with all the obstacles they deal with daily, they are incredibly hardworking and sincerely care about their education. 

What These Students Go Through 

These young adults have more than the average number of doctor, therapist and specialist appointments that take time away from attending class and getting homework and studying done. Not going to class is a necessity at times for these kids because they can't deal with their symptoms or aren't able to concentrate. 
 
For many of them, anxiety increases with every missed class. This starts a horrible cycle: they missed class so now they have to get the notes. If they have questions about the lecture or assignment, they have to contact a peer or professor to make it clear. If there was a quiz, test or in-class work, they have to spend time outside of class to make it up. 
 
Spending time catching up from a missed class means there may not be enough time to get the new homework or studying done before the next class. So even if they are able to get to the next class, they are already behind.  
 
New material is much harder to comprehend if students haven't been able to fully understand what was discussed earlier. This can increase their anxiety even more, which makes it difficult to focus on catching up and usually makes the underlying condition worse. And the cycle continues.
 
This cycle is complicated further when a student feels that the teacher or school won't understand and thus doesn't feel comfortable disclosing a disability or requesting accommodations. In this situation, the student struggles alone.

What I Ask of You  

I often hear the same argument from teachers and professors on this subject: "When they get out in the workforce, there won't be those accommodations."  I understand this point. As a mom, I am concerned about it, too. I don't want my daughter to rely so much on her accommodations that she won't be a good employee or have a great career.
 
But there are several problems with that argument. One is that an employer is paying you to work; in college, you are paying for the education. The school should do what the student needs in order to receive the training necessary to enter the workforce.
 
Along those same lines, when these young adults go out to get jobs, they can look for jobs that are able to accommodate their needs. Will these young adults always be able to get jobs that will work around their disabilities? Maybe not, but penalizing them for doing what it takes to get a degree also won't help. Working with students to help them figure out what they need to succeed in the “real world” is a much better idea. 
 
Another problem is that a young adult is just figuring all this out. Most would agree that being a teenager or young adult can be a difficult time of life in the best of circumstances. Many young adults with mental illness aren't diagnosed until their late teenage years. Even if they are diagnosed as a child, learning to deal with these issues on your own is entirely different than when your parents were there to help you. Thinking about the ultimate goal of joining the workforce may be important, but so is giving young people the chance to get the basics down before that time comes.  
 
know that you want to help the students you are teaching. Please remember that these young adults deserve the same education that the others do, even if it takes more effort to give them that education. 
 
Please work with them within the limits of their accommodations. Recognize how hard it is for them to make it to class instead of looking down on them because they were late. Make them feel comfortable about coming to you when they run into issues because of their illness. Listen to their concerns about their grades and their careers being affected by something they don't understand and can't fix. Above all, please trust, support and validate that they are trying as hard as they can. 
 
Sincerely,
Just Another Mom of a Hardworking Young Adult with An Invisible Illness

 
Tracy Riggs is a professional photographer (www.cmbtphotography.com) and writer. She deals with several invisible illnesses in her and loved ones' lives and is passionate about lessening the stigma of those with invisible illnesses (www.spotlightonstigma.com). She has one daughter in college and is in a steady relationship with a fellow photographer.

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