Adapting to Graduate School with a Disability

You have been accepted into graduate school—congratulations! You now have a list of tasks to complete that feels like it is a mile long…forms to fill out, funding to secure, courses to choose, books to buy, housing to find, advisors to meet, and on and on it goes. Oh, and you need to do all of this while navigating graduate life with a disability. Can it be done, you might ask yourself. Yes, yes it can.

My first exposure to life as a graduate student came after I had been out of the classroom as a student for several years (I had been in the classroom as a teacher). Since I have had my disability from birth, making sure I received reasonable adaptations was something I was already familiar with. When I applied to grad school, I researched whether I could live and survive in the area surrounding the school as a person with my particular disability. Once I was accepted into a grad program, I began to discern what academic accommodations the school had to offer. My biggest concerns at the start of grad life were how was I going to get from my apartment to the campus, to church, to the store, to the bank, etc. And then once I was on campus, I worried about how much help I would get from my professors. Would they be amenable to providing the few accommodations I required? Would I need different accommodations than I had had in undergrad? How difficult would the workload be due to my disability? Would I find my classrooms or wander around campus like I was on a futile and never-ending scavenger hunt?

In the end, my worries were unfounded. My professors were very understanding and helpful, I didn’t need all of the adaptations that I had used in previous educational settings, the workload was challenging but doable, and I didn’t get lost…well, not too often anyway. I even learned, with the aid of a wonderful mobility specialist, how to navigate a new metropolitan area on my own, for which I will be forever grateful.

Everyone’s lived experience with a disability is different and will not exactly mirror my personal experiences. Like me, some people come to graduate school with a disability that they have had since birth or just after, and others come with a recently acquired life-altering disability. And, each individual’s needs might not be the same as what another person needs who has the same disability. For example, I am rather low-maintenance when it comes to the assistance I require, but another graduate student with the same-named disability might need more or less. It all depends on the degree to which your particular disability affects your life.

I cannot speak to everyone’s experience, but I can pass along what I have learned from being a graduate student with a disability, including advocating for oneself from the get-go and advice on how to manage as a teaching assistant. 


Be Your Own Advocate

First, get established with your school’s office of disability services. You may have experience working with such a service from your K-12 school days or at your undergraduate institution, but if you have never worked with a disability services office before, you will find that they can offer a plethora of assistance. At the first confidential meeting with the disability services advisor, discuss your disability, the accommodations you have received in the past, and any documentation you wish to disclose. An advisor will offer an idea of the services and accommodations available to you and ask for your input on what you will need to be successful as a student.

Graduate seminars are conducted differently than most undergraduate courses—there are few (if any) lectures, less notetaking, double the reading load, longer written assignments, and a larger emphasis on discussion—which means that some adaptations you needed before may no longer apply. It also means that you may require new accommodations. There will be professors who still write on the board and others who give brief introductions to the course materials. There may also be instances where you will watch video clips in class or participate in a Zoom chat with an outside scholar. Think about what worked for you in the past—such as extended time, notetakers, audiobooks, text-to-speech software, etc.—and how or if these can be adapted to fit your new situation. With that all in mind, your disability services advisor will draft an accommodations letter, ask for your approval, and send it on to your academic advisor and professors to inform them of your needs.

Meet with your professors. The next step that I recommend taking is to personally meet with your professors during the first week of classes. This is a proactive way to give them a heads up about any accommodations you need in their seminar. Remember, you have to tell them about your accommodations if you want to receive assistance, but you are not obligated to provide details about your disability if you do not wish to. Not only is this a good way to introduce yourself to your professors, but it shows them that you are willing to be your own advocate and that you want an equal opportunity to succeed in their classes.

This meeting also provides your professors with an advanced opportunity to step back and think about their teaching style and classroom setting(s). Do they constantly speak with their hand in front of their mouth? Do they write with such a tiny script on a blackboard or smartboard that students need a telescope from NASA to read it? Have they been given the only room on campus that hasn’t been renovated in a hundred years and lacks wheelchair access? Most faculty have had some experience working with undergraduate students with disabilities, but not all have experience at the graduate level. By taking the time to meet, professors will have a personal reminder that they need to make adaptations to their lessons.

Take time to reevaluate and reassert your needs. Throughout the semester, take time to assess if the accommodations you have are sufficient for your learning needs—you may need more support than you originally thought you did and it is all right to revisit your disability services advisor to ask for revisions to your accommodations letter. In addition, sometimes faculty members have too much on their minds, or perhaps they have never worked with a student with your particular disability and your particular accommodations, meaning they might forget your needs or be unclear on how to address them. In the worst-case scenario, they might casually dismiss your learning needs and/or ascribe to the outdated notion that disability accommodations give students an advantage over their classmates. It’s okay to remind faculty of your needs if they forget about them and to contact your disability services advisor to go to bat for you if a professor refuses to provide assistance or if you require help explaining your needs to your professors.


TAing with a Disability

Tell your professor and/or colleagues that you need adaptations. Let the professor you have been assigned to work with know that you have a disability (disclosing as much as you want to about it) and that you are going to need accommodations. You can likewise tell your colleagues, again relating as much detail as you wish, so that they understand such things as why you might not be assigned the same tasks as they have, and to provide additional support for you.

Let those who you are working with know that you can serve as a TA. Work with your professor so that they know what tasks you can or cannot do. For instance, you’ve been assigned to a giant survey course of over 200 students that meets in a rather unaccommodating lecture hall…and you have a visual impairment. Well, you know that helping to monitor student behavior in such a situation is an impossibility for you. Get creative and think about what you can offer. You might propose to take notes on the lectures for your fellow TAs, create an answer key for the midterm, or volunteer to collect students’ exams at the front of the classroom.

By informing your peers and professor about your needs and abilities, you can help mitigate any extra stress that might crop up from being a TA with a disability. You will have people in your corner if instances of disrespect or harassment happen. You will have someone to bounce ideas off of when you need to create new personal adaptations to succeed as an instructor. And, most importantly, you will know that you won’t be alone in traversing the brave new world of being a teaching assistant.

Navigating the classroom with a disability. A debate among educators with disabilities is whether to disclose to your students that you have one. There is no real consensus, other than to do what you feel comfortable with. I choose not to reveal my disability, because it is something that I feel students would exploit if they knew what it was (although they usually are still perceptive enough to know something is different about me). If you are comfortable sharing your disability with students or if you feel it can strengthen your relationship with them, then you can absolutely do it.

Depending on your level of experience with teaching, you may already know of personal hacks—printing your notes and lesson plans in a large font, arranging the desks so that you can maneuver around them safely, etc.—that have helped you to be a successful instructor in the past. If you are new to working with students, think about the techniques that you already use in your everyday life, and then find ways to translate those into your teaching style and classroom environment.

Building a relationship with your students. Students’ reactions to you will mainly reflect those you generally receive from wider society. Depending on your visible or invisible disability, those reactions can range from unawareness that you have a disability, to complete acceptance, to mild curiosity, or to extreme doubt in your ability to function as a human being. You can’t control other people’s attitudes toward disability, but you can control how you respond to them—and within your response lies the key to building a relationship with your students.

I recommend that you avoid getting visibly flustered and frustrated at your students’ less-than-savory reactions or comments. Feel the emotions you are feeling but try your best to control your body language and to appear unflappable. A negative or defensive response will create an atmosphere of distrust in the classroom, and nine times out of ten it doesn’t have the desired effect of helping students respect you. However, depending on your personality and the students, here are some options for how you can respond:

  • Ignore the moments of ableism in your interactions with your students and hope that someday they will become more enlightened.
  • Deflect with humor when awkward or tense situations arise to show that you are willing to give students a second chance to reevaluate their ideas about disability.
  • Explain your disability, what it is like to live with it, and that at some point in everyone’s life they too will be disabled in some way.
  • Calmly and confidently inform your students that your disability doesn’t change the fact that you are qualified to teach them. 

You may find that you try each of these responses at different moments during your teaching career. As with any teaching experience—for any instructor—it will take a few weeks (or months) for students to become accustomed to you, your methods of instruction, and your quirks. And, just like for any instructor, you won’t connect with every student and that’s okay. The connections you do make will be rewarding and sometimes last beyond any given semester.

At the end of the day, you know your body and your mind. You are aware of your abilities and what adaptations you require to have an equal shot at succeeding in grad school—never forget that you earned your place there. Communication is key. Don’t be afraid to let people know when you need some extra assistance or accommodations. And don’t be afraid to tell someone when you are just fine. Advocate for yourself, seek help when you need it, learn to adapt when the situation calls for it, and surviving graduate school will be that much easier.


Featured image: geralt, Pixabay.

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