Using accommodations will not give you an advantage over other people,” my doctor said. “Accept the fact that you’re already at a disadvantage.” I shook my head, rejecting her assertion. I refused to begin my college career by handing accommodations paperwork to my professors, symbolically admitting I needed help.
At the time, I could not understand why my doctor assumed I was disadvantaged. I had spent eighteen years of my life believing I was “differently-abled.” My parents taught me to see the neat advantages and abilities I possessed because of my “different” anatomy. I developed creative, complicated ways around obstacles just to avoid asking for help. I worked at least twice as hard as everyone else so that I could evade accommodations. I refused to accept that my “different” anatomy hindered my ability to do well in the classroom. I denied the suspicion that I had trouble writing class notes. I could not fathom admitting that the pain of holding a pencil was too much to bear at times. How could I let my birth defect, CLOVES Syndrome, force me to accept help?
“Lindsey, you’re going to need accommodations in college,” my doctor reiterated. “Accommodations just level the playing field, and you’re going to need the playing field leveled.” Her words opposed everything I wanted to believe. I had spent my life believing that if I worked hard enough, I could live in an able-body society without accepting help. Nevertheless, my resistance to accepting help had already harmed my health. Throughout high school, my defected upper body encountered frequent health complications because of how hard I worked it. My doctor was concerned that if I continued to push myself without accepting any help I would eventually damage my hands beyond repair.
Our conversation was dreadful. But as I left her office I knew she was right. I needed help leveling the playing field.
My accommodation paperwork stated that I could type notes instead of writing them by hand. I would let a computer become my hands in the classroom. On the first day of my college career, I was finally brave enough to turn in the paperwork.
At the end of my history class, my professor shouted, “If anyone has accommodation paperwork, come up to the front of the auditorium so that I can sign it.” When I realized I had to accept help in front of hundreds of students in the auditorium, I felt sick. My hands started to shake as I rose from my seat with the paperwork I loathed. Student after student stared at me as I attempted to discreetly walk up to my professor and hand him the paper. Without even reading it he loudly asked, “So what do you need?”
“I need to type in class,” I whispered as I stared down at my hands—embarrassed and ashamed for needing help. “Fine,” he said as he signed the paper. “You’ll have to sit in the back row of the auditorium, though. No laptops up front.”
“But I won’t be able to see the screen if I sit in the back,” I retorted. “Even with my glasses, I have trouble seeing.”
“You pick. You can either type your notes at the back of the auditorium or you can sit at the front and write notes by hand.” The professor was asking me to pick my disability. He said that I would distract the people behind me if I used a laptop in class. In order to prevent such distraction, I would have to sit where no one else could see me. The able-bodies received the good seats, while the disabled-bodies were sent to the back row of the auditorium.
When I transferred to Ouachita Baptist University the following fall, I refused to turn in accommodation paperwork. I decided that I would rather fight against my health than fight for discrete help. I spent three years trying to keep most professors from knowing what my life was really like so that I wouldn’t risk encountering ableism. But then, I couldn’t do it anymore.
One evening at my Monday night home group with Dr. Joey Dodson sitting directly across from me, I brought up my birth defect. “My low for the week is also my prayer request for the week,” I admitted as I stared down at my left hand. Nerves left me questioning if I wanted to go on. I wanted Dr. Dodson to know the Lindsey that loved studying the Hebrew language and the book of Hebrews. I did not want him to know the Lindsey that struggled to write class notes and think critically after painful, sleepless nights. Nevertheless, I was sitting in his living room when I knew that the barrier I had put up needed to come down. “My left hand—the hand that I write with—is internally bleeding,” I explained. “I have an essay test this week, but internal bleeds are incredibly painful and hinder my ability to write.”
A girl in our home group quickly responded, “Could you take the test orally? If you tell your professor about this, wouldn’t he let you recite the essay instead of writing it?” Before I could answer the girl, Dr. Dodson sorrowfully said, “She doesn’t tell us.” Deafening silence filled the room.
When I ran into Dr. Dodson a few days later, he asked me how I did on my test. “I did the best I could,” I replied as I looked down at my hurt left hand. “But my hand gave out after the first couple of minutes of writing.”
“I wish you would tell us about this,” he responded as I looked away. He continued to speak, but my own thoughts drowned out his voice. I kept thinking about the day I tried to ask for help before transferring to OBU. I kept hearing that ableistic professor tell me I would have to pick my disability. I kept seeing the disgusted look on that professor’s face when he glanced at my hands. I kept remembering the auditorium full of people who were staring at me as I turned in my paperwork. When I finally looked at Dr. Dodson, I realized he was heartbroken for me. He certainly cared about my academic career, but he cared about my health even more. “I just wish you would tell us,” he repeated. I wanted to tell him that I tried to ask for help years ago, but I wasn’t brave enough to talk about ableism. I shook my head and mumbled, “I can’t.”
I wondered if I deserved prejudice treatment because of my defect. I questioned whether I was an inferior human being because I needed accommodations. These doubts about my value and equal standing were rooted in twenty-three years of enduring infectious ableism. I grew up believing that I needed to learn how to live an able-bodied world. I thought I needed to be more like an able-body and less like a disabled-body. Ableism produced those assumptions. Just like racism and sexism, ableism continues to degrade one group while elevating another. As able-bodies have been held up as the standard for normalcy, disabled-bodies have been cast down as the outsiders.
My anatomy has always been my enemy, but it has never been the toughest enemy to fight. Prejudice, whether it is intentional or unintentional, is the real enemy. Most days it’s hard to confess that I am not an able-body. Every day I have to deal with discrimination because of it. And as these days go by and the struggle and the bias and pain doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere, I’d rather sit in my struggle and not tell anyone, because telling people can bring me even more disadvantages. I’m with Dr. Dodson. I really do wish I could tell people. But I can’t.
Cover image by v2osk.