The Bureaucracy of Disability Accommodation in University

So I will be starting my PhD in Critical Disability Studies this Autumn. In preparation for this I have been applying for housing. I learned my lesson about campus housing during my Masters. I need physical accommodations for housing.

I like many other disabled people have been taught to shun accommodation wherever possible. I grew up believing that the less obtrusive my disability was, the more value I had as a person. I know this wasn’t my parents’ intent, they just wanted me to be independent and were a bit misguided in how that should be achieved. If I asked for help with something, I was often refused under the assumption that if I just tried hard enough, I would eventually figure it out. In reality this lack of support led to a lot of frustration and often things didn’t get done.

That is not to say that disabled people shouldn’t strive to learn to do new things but the mentality of responding to a request for assistance with “You’ll just have to figure it out” is generally not helpful. It also at least in my case led to the internalized idea that I shouldn’t ask for help even if I needed it (you can read about how well that went for me in grade school here).

While I have been getting better at asking for and even demanding (when necessary) the accommodations I need, I still often find myself with the idea that there are certain appropriate accommodations and that if my needs don’t fit that narrow description that I don’t need accommodation.

Which is how for the length of my master’s degree I found myself living on the fourth floor of a walk-up apartment building. I just assumed that because I don’t require adapted appliances or lowered sinks that I didn’t require accommodation.

As such I ended up in the general housing application pool and got what I was assigned.

As I mentioned, I ended up on the fourth floor of a four story walk-up. I managed but it wasn’t easy. Moving in and out were the worst, carrying everything up and down the stairs. I had help in those instances. While I walk well and can climb stairs, my balance is poor, particularly while carrying things. Added to that, stairs are difficult when I am wearing my AFO (leg brace) because it holds my ankle in a stationary position. Consequently I didn’t wear it much.

Getting groceries was particularly difficult, at first because I had to shop and get them on the bus and then from the stop up to my apartment. I was extremely limited in what I could buy because weight and balance were always a consideration. In order to avoid having to make multiple trips to the grocery store, I began having them delivered. Though it was easier for me physically, I still had to contend with delivery personnel  who were less than impressed with having to carry the food for me.

Now it is time for university housing round two, I know a lot more and I know what I need. Getting it however is a different story.

I know that to live comfortably and safely I need the option to avoid stairs when I am carrying things or wearing my leg brace so I need a ground floor apartment or an apartment in a building with an elevator. In order to get this, I had to get a form filled out by my doctor who is unfamiliar with the housing arrangements at my university. I filled the form out myself and luckily my doctor trusts that I know what I need and signed it for me. Because I saved her the trouble of filling out the form, I also luckily saved myself the usual fee charged for such services.

This was annoying enough but it was after I submitted the form that things got even more complicated.

Most universities have a single disability services regardless of type of disability (psychiatric, physical, learning, etc.). All your needs are taken care of in a single location. Not so at my current university. There it is broken up into three separate offices; physical and sensory disabilities, psychiatric disabilities and learning disabilities. They also much prefer it if you are only registered through one of them. Heaven forbid you have multiple disabilities with diverse needs. You have to decide what your “primary” disability is and go through that office.

Trying to choose a primary disability is ridiculous and kind of depends on circumstances.

I have both cerebral palsy and an autism spectrum disorder. Because the entire point of university is to learn and my autism is the most likely to impact my ability to do that, I registered with Learning Disability Services during my master’s. My cerebral palsy is rarely an impediment to learning. I can get around buildings and classrooms with minimal difficulty.

Where housing is concerned however my cerebral palsy becomes the key consideration, though it is important to note that not being accommodated for my physical needs does inevitably negatively impact my autism as added stress makes my autism more apparent.

I however cannot request housing accommodations through Learning Disability Services, they are in the domain of Physical Disability Services. So despite having already gone through the bureaucratic intake for my learning disability, I had to redo the process for physical disability.

When you go through having to prove that you are disabled and therefor entitled to accommodation you learn a few things.

1. Your permanent disabilities are assumed miraculously cured if the diagnosis or documentation is not recent

I learned this when I registered through Learning Disability Services. I provided documentation of my diagnosis but because I don’t generally feel the need to get rediagnosed on a regular basis it was considered to be out of date despite the fact that autism is permanent. All of my accommodation were thus given very begrudgingly. The reason I didn’t have more current documentation? My home is over a thousand kilometres from school and I didn’t have access to doctors that know me and my medical history. Which brings me to…

2. Disabled people are not expected to be traveling long distances to go to school (I guess if a program isn’t offered locally we are supposed to just not go)

As I mentioned, I don’t live close to my university and am trying to organize accommodations for housing. Yet upon submitting my intake form. I am invited to an in person interview. When I explain that going isn’t possible until I return to school I am treated to an explanation as to how the interview and filling out of additional forms is usually necessary before accommodations can be considered. They eventually agree to allowing me housing accommodations without the interview as I need housing in place before I arrive at school.

I was also treated to questions about why I was already registered with Learning Disability Services and a not to subtle suggestion that if I needed physical accommodations that I shouldn’t have done that.

Having secured permission to apply for housing accommodations, I begin to fill out the request form. I am reminded of my past beliefs that certain accommodations shouldn’t be sought because on the form only 3 types of accommodations are listed.

1. Do you need an automatic door opener?

2. Do you need light flashing alarms instead of audible alarms?

3. Do you require adapted appliances and a wheelchair accessible space?

My answer to all three is no. The form offers no question or space to request accommodations that are not met by those changes. I end up using an unrelated text box to discuss my needs. Hopefully I will be accommodated but it is obvious that they are not used to getting requests that deviate from what they expect disabled people to need.

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