Samantha Chavarria
May 31, 2019 1:05 pm
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College wasn’t what I expected it to be. I was looking forward to a certain level of fun and freedom that was supposed to come with officially being an adult. It had started off promising. I was at the college of my choice taking courses like Latin and Art History—classes that I was actually excited about! What more could I want?

But it wasn’t the picture of independence and academic success that I had imagined in high school. Obstacle after obstacle popped up, altering the dream I had conjured up of my college days.

My mom was diagnosed with cancer during my second semester. Then my dad went through a major career change, losing his high-paying job and taking a much less lucrative one. The income decrease resulted in the foreclosure of our family home. Just like that, my family was in financial limbo yet again.

Dealing with these compounded issues hurt my academic performance in a major way, but more than that, they awakened mental illness issues that I had suppressed since high school.

As a teenager, I lived with anxiety and depression. At the time, I didn’t have the words to name my agitators, and I later realized that my rotating bouts of malaise and mania weren’t just typical teenage angst. Still, it was easier to ignore my feelings.

Looking towards my future, all I saw was my typical collegiate dream. I didn’t see how much my mental illness could debilitate me.

I didn’t anticipate the cycle of enrollment, academic struggle, mental breakdowns, and class withdrawals that was waiting for me. It got so bad that the thought of stepping foot on my college campus triggered panic attacks. It didn’t help that I was starting to experience the physical manifestations of fibromyalgia—a chronic condition that I would later be diagnosed with.

Though I struggled with my conditions for years while pursuing higher education, there was no academic advisor to talk me through my options. I found my teachers to be inflexible with deadlines and absences. Trying to explain to school administrators that I was mentally and physically unable to perform as a student without some kind of support was useless. Often, I didn’t have the words to explain my disability. Moreover, when I did, it was usually met with indifference or tons of bureaucracy.

So I quit. I dropped out because of my disability. My college story turned out to be a bitter one, but I’m not alone in that.

The experience is so common that the hashtag #WhyDisabledPeopleDropOut was created for Twitter users to share similar trials.

Started by queer deaf activist and University of California student, Christine Marshall, the hashtag was meant to share how disabled students have been failed by the collegiate system.

Marshall was inspired to start the tweet after a professor sent a mass email requesting for a student to help the activist due to her disability. In the email, the professor named Marshall, exposing her to increased attention among the student body and the anxiety that came with that. With #WhyDisabledPeopleDropOut, Marshall and other disabled students are able to share their stories of being failed by insensitive, empathy-lacking academia.

“In classes of less than 50 students with interpreters, everyone already knows my name,” Marshall explained to the Daily Dot. “I feel a need to prove myself to avoid being patronized. So, this specific situation brought a ton of negative unnecessary attention that created a lot of anxiety and discomfort for me.”

This is a sentiment that many disabled Twitter users could relate to.

Some shared their experiences of casual ableism, the stigma of “otherness,” and difficulties with teachers and staff. Others tweeted about the demoralizing experience of having one’s value attached to a numerical grade. No matter the details, one element was consistent: it isn’t one or two experiences that make disabled people drop out of college. It’s a system that repeatedly limits accessibility for disabled people.

Our society places a high value on education, but doesn’t make it easy to achieve. Having a college degree has become so essential in the workforce that even entry level positions are often requiring it. In a world where a college education is already difficult or financially inaccessible for abled people, it is a near impossible struggle for those of us who are disabled. The amount of effort required to attend classes, complete assignments, access resources, and actually learn places a lot of pressure on a person without disabilities. For disabled people, that pressure is compounded by health and societal factors.

Essentially, disabled students are being denied the tools and support we need to finish our education.

If having a college degree assigns a person value in our society, what does that mean for disabled people? It means we are losing even more access. College is not the path for everyone, but it should be available to anyone. The academic world needs to learn that education isn’t one-size-fits-all. No one should be denied the chance to live their college dream.

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