I’ve known for a long time that accommodations are a Thing–that is, that they existed. About a year back, TSW had an excellent guest post on this very topic, outlining what sorts of accommodations exist, who qualifies for them, and some of the hurdles folks face in moving through the system. I hope for this post to serve more as a personal case study, to describe my experience in requesting accommodations for the first time, and to offer any insight I might have gained from the experience.
I’ve written a bit already about my mental health. As I mentioned in that post, I have pretty serious depression, but I’ve found a combination of therapy, medication, and physical activity that keep me pretty darn happy and stable. That said, though, most of my first year in grad school has been tougher than it needed to be due to my housing situation.
My school guarantees to find students housing for their first year. However, this is accomplished in different ways–some students are housed in on-campus apartments administrated by the school. But housing costs in the surrounding area are exorbitant–and the demand for student housing has exceeded what’s available. So, in order to make good on their promise to house first-years, they also subsidize apartments in private complexes. And while students in on-campus apartments can renew their contracts for the duration of their study, paying a fraction of the cost of private apartments on the local market, those in off-campus apartments are on their own after that first year. Assignments are made through an opaque lottery process, and in order to maintain the housing guarantee, students have to say they are willing to live in any of the available apartments.
And if you haven’t guessed yet, reader, I was assigned to an off-campus apartment.
Which isn’t necessarily the end of the world; the off-campus apartments are generally nicer than the on-campus ones, and many of them sit just on the edge of campus, an easy bike ride away. Plus, a lot of people manage to transfer from off- to on-campus by re-entering the lottery. My apartment, though, was on the edge of the next city over–a total distance of about 4 miles from where I was going to be working and studying–and there was no convenient public transit between my location and campus. I don’t have a car, so I learned to get comfortable biking real quick, and adapted to my 30 minute weather-be-damned commute.
But as the school year went on, my chances for moving on-campus looked bleaker. And my bike commute, while possible, was rough. After a late night in lab I had to choose between biking for 30 minutes while I was tired and inattentive, or spending over $10 to get a car home. When my friends had parties or decided to hang out spontaneously, I had to decide if I was willing to take the 20-30 minute ride there and then back. I didn’t have it in me to make a trip back to the house midday–so I often had to choose between self-care or later talks/events/study sessions with others on campus.
The local housing market didn’t look like it was going to help me get close to campus either–I’d be lucky to get as close as I already was, and even there, I’d be paying more, even going from having my own room to sharing one.
All of these factors, combined with the workload of a first-year graduate student, came down hard on my brain, and I struggled a lot with isolation and depression. I went to the housing office several times to advocate for myself and learn more about potential options and seek help, and left without much other than their condolences and dwindling faith in the process.
As I got up to the deadline for reassignment, my position on the waiting list not budging, I finally decided to bite the bullet and ask about accommodations. I had already looked on housing’s website, and knew they offered accommodations for folks who went through the accessibility office, but all of the accommodations described for housing had to do with physical access. I thought it was a long shot, but decided to ask if accommodations were ever made for mental health reasons.
And very, very fortunately for me, the answer was yes.
The rest of the process wasn’t necessarily easy–but just knowing that this option was available to me gave me a complete second wind, and I got to work immediately to secure an accommodation. I went to the accessibility office immediately to fill out the first intake forms. I contacted my doctor that day about getting a letter, and we made it the focus of our next appointment. I followed up by phone and in person with the accessibility office and learned that I had been approved for accommodation. They didn’t pass on any sort of personal details to the housing office: just their decision that I must be offered an apartment on campus. After I made the decision to ask if accommodation was possible, it took about two weeks for me to get an apartment, as opposed to the months of waiting in silence I’d endured before.
So, why didn’t I ask this question at the beginning of all of this? It’s not like this possibility hadn’t occurred to me before. Why did I wait and wait until things were almost unbearable?
I didn’t feel like I deserved an accommodation.
I now feel, in my totally-rational brain, at least, like this is ridiculous–accommodations are not a finite resource, and I was not actively taking space from someone who needed it more than me. It was more like using an aid to get to a shelf that I couldn’t reach, one that my peers didn’t need to think twice about getting to. I have other classmates who lived off-campus and were completely fine with it. But for me, it was impacting my health in a very, very real way. After moving closer everyone around me was able to see a shift–my friends, my labmates, my doctor. I’m able to give more time and attention to my work in lab. I’m able to relax so much more. I don’t feel isolated, or like the world is passing me by.
Other people could make my old situation work without a lot of trouble, but it actively harmed me.
I had a lot of self-doubt that came from pervasive ableism. Wasn’t I just being lazy? I was just making up all of these problems, it wasn’t really that bad. Shouldn’t I be grateful that I had any housing? I should count myself lucky, because at least I am able to bike! I should just be glad that I’m not actually disabled (blech).
Everyone has a unique set of needs to lead happy, whole lives. I’m incredibly grateful that my institution had a system in place for me to get some of these needs met! The experience of getting a medical accommodation was humbling, it was incredibly validating, and it has, no joke, changed my life. And now that I have the experience of going through this system, I want to be able to empower others to ask for what they need, as well, and help to make people aware that these aids exist!