The Chronically Collegiate: Making College Accessible to Chronically Ill Students

The Chronically Collegiate: Making College Accessible to Chronically Ill Students

January 2013

By Nikki Crouse

Managing chronic illness for anyone can be a struggle. As a college student, there are a few more challenges associated with chronic illness; the biggest one is fitting into a world of academia developed for everyone else but someone capable of an education who just also happens to be chronically sick.

There is an obvious challenge in colleges accommodating all of these diseases under one umbrella: they all have many different symptoms, unlike their physically handicapped, or learning disabled peers. With half a million students with a chronic illness turning 18 every year, and many of those students planning to attend college, the attempts colleges have made to accommodate chronically ill students desperately need to be improved.

Colleges and universities need to offer improved support programs for students with chronic illness because there is a lack of understanding about chronic illness and these students have a right to support programs as seen with other disabled students so they might be able to live better quality, financially independent lives.

At 19, when I first displayed symptoms of Behcet’s Disease I registered for my sophomore year and felt healthy. Two months later though, symptoms reared their ugly heads again. I couldn’t keep up in any of my classes, and taking care of my body and other aspects of my life became difficult. I couldn’t attend classes every day. I had to drop some, and I failed others. This tends to be the case with most illness labeled chronic, and my story is seen over and over with sick students struggling through college.

Many universities offer comprehensive support programs for students with learning disabilities in addition to accommodations. Support programs for chronically ill students could be very similar, as seen with the De Paul School for New Learning. The University of De Paul created the School for New Learning exclusively for students with chronic illness. The program provides support for students such as flexible degree completion program with no minimum class registration or maximum degree completion time. The staff works with each student individually to determine accommodations, and advocates for each student should any health need arise. While De Paul’s program is seen as a separate entity to the university, there’s no reason why its methods couldn’t be implemented on campuses across the U.S.

Similar to the struggles seen with students with physical and learning disabilities is the lack of understanding of the students’ conditions that prevent them from receiving proper accommodations. One of these aspects is the invisibility factor of chronic illness. Most people with a chronic illness feel judged by their disease because chronic illness often manifests without the physical outward symptoms that most associate with illness. Societal disconnects between perceptions causes disconnect for students from faculty for a number of reasons, whether it be choosing to seek accommodation initially, or working out what type of accommodation is needed.

This disconnect makes it difficult for students not only to ask for accommodation, but to be specific for the accommodations they need, because, if the accommodation of chronic illness differs from that of learning disabilities and other physical disabilities, the university might be used to accommodating this precedent.

Economics is one of the major arguments against any support programs for students with chronic illness. Educating and training faculty, hiring new expert staff for programs, designing a program, using technological support and distance teaching, and any other support chronically ill students need, costs money. However, if a student can gain financial independence by earning a degree that leads to stable career in a higher earning job with health benefits, that person is less likely to wind up on welfare. According to one study, the average income for the chronically ill adult is $5,157 lower, and they are twice as likely to need public assistance, like welfare. Supporting students through college, and possibly aiding in job placement could be seen as an investment; keeping more people off of public assistance.

Without the support of the university, or the understanding of the faculty, chronically ill students become chronically ill adults without having had the opportunity of a higher education to support themselves. Often times these illnesses worsen, leading to less daily function, possible loss of income, and more expensive health care-a poor combination. A college education for any for the chronically ill student means an opportunity at higher wages, a stable job and health benefits, all critically important. At least for me, graduating will mean personal accomplishment, through some of the toughest pain and struggle, because even though I’m sick, I want to learn. I can learn.