My experience as a disabled student at BYU was not one I was anticipating. I started BYU as a very excited, driven, all honors classes freshman in Fall 2011. That semester was hard, but I survived. A couple days into Winter Semester 2012, January 7 to be exact, I woke up with a bad migraine. I took some Advil and went back to sleep—fully expecting the migraine to be gone when I woke up. Except that it wasn’t.
I still have that pain more than seven years later. It’s called migraine disease. Since January 7, I have had a 24/7 headache that often is at the migraine level pain.
Despite my disease, I wanted and needed to finish school. My goal since I was very young was to attend BYU, and that is what I was going to do.
Until my last two semesters at BYU, I never took a complete class load. I was always half or ¾ time, but generally half time. I went home from school the semester I first got my migraines and before, during and after my mission (I was only able to serve four months because of my disease). Other than that, I took classes all semesters and terms. Including my breaks, it took me seven years to graduate.
Mostly because of how long it took to graduate and a bit because of the LDS culture/dating experiences I had while at BYU, I honestly have a bit of mini PTSD surrounding Provo/BYU/campus/etc. I hate going back. I moved to Sugar House right before graduation and lived there for six months. I LOVED it. Unfortunately, I had to move back to Provo for a job. It was so difficult living back in a place I felt so trapped. I always felt like I would never graduate because of everything that was against me. I mean, my body was against me graduating.
I never felt that I fit in because of my migraine disease. And the hoops I had to jump through to finally graduate separated me further from the general student body. I knew that many other students were struggling with family things, money, faith issues, dating, school stuff, jobs, depression and anxiety, etc. Just like me. But I didn’t know of any of them that had 24/7 physical pain in addition to those problems.
That first semester with the disease, the only option I (or my parents) could think of was dropping my classes. Thankfully it was before the add/drop deadline. I was in so much pain. I didn’t know about the disability office at that time. I don’t think my professors that I reached out to mentioned the office to me either. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve dropped a few classes and gone to the disability office. But I was a clueless freshman. I didn’t know about my options. Dropping classes and going home should never be the first resort.
I honestly don’t remember when I first discovered the disability office. I’m willing to bet my mom discovered it online or by calling people. She’s the best nurse I’ve ever had. She’s my angel. I’ve had a great experience with the accessibility office (I think that’s what it’s called … maybe it used to be called the disability office?). I like that they have online forms now. I don’t like the location of the office, however. I hated walking through the smelly, crowded CougarEat down a “secret” corridor to go to the office. It further alienates you. It’s like BYU is ashamed of you. Maybe they’re trying to make things private for the same reasons as the location of the counseling center? But it’s hard to keep a disability private … even an invisible one. I’m not “proud” of my disability but I’m certainly not ashamed of it. Or wanting to hide it.
A lot of my problems with my disability really began once I started getting into smaller classes—when I couldn’t hide. Thankfully, with bigger (and sometimes easier) classes I skipped class occasionally and no one needed to know. That’s when attendance didn’t affect your grade. When it did, sometimes I would email the professor and told them I had a migraine and sometimes I wouldn’t. Occasionally there would be semesters that were so bad health-wise that after a while, it just got so embarrassing to email to professor that I just stopped. I felt so ashamed. And then even when I did feel good, sometimes I couldn’t get myself to go because it had been so long since I’d been to class. I was ashamed and embarrassed and afraid. My accommodations letter stated that the professor needed to be lenient with absences and that the student and teacher needed to decide on a specific number of absences that would be appropriate. However, when you have a disease that makes you so sick you are bound to your bed for hours, and sometimes days, you just can’t pre-determine how many days that semester, for that specific class you’re going to be healthy. That’s just not how it works. I can’t tell you how many classes I accepted a less than perfect grade in because of this policy. I’m not bitter about it, but there should be a way for disabled students to attend good schools like BYU and have the option of getting good grades. I didn’t have that option.
This story still irks me. I was in the prerequisite class for the public relations major. I believe it was Fall 2014 with Professor Ogden. Each day there was a quiz at the beginning of the class. I believe his policy was that he dropped everyone’s lowest two quizzes. I talked to him at the beginning of the semester about my accommodation letter and explained that I very well might be missing more than two classes (and therefore two quizzes). He told me that he wouldn’t let me make any of the quizzes up that I missed in order to make things fair for the other students. I knew I would never be able to get a good enough grade in his class to get into the PR program so I withdrew and took the class later on. I secretly roll my eyes whenever I see Ogden. Still bitter.
Speaking of withdrawing from classes, I have SO MANY W’s. I could never get into grad school even if I want to (I currently DO NOT WANT TO, let’s be clear), but I don’t have that option. My GPA is also a hindrance. It does make me sad. I know without my disease and with better accommodations and understanding, my GPA would have been so much better. It’s disappointing.
The same thing that happened in Ogden’s class happened in another class once I was in the major. Because I was in the major at that point and had to take that class that semester (the way the PR program is set up is so tricky), I couldn’t withdraw. I was in unbelief again. I just don’t understand how the accommodations paper can literally say one thing, and the professor can say “no.” I knew enough about my accommodations and the office at this point that I could’ve had them contact this professor and fix things, but I knew this professor from my on-campus job (and worked with him daily) and didn’t want to make things possibly hellish at work for me. So I decided to suck it up and get a B grade when I could’ve gotten an A. Lots of those stories.
Another story. I was in a class (that I actually really liked … a lot of classes (especially generals) were especially hard to take when you’re interested in the subject school is already difficult. Anyways.) during a semester that was bad health-wise. I did the work and readings but didn’t attend as much class as I could. Towards the end of the semester I was getting behind and asked the professor if I could do an Incomplete. He looked into the nitty gritty details of an incomplete and apparently, I did not qualify because I had not attended class for the amount of time I needed to to qualify for an incomplete. Previous professors have granted me incompletes in these situations but he would not. I ended up getting an E in that class. It was disappointing. Some professors are willing to do things, and lots aren’t. It’s professor-roulette, really. Hard to deal with when you’re sick and begging for some empathy.
Despite those stories and more … I have had some AMAZING professors who truly went above and beyond for me. They deserve a very, very big shout out. They know who they are. I have also had some wonderful, wonderful on-campus bosses who have allowed me to work which has been a huge, huge blessing. At the end of the day, I feel like the actual accommodations need adjustment, there needs to be more communication AND training between the accommodations office and professors and I would love to see students with disabilities—especially invisible ones—given more of a voice.