By Casey Ottaway, A&E Editor
I am an adult with severe ADHD. I was diagnosed a decade ago, but as I’ve grown older, more mature, and more aware, it has become increasingly clear to me that educational systems have been discriminating against me for my disability for my entire life, and never has this discrimination been more prominent than here at Gettysburg.
It took me a long time to come to this realization; this is largely because, until recently, I never allowed myself to accept that my ADHD was genuinely a mental disability. Although a lot of progress has been made in recent years regarding mental health awareness, there still exists a stigma attached to people with ADHD and other neurodivergent individuals, and this stigma can subconsciously affect even those with ADHD, as it affected me for so long.
The discrimination against people with ADHD is usually not deliberate, but rather an effect of neurodivergent individuals encountering hereditary structures that assume neurotypicality. At Gettysburg, it is rooted in overwork and in the rigidity of timeframes, and is expressed through the difficulty in accessing proper care and acquiring proper accommodations. Accidental discrimination is still discrimination, though.
The executive dysfunction I face is frequently debilitating, even when I’m on medication. Imagine a homework assignment of relatively average size. An average neurotypical student might sit down to begin the assignment, proceed through it, and finish it two hours later; they turn the key in the ignition and steadily work through it until the job is done. For me, though, my executive dysfunction means that I often physically cannot start my brain on command to begin such an assignment. Sometimes, it’s a good day, and I can just dive right in and finish it up in ninety minutes. However, as often as not, it’s a bad day, and I end up sitting in front of that two-hour assignment for six hours before I’m forced to choose between finishing the remaining half of the assignment or salvaging what I can of a partial night’s sleep.
This semester, I’ve finally been deliberately choosing sleep in the interest of my own health, but the tradeoff is really a lose-lose one.
Every time I attempt to explain the realities of my ADHD to an administrator or a professor, it feels like I am being gaslit into thinking my real experiences and needs are absurd, and that I must just be lazy. When I tried to apply for accommodations heading into this semester, I mentioned that the primary accommodation I was seeking was essentially some flexibility with due dates. To this, the administrator with whom I was emailing responded: “Please note any request for extension on assignments is not warranted since professors provide a syllabus at the beginning of the semester, thus students have advanced notification of reading and homework assignments.”
“Every time I attempt to explain the realities of my ADHD to an administrator or professor, it feels like I am being gaslit into thinking my real experiences and needs are absurd.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Gettysburg is allowed to deny my accommodation request if it would change the nature of part of the curriculum. However, such a statement from the administration reveals an incredible disconnect in the college’s approach to the issue: in focusing purely on meeting the minimum legal requirements and bending over backwards in the name of “academic integrity” to avoid giving anyone an “unfair advantage,” the actual purpose of the accommodations has gone entirely over its head. The ADA was not passed for the purpose of forcing employers and schools to comply with the ADA; the ADA was passed to ensure that those with disabilities have the same opportunities to have a normal life as those without disabilities. To point to the existence of a syllabus as a sufficient accommodation for ADHD demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is to live with this disability. I have time blindness, for Pete’s sake! It’s like asking someone with depression, “Have you tried, just, not being sad?”
Applying for disability accommodations at Gettysburg College requires navigating an absurd snarl of red tape. Gettysburg College counselors cannot refer a student to the school’s psychiatrist for mental disabilities like ADHD, yet the school demands a recent, full psychoeducational evaluation report to receive even minor accommodations. In addition, should a student be referred to the college psychiatrist, they can only see them for one semester, and they cannot be tested for or diagnosed with any learning disabilities; this can only be done by a clinical psychologist, a branch of practice to which the college has no connections for students at all.
The nature of the system is brutally ironic; in order to receive diagnosis, treatment, and accommodations for their ADHD, a student with ADHD must first jump through a complex and tedious series of hoops for which their ADHD leaves them uniquely unsuited. It’s the kind of slow-moving, drawn-out process that is most difficult for someone with ADHD to keep up with. For me personally, the process was too involved and arduous a commitment to even be worth the effort, considering that the accommodation I needed most was flat-out refused to me ahead of time.
Because I had to give up any hope of receiving my necessary accommodations from the school, I have to seek out something approximating accommodations from my professors individually, which can be incredibly awkward and embarrassing. This also means that, when registering for classes, the single most important variable I must consider is the flexibility of the professor. However, there is no standard way of measuring this, and no communication of this from professors or the administration. Students like me have no resources available to help us make informed decisions beyond the notoriously unreliable RateMyProfessor.com and, if we’re lucky, a friend who has taken the class before. Because of my disability, taking any class with a professor with whom I’m unfamiliar is a game of Russian roulette that could seriously impact my GPA and my mental health. The grades of ADHD students are so often defined by penalties for late and missing work.
To the extent that students should be receiving grades at all, students should be evaluated on the quality of the work they output, not on how strictly they can keep to an unnaturally rigid and unhealthily capitalistic conception of time.
An easy first step towards helping neurodivergent students would be for the college to post every class’s syllabus on Student Center during the registration planning period, so that a student worried about overcommitting themself could at least get a rough picture of the course’s expectations before registering for it. Another simple yet crucial action the school needs to take is to separate the Office of Academic Advising and Student Support Services, which is asked to do too much, and finally create an office dedicated solely to helping students with disabilities. (The fact that many syllabi are arguably overpacked and overdemanding is also an important issue for the college to face, but that’s an editorial for another time.)
The most important action the administration needs to take to help students with psychiatric disabilities, though, is to begin listening to them.
This article originally appeared on pages 14–15 of the December 6, 2021 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.