On (In)Accessibility at Amherst
Issue   |   Tue, 03/24/2015 - 23:15

Amherst makes a promise to its students: that it is small enough to treat us as humans rather than statistics or human capital. Like many students, my time at Amherst has been colored in shades of pain. In my most vulnerable moments, the school did not provide adequate support. Today, I conceive of Amherst quite differently from how I did as a starry-eyed first-year. With that said, I still love Amherst to its core. I have to believe that Amherst can live up to its narrative about itself. I am writing today because I haven’t given up on this school — I want it to come into its own.

I have elected not to name the administrators with whom I have interacted in my attempts to navigate Amherst as a disabled person. I do not believe that any of their failures were out of malice; rather, I think that their collective inability to help is symptomatic of Amherst’s dysfunctional administrative apparatus. Criticizing administrators in isolation from that apparatus would be counterproductive, as it wouldn’t do justice to the depth of Amherst’s inaccessibility. It would also be wholly unfair to demonize them as individuals. Nonetheless, they could — as all of us could — confront others’ suffering with greater compassion and generosity.

"Just Depressed"

In June of 2013, my body became an uncanny place. Seemingly overnight, I went from a mentally and physically vigorous 21-year-old to a fragile, exhausted and confused doppelganger slouching about in the skin of my former self. I spent that summer trying to convince my primary care physician that I was suffering from a physical ailment. When my blood work came back normal, she concluded that I was “just depressed.” Like many medical practitioners, she has a catastrophic misunderstanding of depression, as evidenced by her ability to use the word “just” in the same sentence as “depressed.” Further, replace “depressed” with “hysterical” and congratulations—you’ve just regressed two centuries in Western medicine! Bring on the resting cure, the wandering womb and paroxysms!

In August, I briefly considered taking time away from Amherst, but I couldn’t imagine any good coming from my staying home to be gas-lighted by my doctor. At any rate, I was feeling a bit better in late August. So I did what I’d always done when things got hard: I dug in my heels, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps (how does one pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps?), and I kept my nose to the grindstone. If my body was exhausted or my mind was dull, then I’d work harder. And for the first time in my life, I invested effort in my health. I didn’t just work hard; I slept hard, insisting on eight hours per night. I started physical therapy for the pesky joint pain I thought was independent of my illness. And I scheduled fruitless visits with doctors every single week.

Despite my intense “auto-bootstrapping,” I struggled to understand the material presented in my classes. Toward the end of October, my condition — in particular my cognitive faculties — took a marked turn for the worst. I reached a point where I could no longer finish reading a paragraph before losing the opening sentence’s content. Daily activities caused immense struggle, but still I tried to act like a typical senior. I applied for a fellowship to teach abroad. I worked on my thesis in Geology, a Sisyphean task (yes, pun intended) as my reading comprehension was near non-existent. I attended office hours. I continued with some extracurricular pursuits, despite my embarrassment and frustration at having lost my fortitude in a very short period of time. Although I told myself that this was all in the pursuit of happiness, mostly I just couldn’t see any option for slowing down.

Descending further into illness, I found that when spoken to, I could understand individual words, but my mind could never assemble the gestalt. Conversations felt a bit like a lagging video call: by the time I ascertained the meaning of one phrase, my partner had moved onto something else. All of this was horrifying to me. I was devastated, as perhaps you can imagine. Talking was wrought with anxiety; I constantly dreaded the moment that someone might call me out on my inability to understand the only language I speak fluently. I felt like a fraud, posing in ostensibly deep interactions with my peers, but never actually being a part of them. I became very good at signaling that I was listening without actually having to perform. Anyone who knew me well before I became ill knows that I can talk up a head of steam, so I lost a crucial part of myself in those months.

Administrative "Assistance"

Disturbed by the progression of my illness, I contacted my class dean in mid-November to set up a conversation. My mother offered to drive up to Amherst, and after much argument over my being an adult and such, I agreed to her being in the room when I met with my class dean. At the meeting, we agreed that for the time being I would take extensions in my Amherst classes; depending on any medical developments in the following weeks, I would either finish classes late or withdraw from them. I would finish my UMass class without extensions. And perhaps, with any luck, I would be able to graduate after the following semester.

I went home for Thanksgiving planning to visit with a couple of doctors, get a diagnosis, get treated and be back on my feet before interterm. Surely, I thought, a brand new doctor, one billing hundreds of dollars an hour, could locate the point where my body had gone awry. Unfortunately, I was wrong. After Thanksgiving, through a Herculean effort, I did manage to finish my class at UMass. I still remember feeling like my brain’s temperature was approaching absolute zero and my neurons were screeching to a halt. In that state, my mind was simply not functioning well enough for me to write essays or even read for my Amherst classes.

I left Amherst mid-December, praying that my mind and body would shift in some way, but weeks passed and my condition remained stagnant. Continued attempts to read and write precluded rest, so in mid-January I emailed my class dean stating that I needed to withdraw from my remaining courses. To my chagrin, I received this email from her:

“I am sorry to hear you are not much better. I already have you on the list for time away. If you are asking about medically withdrawing retroactively for fall semester, that is not possible. We can talk more about deeper extensions.”

A strongly-worded and heavily embarrassing email sent by my mother — replete with references to my “fabulous” accomplishments — convinced the dean to bring up my case with her supervisor, the former Dean of Students. I trust it is not lost on the readers of this article that having a parent fight your battles for you is double-plus-unfun. Further, aside from shameless bragging about her “super-talented” daughter, my mother’s email contained nothing that I hadn’t already conveyed to my dean; the biggest difference was that my mother’s email signature has the letters “J.D.” in it.

More importantly, not every student has been blessed with a delightfully overbearing Jewish mother. Nor do all Amherst parents have the financial security to take off time from work to speak with their child’s dean in person. Even if unintentional, it thus seems that both classism and infantilization* are built into Amherst’s administrative habit of listening to parents and not to students.

On January 23, 2014, I met with the dean again, and she explained that the administration was “making an exception for me” by allowing me to “retroactively” withdraw — even though we had agreed in a prior meeting that I would withdraw if I could not finish my coursework. I found this to be somewhat unsettling, but what followed was far more worrisome. The dean said that I ought not talk to my peers about my exceptional accommodations, explaining that three other students had wanted to “retroactively withdraw” that semester but had not been permitted to do so. I suspect that she would never say the following outright, but what I heard, loud and clear, was, “You owe us because we have made an exception for you, so keep your mouth shut.”

Amherst’s policy is apparently to unilaterally deny students’ requests to withdraw late in the semester. It is unclear to me just why the school’s policymakers think students would want to withdraw late in the semester if they didn’t have a compelling reason to do so — what do we have to gain through withdrawal (aside from W’s on our transcripts)? I have spent a fair amount of time around Amherst students, and most of them, like myself, love their schoolwork. Though this is not the norm, I have friends who have consistently taken five classes per semester because they love classes. A close friend audited classes like it was going out of style. If an Amherst student is asking to drop a course, it is because they need to drop a course. None of us is trying to pull a fast one on anybody; the trickster student withdrawal is but a myth.

Invisibility as Disability

Administrators’ misconceptions about disability manifest in their tendency not to trust students’ own assessments of their needs. The typical able-bodied person does not realize that disability is often invisible or that people with chronic illnesses pour their limited energy into appearing “normal.” Even now, with almost 22 months of lived experience as a spoonie (Google “spoon theory”), I expend precious energy trying not to appear sick enough that my existence makes healthy people feel uncomfortable. When people ask how I’m doing, I can’t be too honest if I’m looking for a conversation longer than the five seconds it takes to smile weakly, glance around, and pretend to be late for something important. Disability is often invisible to the undiscerning eye (or even the discerning one). Thus, it is critical that Amherst administrators take seriously students’ requests for accommodation without casting undue doubt on the validity of their needs.

I think often of the three students who were prohibited from withdrawing. I wonder who they were and what sorts of hell they were going through. Were they sick? Having a family crisis? Where did their inability to withdraw leave them? Did they fail their classes? Was their health compromised in the completion of their coursework? It is unlikely that I’ll ever know the answer to these questions, because Amherst students are often too ashamed to speak of the fact that they deigned to seek out help. Even worse is the shame that comes from being told that your need is not great enough to require assistance. Or that your need is too great, and you are simply too much of a burden to be accommodated — which is morbidly hilarious to consider. After all, are we willing to believe that a couple of disabled students could significantly deplete Amherst’s resources? As of June 30 of last year, the college’s endowment was $2.149 billion.

After informing me that I would be permitted to “retroactively” withdraw from the courses I took at Amherst, my class dean told me that I would not receive credit for the UMass course that I had completed. Having finished that course at expense to my health, I found this immensely frustrating, but my frustration was eclipsed by physical and mental fatigue. The point of withdrawing from Amherst was to return home to rest, instead of dragging out my failure to engage with inexplicably opaque coursework. When I expressed disappointment to my dean, she told me that I could pursue yet another exception from the registrar. Even in my diminished state, I knew that that would entail further delays in closing out the semester, in favor of additional exhausting meetings, with little chance of success. At that point I felt that I had no choice but to acquiesce.

Looking back on that meeting, I wish that one of my parents, or even one of my friends, had been physically present to support me. My mind was too dull for me to properly judge the situation or advocate for myself. The dean continually emphasized that Amherst was making an exception for me, that I was already asking for too much. At every juncture, I was forced to push to have my needs met, though I was in no state to be doing so.

From conversations with other disabled students, I gather that my experience is the rule, not the exception, in dealings between deans and students. Withdrawal from Amherst is necessarily a difficult process, given that it is always done in the context of painful circumstances. That said, the difficulty should be in deciding to do so, which is done between the student and their loved ones (and/or their doctor). Unfortunately, in many cases, the pain of making a decision pales in comparison to the needless struggle of working the issue through with the administration.

The New "Not Normal"

I spent most of 2014 pursuing dead-end potential diagnosis after dead-end diagnosis. I saw a lot of doctors. A lot of doctors. A lot of smart doctors with shiny awards hanging on their walls. Nothing ever quite fit my symptom picture, but I kept believing that the next hypothesis would be the one to save me. I kept at this, getting my hopes up then having them flattened, until eventually it became unsustainable; in the face of uncertainty, I’d run through my reserves of hope. I started listening to my fear that my condition was intractable, so I resigned myself to finding normalcy in my illness. I returned to Amherst in the summer, where I lived with friends and worked in Val and the Beneski Museum. I began seeing a Northampton-based doctor, who helped me to find some relief from fatigue. But I was still very sick. I experienced constant heart palpitations, cognitive dysfunction and exhaustion, and as the list of pursuable diagnoses waned I saw no option but to press on with my life. I questioned my ability to return for classes in the fall, but I didn’t see my condition improving after having stumped so many doctors. At the very least, I reasoned, I had learned to tolerate my illness; my patience for the constant struggle of reading had grown considerably, and I had learned to focus somewhat through the cognitive dysfunction.

Before fall semester started, I met with an administrator in the Office of Student Affairs who works out accommodations for students with disabilities. What happened in that meeting I can only describe as surreal. As I settled into a chair, she asked what had been going on with me. I explained to her that I loosely fit the symptom picture for chronic fatigue syndrome, with a heavy emphasis on cognitive dysfunction, but that I was still searching for a pathogenetic explanation. The administrator assured me right away that she understood chronic illness. Soon after that things got weird.

The following exchange took place:
Administrator: “I’m in the business of getting people to their own personal one hundred percent.”
Me (thinking): Sounds reasonable enough.
Administrator: “Now, your one hundred percent may not be as much as mine, but…”
Me: *facepalm*

As someone who professes to “understand chronic illness,” the administrator should have known it was unacceptable to say this. In the most generous interpretation, it was a momentary lapse of tact; nonetheless, it is worrisome that an administrator who works with disabled students on a daily basis could conceive of disability only as it compares to the norm of able-bodiedness.

This sort of thinking about disabled people — that we are people who exist as fractions of able-bodied — can move in a very dangerous direction, especially in the context of our society’s tendency to reduce human value to human productivity. If my 100 percent is less than yours, is my inner life less rich or important than yours? Do I have the same rights as you? Am I as much of a human as you? Am I still a human at all?

If someone other than the administrator — someone who I hadn’t approached for the purposes of sorting out accommodations — had compared their ability to mine, it would have hurt. It would be a microaggression, and these inevitably occur when able-bodied assumptions interact with disabled realities. The problem is that the administrator is supposed to be a liaison between disabled students and their professors. In order to qualify for academic accommodations under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Titles II and III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, students have to disclose the nature of their disability to the administrator. If the comment that she made about my “100 percent” is at all indicative of the administrator’s attitude towards chronically ill or otherwise disabled students, then the Office of Student Affairs is a hostile environment for the very students it is charged with helping. If it isn’t indicative of her attitude, it at least shows a shocking level of insensitivity.

The Mythical "Amherst Experience"

Earlier in 2014, while investigating options for accommodation upon returning to Amherst, I learned that Amherst does not allow any student — regardless of ability — to take fewer than three courses in a semester. During another meeting with the administrator, I mentioned my dissatisfaction with the three-class policy. At that point in time, I believe the word I used to describe the policy was “ableist.” Nowadays, I would opt for “illegal,” though ableist would still be an accurate descriptor. Reflexively, the administrator responded that the policy was not within her purview. In retrospect, she is correct that she has no say in the policy’s existence, but it was still off-putting that she had no curiosity about a policy that restricts options for the students with whom she works.

It took only a few weeks of class during the fall of 2014 for it to become abundantly clear that I was not ready to be back in school fulltime. I set up a meeting with my new class dean to talk about accommodations, well aware that I would probably have to withdraw once again. My illness seemed incurable, so I was considering which circumstances might allow me to continue, in some capacity, my education at Amherst. I explained to the new class dean my belief that the three-class policy is discriminatory. Her response was to pull out the college catalog, flip to the page (it’s 71-72, if you were wondering) that delineates the policy, and read it to me. Yep. When I explained that I knew the policy well and that I was more interested in why the policy existed, her justification was similar to the ones I have gotten since: that Amherst wants for all students to have a similar experience. Suffice it to say that I found this concept entirely nauseating. When your body is in crisis, it is difficult to feel similar even to yourself, let alone your peers. I will have more to say about the dean’s response shortly.

During that same meeting with this dean, I decided that leaving Amherst once again would be the best choice, since taking only two courses was not an option. Fortunately, a few days after returning home in October, I received a diagnosis after 18 months of fruitless searching. Since then, I have been working with a talented and compassionate team of medical practitioners. About one month ago, for the first time in nearly two years of being ill, I began seeing improvements in my cognition and bodily fortitude. After months of sitting on my haunches, incubating my immense disappointment in Amherst, I felt ready to search out the root of the school’s inaccessibility.

On Feb. 20, I sent an email to the administrator I had spoken with earlier, asking her to put me in touch with the person or persons concerned with the three-class policy. Her response was roughly the email equivalent of what my new class dean had done in our meeting: She copied and pasted the text from page 71 of the college catalogue into an email and sent it to me. The two situations were, in fact, perfectly analogous. In neither case did I request to have the catalog read to me, and in both cases, when I pressed them further, each administrator admitted to having no access to or even knowledge of the person(s) who made the policy. This reveals a glaring structural inadequacy: the people charged with finding accommodations for students are unaware of — and are certainly not in contact with — those who make the policies that concern students in need. As a result, unless you question these administrators persistently, you will be left with the impression that these policies were not actually made by people, but rather delivered to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

On March 9, I met with the registrar to discuss the three-class policy and the process of filling course deficiencies. In her memory, no exceptions to the policy have ever been made, regardless of a student’s health status. I asked her to explain the reasoning behind the policy, and her response was very similar to my class dean’s: “Amherst is a residential college, so the expectation is that students will be full-time”; it would “change the dynamic”; it is “not in the tradition of the college.” Before I continue, I would like to emphasize that the registrar made every attempt to be helpful and that she was genuinely interested in answering my inquiries. Unfortunately, she is in a position where she doesn’t have the power to change the discriminatory policy, so she is forced to produce a heartless rationalization for it. And the same goes for my class dean. From what I’ve seen, this is the standard response of well-meaning administrators forced to justify the unjustifiable.

Next, I asked the registrar about the process of taking courses at another institution in order to fill a course deficiency. She explained that courses taken at community colleges were admissible for underclassmen, but that juniors and seniors must fill their deficiencies at four-year institutions. I then asked whether any student had ever been permitted to graduate with 31 courses on the basis of a disability, to which she replied in the negative. This quite surprised me, since the college catalog states that students permitted to take three courses in a semester “may be granted permission to spend as many as two additional semesters at Amherst College and to graduate with no fewer than 31 courses” (page 71). I know students who have gone through the petition process for this policy; none of them was made aware that this exception has never been granted to persons with course deficiencies accrued after freshman year.

On March 9, I also met with Financial Aid to discuss policies for disabled students, particularly those whose needs necessitate a reduced course load. Once again, the dean was kind, and I left with the impression that she truly cares about Amherst students. She explained that tuition is reduced to three-fourths of the normal amount for students taking three courses per semester but that the cost of room and board remains unchanged. She also explained that in the case of a student who has accrued enough deficiencies for an additional semester (or two) at Amherst, the same amount of aid would be given in the final semesters as in the previous ones. This means that for a disabled student receiving anything less than full financial aid, the cost of an Amherst education would be greater than it would have been for their able-bodied counterpart.

Further, if a student were to take three courses every semester at Amherst, on top of their extra two semesters, they would still need to take an additional two courses at an institution other than Amherst (unless they elected to register for four courses in their first or second semester in order to use their freshman drop and qualify to graduate with 31 courses). Unfortunately, students may not receive federal financial aid when taking courses at a school where they are not pursuing a degree — as would be the case in filling those deficiencies. So those students would have to pour at least an extra couple thousand dollars into their college education, simply because their circumstances (whether illness, sexual assault, a death in the family, etc.) necessitate a reduced course load. For some students at Amherst, this amount of money may not be a significant hindrance; for those who qualify for aid, however, this could be the difference between graduating and not.

Perhaps a partial solution would be to permit students to stay more than two additional semesters at Amherst. This would at least help out disabled students with the highest level of financial need, since they would be covered in full. However, policies that force disabled students, regardless of their financial means, to pay more for their education seem gratuitously close-fisted for a school with Amherst’s financial resources.

When I asked the dean of financial aid whether any student’s comprehensive fee had ever been reduced due to disability or additional semesters spent at the school, she responded in the negative. She explained that financial aid is granted “based on financial ability,” “not on any other needs … or how long students need to be [at Amherst].”.Although I understand what she is getting at, I find this answer very unsatisfying. Yes, financial aid exists to meet financial needs, but financial aid need not be an island within our administration. Amherst is capable of providing further financial assistance to students whose disabilities would make their education at Amherst more expensive. Again, Amherst should consider using its ample resources to support those of its students who find ourselves in need.

Amherst Can Afford To Do Better

One thing that you learn very quickly when your health fails is that illness does not exempt you from the struggles that have otherwise permeated your life. Put in other words, disability is a truly intersectional issue; the project of making Amherst accessible must take that into account. I am a white, gender-conforming woman with a “normal” BMI and affluent parents. Things would have been even more difficult if I had been different, because — by virtue of its location within the world — Amherst is a place where racism, homophobia, classism, transphobia, fatphobia and other forms of institutional violence and oppression exist. Furthermore, the U.S.’s medical system is dysfunctional, to put it gently. Historically, and continuing into the present moment, this country’s system of medicine makes it supremely difficult for persons of color, women, transgender people, fat people and the cash-poor to receive adequate care or even obtain diagnoses. If my parents hadn’t had the financial resources to send me to clinicians outside of our insurance network, I would not have a diagnosis right now, and in all likelihood my condition would never have improved. With respect to an Amherst education, I would have been unable to take the requisite three courses per semester in order to be a student here. My need would have been too great for Amherst to tolerate. There but for my enormous unearned privilege went I.

I am not suggesting that Amherst must make up for our medical system’s shortcomings; even believing that possible requires a gross underestimation of the depth of human suffering caused by said system. What would be entirely possible, and is also required by federal law, is for Amherst to allow disabled students to study part-time when their physical conditions necessitate it. I feel ridiculous even bringing up a law like the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Being a small residential college with immense resources and apparent claims to a sense of community, Amherst should not be scraping by in compliance with decades-old federal laws (which I don’t even think we are managing to do). We should be rising to the challenge of doing right by one another. Amherst can afford to make buildings like Clark House and the Arms Music Center wheelchair accessible. Amherst can afford to renovate the health center and hire more medical professionals so that the existing staff wouldn’t be so pressed for time. (For the last two items, please bring back to mind the number 2.149 billion.) Amherst’s administrators can better communicate with one another so that sick students don’t get passed around amongst the various offices in Converse like a hot potato (or a bong, if you prefer that image).

Following my meeting with financial aid, I visited the Chief Student Affairs Officer. She did not know enough to answer any of my questions about the reasoning behind the three-class policy, except to note that “full time study is the expectation” at Amherst. However, she was able to confirm my suspicion that the policy was created and voted into action by the faculty. Looking back, I am awed by how much time I spent acting like the administration’s disabled bouncy ball, flying from office to office, just to confirm that Amherst’s faculty are indeed the ones with the power to change policies for students with disabilities. All of the administrators mentioned in this article work in Converse, many of them in the Office of Student Affairs, yet the Chief Student Affairs Officer was the first one able to point me in the direction of a specific faculty committee. Again, the others were not malicious actors, just people with insufficient information about the policies they carry out.

The tragedy of Amherst’s failure in accessibility was laid bare: Faculty make policies that affect the welfare of students, but administrators are charged with carrying out those polices. This is a structural snafu, and students don’t generally realize that our professors have enormous power to change discriminatory policies, let alone the fact that most students have not run up against those policies. My Polyanna-ish side insists that discriminatory policies are mere relics of an earlier time, when the student body was almost entirely white, able-bodied and affluent. If that turns out to be the case, perhaps the faculty will want things to change quite quickly. Fortunately, the language of the three-class policy could easily be amended (though its substance would require more work). This is the relevant passage, from page 72 of the college catalog:

“Also in exceptional cases a student may … enroll in a program of three courses per semester … at Amherst. Such permission may be granted only for reasons of physical disability (e.g., for students who have serious visual or hearing impairments) or compelling family responsibility (e.g., for students who are parents and have custodial responsibility for their children).”

There is no valid reason that a reduced course load should not be granted to a student whose disability is mental rather than physical (though the divider between the two is hyperpermeable, if it even exists). And as previously mentioned, outside observers have little insight into the nature of others’ conditions. Further, the parenthetical clause following “physical disability” serves no purpose but to narrow the reader’s concept of what constitutes a valid disability, which is particularly dangerous, since administrators often treat these words as gospel in their dealings with students. Thus, I think the phrase “physical disability … impairments” should be stricken and replaced by a phrase borrowed from the same page: “for disabling medical reasons or reasons of grave personal emergency.” Finally, the phrase “three courses per semester” could be replaced with “fewer than four courses per semester,” which would at least give administrators some discretion in granting students accommodation.

It is likely, however, that some members of the faculty truly believe that our community cannot afford to fully support disabled students. The argument that Amherst students must all study full-time (three or four courses) in order to foster a sense of community — a community of students similarly invested in their work — is one that I’ve heard many times, and before I fell ill I paid it little attention. But the notion that a student’s investment in their studies is directly proportional to the number of courses they take is a cruel joke to anyone with a chronic illness or other disability. Further, it is a reductive insult to the elegance of a liberal arts education when the quality of students’ academic work and thoughts are subsumed by a numeric objective. Finally, the fabric of a community is threadbare when it turns away from those in need. I am sick of the scarcity model; our collective capacity for compassion is not depleted, but rather it increases, when we care for one another. Amherst’s commitment to financial aid need not preclude its attention to racism; our desire to eradicate rape culture need not impinge on accessibility for disabled students.

It saddens me to realize that Amherst is — at the present moment — unwilling to fully meet the needs of its students. It hurts that the faculty are either knowingly or unwittingly supporting policies that disadvantage disabled students. Like many students, I have the utmost admiration and respect for my professors. Whether or not our professors know that we are ill or otherwise disabled, their votes to maintain the status quo cut deep. Vocal defense of discriminatory policy — whether it harms survivors of sexual assault, disabled students, students of color, cash-poor students, LGBT students, etc. — alienates us and makes Amherst a meaner, harsher environment, one that is more toxic to the mind in bloom.

On the other hand, I am encouraged by conversations I have had with a few administrators and members of the faculty. Scott Howard, a case manager with the Office of Student Affairs, is an excellent resource to disabled students. To any student whose needs have not been met, I recommend that you contact Scott immediately. He always treats students with genuine compassion, which is critical in any time of personal upheaval. Further, his competence for moving quickly within a bureaucratic structure is extraordinary.

Assistant Dean of Students and Health Professions Advisor Richard Aronson’s commitment to public health on a large scale and community health at Amherst is stunning. When I last spoke with him, he was shocked to hear about many of Amherst’s policies, and he assured me that disabled students and student allies would not be alone in any attempt to bring changes to those policies. I hope that this article will bring forth more members of the administration and the faculty who are, at the very least, curious about policies that have harmed students.

The Bridge Between Sickness and Health Is the Blink of An Eye

Although I wish it weren’t so, a comprehensive analysis of why chronically ill and otherwise disabled people feel shame is beyond the scope of this article (and probably beyond the scope of words). Here I will only say that it is never the fault of the chronically ill that we feel ashamed — of our dependence (independence is a myth!); of our inability to be “normal,” whatever that means; of our own suffering.

To any students presently dealing with a chronic illness, I want to apologize if I have erased your experience by omission. My condition is verifiable by blood tests, but that means nothing about its relative validity in comparison to yours. Fibromyalgia is diagnosed by symptom picture, but there is no argument that the condition is anything less than debilitating; bipolar disorder cannot be found in the blood, but it certainly affects major life activities. Unfortunately, however, in the world of western allopathic medicine, hematological evidence confirming the realness of one’s condition affords one an advantage over those without such validation.

Additionally, I have every reason to believe that one day I may not need accommodations when I return to Amherst, should my healing continue to progress as it has. Thus, retaliation on the part of administrators, should someone be unhappy with my writing, is somewhat less of a concern for me. There are barriers to the chronically ill voicing their suffering, and the onus should not be on disadvantaged students to carve out room for ourselves. With all of that said, if you have suffering to speak of and you feel safe doing so, speak it. This community needs for its members to talk about this (and write and think and listen) continually. I have spent most of my words here on my own experience, but I want to hear yours. I don’t imagine that I’m the only one.

In closing, a few words for the reader who believes this article is not about them. I can state no universal truth about your body but this: It is not yours to keep, and it will eventually fail. There are few other certainties in life. I was a very energetic and vital person until suddenly I wasn’t. Without realizing it, I’d always fancied myself invincible, as many young people to. But the boundary between sickness and health can be bridged in the blink of an eye. Think of Amherst athletes who play contact sports. These students are at constant risk of debilitating injury, including head trauma, despite their physical prowess. With one hard blow, an athlete can go from hyper-able to disabled. Amherst recruits many of these athletes, asking them to risk their bodies for the glory of our community, yet at present the school is not equipped to fully accommodate disabled students.

Amherst’s policies seem to be modeled on the assumption that this school’s students all possess infallible wellness. In so doing, Amherst fails to ground itself in the real world, where there is no hard line between health and disability, and where the former can fade into the latter quite quickly. I implore all of you to help create an environment where poor medical luck doesn’t preclude students’ access to an education. It is far lovelier — and far more grounded in actual reality — than the alternative of mentally walling ourselves off from the possibility that bad luck could ever strike "us," that illness is something that happens to "them." Just as it hurts to have your suffering ignored, so is it unhealthy to ignore others’ suffering. With that, I leave you with the words of Anthony Moore and the immortal David Gilmour:

"Don't accept that what's happening
Is just a case of others' suffering
Or you'll find that you're joining in
The turning away"

*I hope that upperclassmen have not forgotten that Angie Epifano was initially prohibited from returning to Amherst, since she had no parents to supervise her. To all underclassmen, I encourage you to visit The Student’s website and search “An Account of Sexual Assault at Amherst College,” since it was published prior to your arrival on campus.

Marie M '15 (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 09:52

Thank you for writing this. I applaud your bravery and hope it leads to positive changes. Stay strong

Kevin Riley (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 11:32

Nora Gayer has made a significant contribution with this article. Having been involved with programs supporting persons with disabilities, it is my opinion that she is advancing a cause which is too often overlooked and for which reasonable accommodations are not being made. Since the college is committed to providing their students with achieving their own personal potential, it needs to adjust its policies to reflect its own stated strategic objective for education. Amherst appears to have failed here and in this instance. I hope that this well written and well thought out article will help Amherst rethink its position and accommodate all of its students with what ever they need to be the best that they can be.

Cecilia Pessoa '14 (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 13:01

Thank-you Nora.

I appreciate being informed of this sad state of affairs and your efforts to make a difference. I'm glad to hear your health is improving these days.

Andre L '14 (not verified) says:
Wed, 03/25/2015 - 15:54

Words cannot describe how proud I am of you for battling through this and still care so much about improving the system that provided little to no assistance to you. I have two friends who, I believe, did not get proper support from Amherst in times of need. I actually started worrying at the end of my first semester senior year about how easy something could change in my life, making it impossible for me keep going with my education. These fears have subsided now that I have given it quite a lot of thought. But I can only imagine how terrible it would be to not have the support we sometimes take for granted. I really hope your efforts will help improving what's in place right now. Thank you.

Sarah S. (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 09:34

Thank you for writing this. Many schools are unaware of how to deal with disability, whether mental, physical, or both, and I'm sad to hear that Amherst is one of them. There should be a much better system in place to assist students and faculty who experience illness or injury. Glad to hear you're feeling better!

JP '17 (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 09:53

I'm still trying to wrap my head around how you're using abelist in this context. The institution is one of learning and intellectual pursuit. If a disability is one that doesn't allow for the high standard of learning and/or intellectual pursuit that the college has, I don't think it's discriminatory of them at all to not change their policies. The football team is not being discriminatory when they don't allow players in wheelchairs, and ACEMS isn't being discriminatory if they don't accept members with traumatic PTSD who faint at the sight of blood. Sometimes, disabilities prevent inclusion, and that's not illegal, that's reality. Just like a sport may requires someone to be able-bodied, academics at this high a level may require someone to be able to handle a certain level of course-load.

By all means, disabled students should be given the support that they need to attain the Amherst standard (and we can always do better), but we should remain focused on helping students reach that bar, not lowering the bar to them.

Kate Gillette (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 14:16

It seems to me that Amherst missed an opportunity to teach Ms. Gayer — and other students in her position — critical lessons in the importance of compassion for the individual, adaptability, and “thinking outside the (apparently very rigid) box” in the creation of a vibrant, successful community. A very well-written and sobering article.

Jeff Marston (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 15:45

Nora: I work with your Mom, who shared your article with me -- it is one of the most eloquent, moving and persuasive pieces I have ever read about this important topic (or maybe about any topic). I hope that you will find some solace in the likelihood that the very difficult trail you are blazing here will ease the suffering of others in the future.

Ann (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 16:15

Thanks for writing, Nora. You sound strong and I'm glad for your courage to write - for the benefit of many you will never know. I hope your health continues to improve.

Shelly Pine (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/26/2015 - 20:18

This is wonderfully well-written and full of insight, maturity and wisdom. This is not just an Amherst issue; it goes far beyond Amherst. Indeed, I’d argue that the Amherst administrators are likely to be as kind and as wise as any others, perhaps wiser and kinder and more receptive than most college administrations. The point is: look how poorly they performed in this instance, despite the fact that they are surely as good as any and likely better than most. This article, at bottom, is about the chasm that all too often separates the able and the disabled. It is about the importance of doing all we can do to bridge that chasm, a chasm, in the first instance, of understanding. Understanding can be the wellspring of action. This piece could do a world of good for college kids everywhere if given a wider circulation among college administrators.

Jeff M. (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 10:36

An outstanding piece on a vitally important issue. I admire your courage -- and eloquence.

Linda R (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 12:05

Thank you for speaking out honestly and boldly. Your article contains insight on many different levels and is a powerful message to all who read it and consider the truths it provides. Your courage and efforts to facilitate positive change make the world a better place.

Carol stone (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 14:41

Nora – I read every word of your letter. It was so well written, a tribute to your intellect and so impressive that you just wouldn't give up. Hopefully you have helped many other students in their search for help and may their Journey not to be so difficult. So glad to hear you are finally improving and we wish you nothing but good luck. Remember the name

Risa Sandler (not verified) says:
Fri, 03/27/2015 - 15:33

Thank you for writing this insightful and persuasive article. I hope that Amherst administrators will not just read it but will take meaningful action. I agree with the previous comment that it should be given wider circulation among college administrators. Maybe someone else reading this can make that happen.

Lucy mccray (not verified) says:
Sat, 03/28/2015 - 18:04

Hey, Nora, I don't think I've seen you since Middle school. And I'm sorry that you've had this difficult period. But this is a wonderful, well written, well argued article, sobering indeed but a great reminder for us all. Best of luck.

Meredith (not verified) says:
Sun, 03/29/2015 - 19:25

This article hits the nail on the head. And, as Shelly mentioned, is unfortunately not only an issue at Amherst. Take care Fellow Spoonie <3

Ryan McRae Arnold (not verified) says:
Thu, 04/02/2015 - 00:10

Nora, I don't have the words to express how strongly I support this article. Thank you for writing it. As painfully difficult as it may be, I'm so fucking glad that you're a member of this community.
In solidarity.

Al Schuman (not verified) says:
Sat, 04/04/2015 - 15:22

In addition to the rigid and inflexible approach of this highly regarded University, I am struck with the strength and fortitude of Nora and her family. What comes across clearly to me is a family with deep love for each other and commitment to principles that impact for beyond Nora's situation. This family is committed to institutional change. I applaud their tenacity and courage.

Fred Andresen (not verified) says:
Tue, 04/07/2015 - 10:34

I rarely read articles this long all the way to the end. Sometimes I lose interest. Sometimes poor grammar or editing just annoys me. However, with each paragraph I was so impressed with how well it was written and the tact and grace Nora showed in her actions and words, that I was compelled to keep going. Plus, I wanted to find out how it turned out. Obviously, to have produced such a substantial (6500+ words!) and impeccably-written work must have taken an immense amount of concentration and lucid thought - something that did not seem possible for her most of the time during this period. So, I was also encouraged to continue by the hope of getting some good news at the end. And there was some. Let's hope the good news continues, for Nora's well-being as well as Amherst's.

Della (not verified) says:
Fri, 04/10/2015 - 17:54

Nora, I acknowledge you for taking a stand and the courage required to do so. While not the "education" you sought or expected, you have received an extraordinary life lesson, and you are using it to make a difference for others.

John Stifler (not verified) says:
Fri, 04/10/2015 - 20:33

I graduated from Amherst 47 years ago. I got through in an ordinary fashion, but I had classmates who suffered one thing or another that interfered with their ability to carry a fulltime load. (One was in a serious auto accident that left him disoriented and depressed.) Always, it seemed to me, the College maintained an amazing and impressive ability to make adjustments for individual students' personal problems. Deans would bend requirements when it was apparent that to do so was in the best interests of the individual student's health and his (this was pre-coed) education.

Much more recently, thanks to a good acquaintance with someone who graduated from Amherst three years ago, I have heard a very long and painful story (from this friend and alum) that bears striking similarity to Nora's. I am fairly well convinced that in the past decade or two (or three?), while it has made much of its open curriculum, Amherst has become more and more hidebound by its own rules, of which there seem to be many more than there used to be. (The proliferation of deans is just one symptom of this developmet, I expect.) I applaud Nora for taking the time and the care to present her own experience here, and I hope more alumni will let the College's administration know that we think it could do a much better job of listening to students who are in distress. Thank you, Nora.