This post was written by Angelique Milojevic.

The feature image in this post shows sunflowers, which are often used as a symbol for non-visible disabilities. You can find out more at the Hidden Disabilities website.

I was dealing with a chronic illness for five years, and for four of those years I was completing my degree. If you had met me at that time you would have thought I was reasonably healthy because that’s the way I looked. In fact, I was putting on a smiling face, not expressing the chronic pain I felt, and trying to hide my exhaustion. I was dragging my feet out of bed to get to class because I really wanted to be there and learn. You might have noticed my cognitive issues and interpreted that as if I was a slow learner. Sometimes I wished I had my arm in a sling, my leg in a cast, and a bandage wrapped around my head because then maybe some people would have been a little more compassionate that they could see, and perhaps identify, with the difficulty I faced on a daily basis. You can not see all chronic illnesses.

Here are some ways you can help your students who are dealing with chronic illnesses:

Believe your student when they say they need an extension

Studying a university degree comes with many challenges and when you add health challenges on top of that, it becomes far more complicated and increases the difficulty of completing the degree. If a student is attempting to study at the same time as they are dealing with a chronic illness then they are studying because they really want to be there; they want that degree. Why else would they make their life harder?

Give them more time to complete their assessments or redo an exam without judgement

I was fortunate that I found the Accessibility Service when I started at UTS. I would not have completed my degree had they not been there helping me with what I could not help myself. Despite that I still found that I failed components of some subjects. We had an eighty percent attendance rate for a subject’s tutorial component and I went through a period when I could barely make it out of bed, let alone get to class. Unfortunately, it would happen often over a month and some months were better than others. I failed the tutorial, twenty-eight percent of my overall grade. I was disheartened. But I passed the subject because I did well on the assessments part of the subject and that pulled my grade up.

In another subject, I had just passed the exam, just. It was fifty percent of my overall grade. The morning of my exam I had severe, unpredictable cognitive issues – brain fog which causes memory issues and poor concentration which made it hard for me to answer the questions correctly. It was an open book, it should have been easy for someone who wasn’t struggling cognitively, plus I had spent a good amount of time studying for it. I was disappointed as I had put so much effort into it but I couldn’t perform on that morning.

If you become aware that a student has chronic health issues ask them how you can help

At the beginning of each session the Accessibility Service would email my lecturers and tutors to let them know that I was having health challenges and I might need extensions. However, this didn’t quite cover what was going on for me and what I needed help with would change from day to day. Most of my lecturers over those years had a degree of understanding. Some of them were exceptional at helping me when they could see I was more challenged than my normal. Some of my tutors on the other hand didn’t seem to get it at all and gave me a hard time for being slow or would push back when I would ask for more time.

Nobody asked me how they could help. This is a tricky one as you may not know what to say to someone who is struggling like that but just try a simple ‘In what ways can I help you through this subject?’. And if they don’t have an answer at that time, they might later. If you let them know you want to help them do well in the subject that may be all they need to hear. Just to know they are supported. Or they may suggest something you had not thought of because you haven’t had their lived experience.

Angelique will be appearing in an upcoming LX.lab accessibility campaign – stay tuned on the blog or subscribe to the LX Digest to find out more soon.

Feature image by Dina Spencer.

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