Colby’s Chronic Illness Support Group lobbies administration

In the last few weeks, students in Colby’s Chronic Illness Support Group have actively lobbied the administration to increase resources and accessibility for disabled students. Members of the group met with Director of the Pugh Center Dwayne D. Paul, the Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Betty Sasaki, Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae, and the General Manager of Dining Services Marietta Lamarre to discuss issues surrounding Colby’s lack of disability services and the need for improved accommodation.

One of the group’s goals is to make food on campus more accessible for students with special dietary needs. Member of the Chronic Illness Support Group Adrienne Tracy ’20 explains that she wants the dining halls to be “more accommodating for students with dietary restrictions because sometimes the options are really limiting.”

Another member of the group, Emma Balkin ’20, added that “when the school shuts down the dining halls to get people to go to events like the campaign launch, they usually have very limited menus. Sometimes it means people with dietary restrictions have to go and buy our own food elsewhere or go hungry that night.” Balkin also recalled attending a dorm event where she was unable to eat since none of the pizza ordered was gluten free. For her, things like that mean “you sometimes have to push yourself to be included. People don’t think about the needs of people who can’t eat what everybody else is eating.”

The biggest goal the group hopes to accomplish is to reform the accommodation request process for academics and housing. Balkin explains that “it is very difficult to get accommodations in a way where it doesn’t cause you more stress.” The students mentioned the sources they believe are causing issues with the accommodation process, including the nature of overworked and occasionally unhelpful faculty members responsible for accommodation oversight. Furthermore, members of the group explained that these processes are highly decentralized and therefore arduous; for example, students who document their illness with housing for housing accommodations must complete an entirely separate process to document their illness with an advising dean for academic accommodations.

Members of the support group emphasized how important academic accommodations are to them. Without official accommodations, students must talk directly with professors to address their personal needs. Balkin explained that “there’s a default towards disbelieving. I’ve had some professors who are amazing and who totally understand. On the other hand, you get professors who just look at you weirdly. And then there’s this expectation that you explain your symptoms to them and that can be quite embarrassing.” Balkin further described how  “a lot of professors see the symptom of fatigue and think ‘oh how do we know that’s real and not just laziness?’”

Camille Owsley ’19 added that requesting accommodations directly from a professor can be particularly difficult if you do not have a label for your diagnosis. She explains that once you tell your professor about your illness “your identity becomes your illness. That’s what people see when they look at you. You’re no longer a person, you’re an illness.”

When their professors do grant them their accommodation requests, member of the support group Eileen Hopf ’19 said “that just makes it so amazing because you know that you are allowed to put yourself first and not have your academics suffer because of that.” Unfortunately, too many students with chronic illnesses at Colby are denied the opportunity to put themselves first since the accommodation process is too confusing, difficult, and arduous. Hopf neatly sums up the issue: “They made the system hard so that people don’t take advantage of the system. But they made it so hard that no one can even use the system.”

In addition to working with the group on accomplishing their goals, Tracy is currently trying to work with several deans and the health center to get a system put in place for students with refrigerated medicine. She is pursuing this reform due to the lack of instruction available to her at the beginning of the school year when she attempted to pick up her refrigerated medication on campus. Even recently, Tracy explained that a package containing her medicine was shipped to Eustis and left unrefrigerated, ruining the contents.

She told the Echo that “it’s really expensive medication that I can’t really afford to lose it.” When she spoke with the Eustis manager, Tracy discovered the mail center simply does not have enough resources to purchase another fridge for students with medicines that need refrigeration. Tracy explained that she is “trying to make it so that other people don’t have to go through that.”

Tracy believes that the biggest issue on campus regarding students with chronic illnesses is that “we don’t really have support here at Colby. Every single person who comes onto this campus with a chronic illness or disability has to start from square one. When you come in as a freshman, there’s absolutely no resources. You have to walk into the health center and say ‘okay, what do I do?’”

The members of the support group also mentioned the importance of changing campus culture regarding disabled students. Balkin explained that “I think people need to be educated. We’re looking for people to believe us whether in the dining hall or classroom. The only support system that exists on campus is the Chronic Illness Support Group and it was only created by students last semester.”

For Owsley, dealing with chronic illness is “a battle every time. You have to do your extracurriculars, your academics, but this whole time you have an entire extra course load of just trying to survive.”

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