If you have just registered as an art student this fall at college or university, please take the initiative to register at your school’s disability support services. Most colleges and universities have supports for students with special needs. If you are just selecting a school now for next year research the supports the school offers.
Disability support services can provide you with a classroom helper to take notes for you or carry items too large and difficult for you. Many provide counselling support and can put you in contact with a network of personal care workers, local doctors and tutors. They document your case so that the professors in your program know what needs you have or if something should happen you have the credibility of having reported your concerns in advance.
No matter what the concern might be with your health whether physical, mental, or a learning disability; it is wise to register with the support office right at the beginning of the academic year.
My experiences with mental illnesses as an art teacher
When I was teaching a Sheridan College, one of Canada’s top arts colleges, I witnessed several students experience challenges with the professors in their programs if they waited to report their health and learning issues until a problem arose late in the term. If you have a significant and legitimate problem and you wait to report it, you risk having it look like an excuse for needing an extension rather than it being a legitimate reason. By being proactive and registering your health concerns at the beginning of the academic year you are protecting your interests and leaving a verifiable trail.
The most important benefit of registering with the disability support office is that you can have at your disposal all the supports the office can provide for you.
As a college instructor I often worked within the health concerns of my students. I was dismayed that not all of my colleagues understood the needs of the students with mental health concerns as well as I did. I was at the time experiencing Post-Partum Depression and Anxiety Disorder so I knew how to recognize some of the symptoms and could understand what it felt like to be under pressure with this sort of condition present. I was able to explain the validity of extensions and softer deadlines for those students with these concerns to the other professors who hadn’t had any experience with anxiety disorders.
I explained that people with lower serotonin levels find it harder to concentrate when under pressure. Release the pressure and most people have little to no problem to function at a high level. So we extended soft deadlines when required. Those students who needed that appreciated it and did not misuse it.
I noticed that there were several students who came to me with issues late in the term, usually during mid-terms when the pressure built up asking for help and revealing their problems. Many of these students were not aware of the support that was available to them within the college. I often showed them where to go and helped them get started with finding the support they needed. Students whom I helped stopped me in the hall later saying how much it helped them and reported doing so much better after they got the help they needed.
Don’t ignore your disability!
I am guessing that students hope that they will be okay and want to wait and see how they fair before reporting their health concerns, particularly when they are related to mental health issues. I suspect it could be a matter of pride and wanting to not “make excuses” or perhaps the stigma that unfortunately is still attached to both mental illnesses and learning disabilities keeps students from reporting it until they absolutely have to.
I can tell you this, I too never informed my employer of my illness for fear that they would not understand and not renew my contract. So I understand students’ concerns around this.
But all I can tell you are the students that did confide in me and went to get the help they needed did fair better in college than those who did not.
It is in the student’s best interest to inform their instructors as to any health concerns that might exist. We as instructors need to know what the students need if something should happen in class, whether it be to administer an Epi-pen or know how to handle a full-fledged panic attack. I far prefer being prepared in advance so I can be there to help the students properly than be shocked and surprised and at a loss for what to do. When I was informed of particular needs of students I did what I could to accommodate them or have a support worker there to assist.
What you should do with your disabilities when going to college soon
So if you are just embarking on your college education this fall, please go talk to your professors soon and register at the disability or health office.
If you are a high school student with health concerns, I would advise you to make researching the supports that the college has part of your search criteria. A mother and her son that received coaching from me at PortPrep reported that one of the colleges they had been enrolled in did not have a supportive disability office and it was a humiliating experience for that student. The next college they chose had a better support system but unfortunately it put a strong distrust into that student.
Read our post “What Art Students with Disabilities Think of Art Colleges in Canada” to read what mother Bonnie thought of the art colleges in Canada for her son MArk, who is diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy.
I think the problem with labels and stigmas is so well explained by our previous guest blogger, Elaine Asplind Russell, in an email correspondence with me:
I think if the students can only recognize that there is help out there for them if they can only seek it out to help them to succeed! It is a difficult thing to accept the “labels” which society wants us to..as well we must prove to them that we are “ably disabled” rather than “DISabled.”
This concept of “disability” irritates me so much as I have been fighting the stigma for YEARS to prove that I am competent and can be a contributing member to society in general
(You can also read an article Elaine wrote for us about overcoming disabilities as an artist by clicking here.)
I wonder if it actually can at time add to the creative power of the expression of artists and our ability to empathize and be sensitive to the conditions of humanity. I think it did and does for me at any rate.
I want all of the students reading this that might have any kind of health concern that to feel empowered to follow your goals and believe in your abilities. I have seen countless students prevail who have had challenges.
I remember one very challenged young student who had to get around in a motorized wheel chair, came back to college after a brain aneurism and could hardly hold a pencil due to the malformation of her hands and arms made some of the most impactful and intensely meaningful artworks I can remember seeing as a college instructor. So be brave like her and go after your dreams. She was so happy to be creating and to have instructors who helped her to be able to.
I want the same for you.