Academic Accommodations (But You Look Normal…)

The beginning of the school year brings a lot of things. Excitement. Joy. Copious amounts of Russian homework. High gas bills for those of us who commute. Crisp new books and pencils.

I love the beginning of the school year. Mostly.

There’s one part that I hate – passing out academic accommodation letters.

I’m not ashamed to admit it. I have and use academic accommodations – concessions made by the school that allow me to do things like take double time on exams, test outside of the classroom, leave in the middle of a lecture, use a laptop for note taking even in laptop-forbidden classes, and circle my answers instead of using Scantron sheets. Why do I have and use these accommodations?

Because I have a disability.

There. I said it. The big, scary D word. Disability. I have one. Yes, really.

I think that it’s hard for some people to wrap their minds around the fact that not all disabilities are visible. Or maybe they assume that intelligent people can’t be disabled. Or maybe they look at me at think that I just don’t look and act “crazy” enough to warrant accommodations.

(Those in the last category clearly haven’t spent enough time with me.) (If I met their criteria for “acceptably crazy,” I wouldn’t be able to function at all.)

Every semester, after registering for my classes, I have to go to Services for Students with Disabilities and pick up a shiny, new stack of accommodation letters – letters written to my professors, by SSD, telling them that they’re required to accommodate me under the law. The Americans With Disabilities Act says so. Most of my professors are good about this. Some are fantastic.

And then there are the others. They’re the ones who act as if scheduling extended test time for me is a massive inconvenience. They never come right out and say anything, but they bestow the look. The one that clearly says “You look normal enough. Who’d you have to bribe to get these? You must be milking the system.” Oh, how I despise that look. On a list of top ten things that I can’t stand to hear, “But you look normal” would be very near the top.

Of course I look normal. I don’t have a third eye in the middle of my forehead. There’s no glowing neon sign over my head that reads “disabled.” But that doesn’t make my issues any less real. If it did, Services for Students with Disabilities wouldn’t have accepted my paperwork. This seems like the logical assumption. Unfortunately, it isn’t the one I always get.

OCD, anxiety, and panic attacks can make functioning in school downright impossible. Here are a few of the “invisible” problems I have – the ones that, to some people, don’t count as “real” enough to require accommodations.

  • Math is painfully slow – not because I’m not capable of doing it, but because I have to check my answers over and over again to feel confident that I didn’t make a mistake. Drawing charts and graphs by hand takes me three times longer than it does other people because crooked lines don’t feel “right.” And while it is good for those of us with OCD to fight our compulsions, doing so in the middle of an exam isn’t exactly time for it. Fighting compulsions can trigger panic attacks. And those are bad.
  • Speaking of which – have you ever tried to concentrate while having a panic attack? Let alone respond in a timely and appropriate manner? I’m lucky if I can get out a coherent word or remain in my seat (the urge to flee nearly always wins, necessitating the “permission to leave class” accommodation), let alone write an intelligent answer about the events leading up to the Civil War.
  • I can’t use Scantron sheets. Well… I can. And I’ll have perfectly filled in answer bubbles. But I won’t be nearly through the exam when time is called. My Freshman year, I took a math placement exam. I hadn’t, at the time, sought academic accommodations at UT. It was a Scantron exam. A MATH Scantron exam. I answered about 32 of the 50 questions, and only managed to place out of Math 305G because, of the questions I answered, I didn’t miss any. It was at that point that I realized I’d have to do something about the OCD issues. Half-completed tests – even correctly done half-completed tests – are failures to most professors.
  • Then there’s testing in a room with other people. Every cough, every sneeze – it’s fodder for the OCD Badger in my head to start an endless loop of “what if…” Think that isn’t a problem? Put the words “you’re going to die” on a tape recorder sometime, and set it to repeat. Then try to take an exam while you’re pumping it into your ears. Can you finish the test? Can you finish a thought?
  • Reading textbooks can take an inordinate amount of time, because I’ll read a paragraph six or seven times to make sure I’ve completely understood what I’m reading. This isn’t just a good study habit. No – twice would be a good study habit. Re-reading and re-reading to make the gnawing anxiety in my chest go away, to the point that I don’t FINISH the chapter because I’ve spent too much time on the first three paragraphs – that’s obsessive-compulsive.
  • Ditto writing papers. The fear that I “might have done something wrong” trumps my common sense, and “good enough” is just never “good enough.” I am absolutely incapable of writing drafts – each paragraph must feel “right” before I move onto the next one. Which means that a paragraph can take HOURS. And it just gets worse the closer to deadline I get. The “what if I don’t finish” dialogue takes over.

The people who know me best understand these things. I’ve had three professors, THREE, ladies and gentlemen, who have been extraordinarily good at working with me. The ones who’ve taken the time through the semester to check in with me and see where I am. The ones who work with me on deadlines, and who understand that I’m not just a procrastinator or somehow irresponsible. Don’t get me wrong – most of my professors are good. The great ones, though, are rare.

My peers are often worse. Phrases like, “It must be nice to get all that extra time,” make me want to show them just how “crazy” I can be – preferably with a baseball bat of sone kind. And then there are the ones who think I’m some kind of teacher’s-pet-wannabe, because I’m a perfectionist and I always sit in the front and answer questions. They seem to think that, because I do well, everything comes easily to me.

It pisses me off.

I’m a perfectionist because the anxiety mandates it in me. I will literally worry myself sick over the quality of my work. And since it never feels “good enough,” I often do more than required. Just to be sure.

But believe me – sometimes I think it’d be REALLY nice to have my time back. A paper that takes you three hours to write might take me twenty. (I clocked it once. Twenty-one is the longest I’ve spent to date. The paper was only ten pages. Double spaced.)

I sit in the front because I learn better if I’m in the front. If there’s less for me to see, there’s less for me to obsess over. In the back of the room, where I’m under less scrutiny, I’m much more likely to start counting ceiling tiles. Also, in the event of in-class panic attacks, which happen at least a few times a semester, it’s usually easier to get out of the room if I’m in the front. It’s just that simple.

And as for my participation? Chances are, I didn’t finish the reading. The majority of my information comes from what’s discussed in class. So I make sure I know what’s going on.

Yes. I do well. But no one hands it to me – I work at it. And accommodations? They don’t give me an advantage. They level the playing field. They try to eliminate the disadvantages that are already in place.


And this is why I hate accommodation letters. See, most of the time, I just take all of this with a grain of salt. I’m just as capable as anyone else of doing well –  OCD and anxiety be damned. I mean, I don’t enjoy having to work around these neuroses in my head, but I still love school. I love to learn. The OCD and anxiety… they’re annoyances to be handled. But when I pass out these letters, I am inevitably reminded of all the things that make me angry about people’s assumptions. I catch myself looking at people and thinking “You really have no idea, do you?”

I got a message on Facebook last night from a woman I know, whose sons live with invisible disabilities. “Looking normal and thinking differently,” is how she termed it – and I think that’s really perfect.

A day in my head – that’s all anyone would need. Of course, it’s dark and scary in there, and the other voices might not be very friendly. But it would eliminate all this mumbo-jumbo about normalcy. And since I can’t shove everyone ignorant of life with invisible disabilities into my head (and wouldn’t want them there anyway) the only thing left to do is to keep talking about what it’s really like to live with OCD.

Maybe someone will listen.

/rant over

/commence Russian homework.

(There’s a lot of it.)

(But I’m LOVING it.)

(Not a McDonald’s reference.)



4 Comments to “Academic Accommodations (But You Look Normal…)”

  1. I totally agree,,,,,,,,keep talking about OCD so people will become more educated and maybe one day “the looks” will disappear. One of my recent blogs, “Let’s keep talking OCD” has the same message.

    Good Luck with your semester, and thanks for sharing how difficult school can be for you.

  2. Wow … you are right. It does level the playing field for you. I admire you for still doing what you want to despite having OCD. I bet some others feel they shouldn’t try. Keep sharing. You make it possible!

  3. Yes, please keep talking about what it’s like to have ocd and be in school! When I was in college 25 years ago, I didn’t know I had ocd. What I did know was that if I didn’t do things “perfectly” I would feel sick with anxiety. And skimming my readings was almost impossible because I was afraid I’d miss something, so would read the acknowledgements, introduction, chapters that weren’t even assigned but came inbetween ones that were, plus footnotes. I researched my topic in one history class so thoroughly, finding primary source material in multiple libraries, that the professor was truly impressed–I had assumed this was the bare minimum, not in any way exceptional. But the writing of the paper was a whole other story, because I had a mountain of research, and avoided actually writing anything down until the day before.

  4. @ocdtalk: I’m with you. It sure would be nice if “the looks” and rolled eyes disappeared one day. I’ve suffered from depression, another “invisible” malady. I’d get the comment from my dad that I just needed to “pull myself up by the bootstraps” and that it was “all in my head” (well, duh). Maybe a pessimist, but I suspect as long as there are ‘normal’ people out there, “the looks” will continue. But…

    @Bobs: As long as people like you keep talking about it and persevering, things will get better. Baby steps, but steps just the same…

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