Just before winter break, I had the amazing opportunity to sit on the panel “More Than a Remote Possibility: Rethinking Inclusion in the College Classroom.” This was the first time I’d been asked to sit on a panel focused on my identity as a disabled student, and I realized during my preparation that I have taken very little time to consider my thoughts and feelings about that part of my identity. I spend so much time making my disability small, trying to crush it into a tiny space that ensures it’s innocuous to everyone around me. I don’t even know I’m doing it. If I don’t make the epilepsy as undetectable as possible, it scares my classmates and makes my professors anxious. How can I possibly work in our lab, in the animal facility, unattended? I feel my disability as a liability, a possible lawsuit, a medical emergency no one wants to deal with, instead of what it really is to me—a cultural identity.

Ally’s service dog, Dakota, at work in the lab
Ally’s service dog, Dakota, at work in the lab

When I have to wear a helmet because the seizure activity is uncontrolled, I can’t hide the disability. I’m forced to disclose to everyone that I’m a fall risk without ever even saying a word about it. The spectrum of disability is so vast. Some visible, some not, some that shift back and forth. You may think it’s easier to have an ‘invisible’ disability, but would you want to have to constantly remind people you need accommodation? Constantly have people question the validity of your disability because ‘you look normal’? It’s often not even enough to say you need some accommodation, people want to know the details. When I’m teaching as a GSI, I don’t want to tell my students exactly how my seizures progress and that there may be drool or blood. I have a medical aide for a reason, and my students are not entitled to any more information than I want to give. But not everyone has the luxury of a medical aide, and where does that leave them? It is not our obligation to reveal anything more than what allows us to participate in a meaningful and safe way, just like any other student. But is it safe to teach if you have no one but your students to help in case of an emergency? We’re so often placed in uncomfortable situations, where the burden is placed on us. The number of professors I know that don’t understand how the accommodation system works is incredibly disheartening. On the panel, we talked about working towards making sure disabled students’ contributions and perspectives are appreciated and valued, but there’s still so far we have to go.

Current legislation functions as a ‘check-the-box’ safety mechanism for institutions. It is outdated, inflexible and designed for a narrow scope of individuals in the greater disabled community. If we truly want inclusion, we need creativity. In places, the switch to online learning has sparked that ingenuity, but there will always be room to grow and improve. The current system is geared towards an undergrad with a certain set of disabilities that the campus is already equipped to accommodate, which is simply an unrealistic expectation for a service that should adequately serve the diverse disabled community. The burden I experienced enrolling in the Disabled Students Program and setting up accommodations all while recovering from maxillofacial surgery and subsequently being diagnosed with epilepsy was nearly impossible and fell entirely on my shoulders. Even now in my fifth year, my accommodations are limited and my family and I have had to compensate on our own with a service animal and medical aide.

This isn’t a critique of the Disabled Students Program here at Cal. Though the services they are able to offer aren’t optimal for every student, they do their best for us with the resources and infrastructure they have. This is a nationwide, global problem. Part of inclusivity is funding the programs and infrastructure that ensure that the disabled community can participate meaningfully in all career and life aspirations. One of my fellow panelists, Alena Morales, has worked long and hard on a Disability Cultural Center that will open when campus is once again in-person. More information will be coming on the DCC, and also look out for a follow-up panel to More Than a Remote Possibility that will be hosted later this semester by the GSI Teaching & Resource Center. Sitting on this panel was an incredibly positive experience. I haven’t felt hopeful about my epilepsy with regards to my functionality in life in a while, but epilepsy and being an engineer can be equal aspects of my evolving identity without limiting my prospects.

I want to extend a thank you to my fellow panelists Sarah Manchanda, Jennifer Pearlstein, Georgina Kleege and Alena Morales. It was a pleasure to work with you all and to hear and share in some of your experiences.

I would also like to thank Penny Edwards for organizing this panel and Karen Nielson from DSP for sharing her thoughts and speaking about the services DSP provides and new services in the works.

About the author: Allison Gleason is a Ph.D. candidate in Mechanical Engineering and is a disabled graduate student with a research focus in traumatic brain injuries. She currently serves as Professional Development Liaison in Berkeley’s Graduate Division.