Success in STEM

Hidden Disabilities: Out Of Sight, Not Out Of Mind

By Mark Kay, Jobpostings Magazine

I spent over half a year sitting in the bathrooms of my university, instead of sitting in class. I had every detail of every cubicle memorized – every scribbled phone number on the walls and every crack in the plaster. Suffering through an active flare of Crohn’s disease, I missed classes and overdue assignments piled up. I was in real danger of failing, but I didn’t ask for help. I couldn’t imagine myself saying to my professors “I have to poop a lot, please keep that in mind.” I was deeply embarrassed, and that prevented me from reaching out.

Like many Canadians, I struggle with an invisible disability. Coming to terms with it, and getting accommodation for it to make my learning environment more accessible took time and confidence. There was help out there for me, but I needed to be able to reach past the stigma I felt to get it.

The first obstacle to accommodating a hidden disability is identifying it. Invisible disabilities are hard to notice and sometimes even harder to diagnose. They can take the form of learning disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD (attention deficit hyper activity disorder). They can come in the shape of clinically diagnosed depression, schizophrenia or anxiety. And they can be internal physical conditions, such as Crohn’s disease or epilepsy. Because they’re not immediately apparent, sufferers are accused of being lazy, or slow, or even of making things up. This perception goes a long way back: Even the Ancient Romans thought someone with epilepsy was cursed by the gods. And high schools today can be equally cruel to students whose disabilities haven’t yet been diagnosed.

Lisa Lebedow, now an accounting student at Selkirk College, says when she was in high school she couldn’t focus and had trouble formulating questions. Although she would later be diagnosed with ADHD, her peers, teachers and parents were all too happy to tell her she was just stupid. “I started cheating in grade six – I would drop a pencil and sneak a peek at other people’s tests. I didn’t know why I couldn’t understand things myself,” she says.

Lebedow remembers how her teachers would display the tests she failed to the rest of her class. Everyone but her would get a good laugh about how the teacher “gave me two points just for writing my name.” She felt ashamed of her difficulties, and tried to avoid drawing attention to them. “I thought I was stupid.”

Freesia Jamin, now an elementary school teacher, faced similar problems, and acknowledges that “elementary school to grade 12 was a struggle.” While she would later be diagnosed with dyslexia and written expression disorder – a condition which makes it difficult for sufferers to write down anything they could otherwise think or say, at the time she was just called “slow.” “I was told I was dumb, that this is who you are, that there are jobs at the local department store for you,” Jamin says.

Formative experiences like those of Lebedow and Jamin hinder those who need accommodations from asking for them, says Michael Bach, director of diversity at KPMG – a Canadian affiliate of KPMG International, providing audit, tax and advisory services. “People don’t want to admit something is wrong with them,” says Bach, who himself was diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – a condition triggered by the shift in available light over the seasons which causes chemical reactions leading to depression. “People thought I was just a depressed little kid,” he says. “When I was growing up, if you had a mental disability, it meant you were lazy.”

The good news is Bach, Jamin and Lebedow have all been able to obtain the accommodations they need. At Selkirk College, Jamin and Lebedow connected with their disabilities services offices, which advocated on their behalf to extend deadlines for tests or assignments. They also helped secure funding for equipment like electronic dictionaries that read and spell words aloud and arranged for note taking and reader services. Referrals and information for counselling and medical services were also provided. Most importantly, they taught the skills and confidence students need to obtain accommodation at school and in the workplace.

“It opens up your entire world when you know you’re not dumb,” says Jamin. “To know that I can do whatever I want, that it might take a bit longer, but I can do it in the end.” Jamin went from struggling in high school to graduating from teacher’s college with a 4.0 grade point average.

“I’m quite proud I can tell people that this is how I learn,” says Lebedow, who is currently in the second year of her program and getting As and Bs on her assignments while also helping her fellow students with their course work.

As for the career prospects of people with disabilities, Bach believes workplaces are becoming increasingly willing to provide accommodation to those who ask for it. Companies that recognize the untapped pool of talent among Canada’s disabled population often have strategies in place to help them. KPMG provides read-aloud software for employees with dyslexia and understands that employees with SAD, like Bach, will sometimes need to work from home. All that’s required is that employees “have the courage to stand up and say ‘I have a disability and I live differently,’” says Bach. He acknowledges there are still companies that aren’t so enlightened, and employees even within KPMG who are still afraid to draw attention to themselves. But he asks: “If a company won’t hire you because you have a disability, would you want to work there anyway?”

As for me, I did eventually find my way to my university’s disability centre. With time, I did start telling my professors “Yeah, I pretty much have to poop a lot, here’s the help I need from you.” I was given extra time for assignments and exams and even dietary consideration at events. I went on to get my degree in journalism. I’m a reporter at the magazine you’re holding in your hands right now. This story is all mine, but that’s not very surprising. Look at Julius Caesar, who was one of those poor cursed Romans with epilepsy. He’s one of history’s greatest generals.