Alexa Sledge is a learning and organizational change major, juggling philosophy and political science minors as well as sorority membership. The SESP sophomore is a fast talker with a pierced nose and a packed schedule. To the casual passerby, there’s no sign Sledge once had a painful parasite in both her arms.
Sledge contracted the rare parasite on a trip to Brazil over winter break, and symptoms started showing on the second day of sorority recruitment. Her swelling arm hurt so much she couldn’t sleep or go to class. She first visited Searle and was told it was a minor infection. However, over the next few months, Sledge checked into hospitals in Evanston, Louisiana and Paris, eventually finding out she had a parasite in both arms. Today she’s fine – lucky to have financial support and medical advice from her parents (who are both doctors). An antibiotic administered in her nose eliminated the parasite.
Poor health from stress and too little sleep seem to be obvious struggles for many Northwestern students, but those with chronic physical conditions have another very significant dimension of life to worry about. Ranging from months-long ordeals like Sledge’s to lifelong illnesses, the challenges of college for these students increase tenfold. For them, AccessibleNU is more than just an obligatory line in the syllabus.
“A lot of people have stuff going on medically or psychiatrically that you just wouldn’t know about by looking at them,” says Sam*, a Communication freshman. “I always knew [that] at the back of my mind, but when it happened to me, it became something like, oh, this is real.”
In the 2015-16 school year, 590 undergraduates used Accessible NU, which is about 7 percent of the student body.
Sam was recently diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, a digestive condition with no known cause or cure. On a normal day, Sam goes to his dance and theater classes without interruption. On a terrible day, he’s out of commission, spending hours in the bathroom, sometimes sleeping a lot, sometimes not at all, losing energy and his appetite. He’ll question whether attending class, knowing that he might not be able to keep it together for an hour and a half.
Life-altering effects of chronic physical conditions go beyond the classroom. Both Sam and Sledge recognized a shift in their social lives (read: partying) because of their bodies’ malfunctions. Drinking while on medications was not an option for Sledge, and alcohol has varying effects on Sam. Fatigue didn’t help either of them stay out until dawn. Sam has felt less confident going on dates, worrying his IBS may present a problem.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, I have a cold, it’s gonna go away and then we can do it then.’ It’s an ongoing thing,” Sam says.
Students with chronic disabilities can navigate life at Northwestern with the help of four major offices: AccessibleNU, NU Health Center (Searle) Student Assistance and Support Services (SASS), and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). AccessibleNU helps students with disabilities obtain academic accommodations ranging from quiet testing rooms to note-taking software. SASS advises students in crisis on how to contact the multiple Northwestern offices that might help them and handles medical leaves of absence through the Dean of Students Office.
However, students don’t always know to utilize these offices. In the 2015-16 school year, 590 undergraduates used Accessible NU, which is about 7 percent of the student body. Meanwhile, in 2013-14, 13 percent of all public school children ages 3 to 21 received special education services – a full 6 percentage points more than Northwestern’s rate.
Senior Associate Dean Mona Dugo says many students don’t contact her office, SASS, until their grades are suffering and they’re in crisis mode. They’re so busy with clubs and the “culture of high achievement” that they don’t make time for self-care or even a break, she says.
the Dean of Students Office granted 136 leaves during the 2015-2016 school year.
Sledge and Sam have not gone as far as seeking a medical leave, which can last one quarter or longer. Sam says he didn’t want to contact AccessibleNU because he didn’t want to need them. Despite the stigma, AccessibleNU Assistant Director Lauren Pourian says she often heard that professors or friends recommended the office to students, and Dugo reports the Dean of Students Office granted 136 leaves during the 2015-2016 school year, slightly more than the average 125.
“People think that a disability is [when] you’re in a wheelchair,” Sam says, describing his realization that health conditions aren’t always visible. “You know, no one looks at me and thinks, ‘God, he spends 10 percent of his day dealing with IBS.’ I hope they don’t.”
*Editor’s note: Name has been changed to protect students’ identity.