A chronic, or long-term, illness is a health condition that lasts longer than three months. Many chronic conditions cannot be cured completely, but they can be managed. These include asthma, bipolar mood disorder, cancer, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, epilepsy, HIV, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and schizophrenia, among many others. Although no two illnesses are alike, managing a chronic illness at home is never easy, and it’s even harder to do so on a college campus, where everything is unfamiliar. However, depending on your situation, it may not be as impossible as you think, especially if you prepare.
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How do I prepare for managing my disability on campus before I arrive?
If you’re about to move to college for the first time, you may be anxious about managing your disability. Fortunately, you can prepare for what’s ahead by getting answers well in advance to every question that you have.
- Where is the nearest doctor? If campus is far from home, seek out a nearby doctor who specializes in your condition. Send a copy of your medical records to them and make an appointment even if your condition is under control at the moment. Building a relationship with the right doctor early on can ensure that you receive the proper care should your condition flare up again.
- What resources does the campus health center offer you? Inform the campus health center about your illness.
- What resources does the student disability center offer you? If your college discriminates against you because of your disability, it is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Many colleges want to accommodate students with chronic illnesses or disabilities, and the student disability center is the main point of contact. What medical records or paperwork do they need from you? How will they advocate for you?
- What is their relationship like with the residential life office? Your condition may require a special housing arrangement. If you need a wheelchair-accessible room or if you need a single, talk to staff about your condition. They are often willing to show you several different options to find the room that is best for you. Work with them as soon as you get accepted into the school, before housing assignments have been given out.
- Do they contact the dean of academic affairs for you? It’s important that your professors know about your condition in case you have to miss class or request an extension. At some schools, students work with their dean, who in turn informs the relevant professors. At other schools, you will need to tell your professors about your condition directly. Ask the student disability center at your school exactly which channels of communication are used. What, if anything, do you need in writing?
- Where is the nearest pharmacy? Is it feasible for you to walk or drive there? If not, does it deliver?
- Is the campus accessible? If your condition limits the amount of time you can be on your feet, consider the school’s campus. Is everything far apart? Are there parking lots by the dorms and the academic buildings? Are there hills or narrow sidewalks that will make things harder on you? Is the campus located in a region that is hit with a lot of storms or snow? Only you know what you can handle.
- How far away is your hometown? If something were to happen to you, are you close enough to home for your parents to come pick you up or visit you? If you feel comfortable being far from your family, make sure you know where to find allies and advocates on campus.
- What about transportation? How do you obtain a handicap parking sticker to use on campus? Will you be assigned your own parking spot?
How can I best advocate for myself once I arrive on campus?
- Inform your friends and roommates about your illness. Some chronic conditions are visible (e.g., you use a wheelchair). Other conditions can be invisible to the naked eye. Either way, share your condition with the people close to you, if you feel comfortable. Not only will it help them understand your needs, but it can help them become advocates, too.
- Meet with your professors. Your professors may have been informed about your condition previously, but it’s important to stop by their office hours or stay after class to make sure they understand your needs. They do not need to know the ins and outs of your condition, but make sure they know how to accommodate you. If your professor does not seem receptive, this is a serious issue and it could be in violation of the ADA. If this happens, see the student disability center immediately.
- Explore other resources. Even when you feel alone, remember that other students have been through similar struggles. You may know someone at your college who shares your same condition. This solidarity is important. If you don’t, you may be able to find it in a support group offered by the campus health center or online. In 2012, the New York Times ran an article about a college junior suffering from Crohn’s disease. Another great resource is Chronic Curve, a blog curated by a college student with a chronic disease.
- Take a break from your studies. If you’ve had your chronic condition for a long time, you know there are some good days and some bad days. If you’ve been tangled in a string of bad days that keep worsening, it’s time to seek treatment. Hopefully, this pain can be treated by your doctor. If not, it may require hospitalization. If your pain is starting to seriously interfere with your studies, you may benefit from taking a break. Know that it’s no fault of your own, but recognize that your health is a priority.
Page last updated: 12/2016