Navigating the Educational System with Chronic Illness or Disability

Navigating the Educational System with Chronic Illness or Disability

Canadian students can have difficulty navigating today’s educational systems.  Globalization has rapidly increased in recent years, resulting in a faster paced society; one driven by consumption, relentless productivity, and a hunger for external validation.  There is pressure for students to excel in school, obtain high-paying careers, take care of their families, and accumulate wealth.  But these goals are unattainable for many—for those struggling with the added challenge of living with a chronic illness and/or disability, they are increasingly being left behind.

A 2017 report by the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC), “Left Out: The treatment of persons with disabilities in Canada’s educational system,” states that for Canadians with disabilities, quality of education is much lower than the rest of the population, with even more alarming numbers on Indigenous reserves.

Marie-Claude Landry, Chief Commissioner of the CHRC states, “Education is supposed to open doors for people, not shut them out.  How can we expect persons with disabilities to thrive and succeed in our workforce if we don’t first give them the quality of education they are entitled to?”

The report reveals that “[i]t is generally accepted that education is a powerful influence on a person’s income level and economic well-being and is also a key determinant of one’s physical health.”  Higher education often amounts to increased access to better employment.

A 2012 Canadian Survey on Disability states that more than 40% of Canadians reported that their disability influenced their choice of career.  35% take fewer courses, 37.4% study part-time, and 11% have had to put aside their educational dreams because of disability.  In addition, 35% report exclusion at school because of their disability as well.

I am currently an Athabasca student.  Although I have struggled with my health for the past four years, I did not define myself as chronically ill until last year, when my entire body began to fail.  A lifetime of internalized ableism convinced me that asking for support was shameful; this has been difficult to unpack.

My life now revolves around juggling a full-time roster of specialists and doctors’ appointments, blood tests, MRIs, and a complex pill schedule.  I also work a part-time job, while studying part-time as well.  Nothing brings me more joy than receiving my newest shipment of books from Athabasca.  If this were not an option, I would not be able to continue my education.  Schoolwork is often an escape from the horrific reality of what some days bring.

Chronically ill and/or disabled students struggle to maintain a sense of normalcy in a society that values productivity and accomplishments above all else.  Attending class in a traditional classroom setting is unfortunately, not an option for me, as well as thousands of others across Canada and the world.  Yet all our experiences are incredibly diverse; my voice is simply one of many.  It is schools like Athabasca University, and other non-traditional paths to education, that open a world of opportunities for those of us who are chronically ill, disabled, living in remote areas, working two jobs, supporting families, and trying to survive this unforgiving world.

This summer, I travelled to Ukraine for medical treatment.  At the time, I was enrolled in two AU courses; if I had been attending classes in a traditional classroom setting, I would have become one of the 11% who has had to put their dreams aside.  Being an AU student allowed me to continue my courses uninterrupted while I was in and out of the hospital each day.  I completed my assignments during these three months in a variety of villages, family members’ homes, hostels, trains, and buses.  I suffered a devastating flare up during my final exam, and AU’s online invigilation system was a lifeline once more.  I wrote my exam from my computer, surrounded by pillows, and was extremely successful.  If I had been forced to write this exam in class, I could not have managed.

One of the hardest lessons was realizing that I was guilty of perpetuating ableism.  Accessibility and rights were not at the forefront of my concerns, because this was not my everyday reality.  Acknowledging this, recognizing my continued privilege, and advocating for myself and others is my goal.  I continue peeling away the layers, discarding parts of myself that equated worth with production and undervalued others in society.  Rest is productive.  Compassion is productive.  Empathy and understanding of others is productive.

Losing the privilege of existing in this world as able-bodied has been a harsh lesson, and one that I will cherish forever, despite the cost.  Speaking up, clearly stating my needs, and taking up space has been a challenge.

In our society, we tend to look at the world in terms of the binary, as opposed to a spectrum, and this applies to abilities.  Existing on the periphery of these divisions, I feel that I do not have claim to either of them, and continue searching for an identity.  Perhaps I will never find one, and this is perfectly valid.  I will continue to meander through life, finding my own way, as is common in the human experience.