When it comes to students with disabilities, Swarthmore falls far short in offering resources and support.
That, at least, has been my experience. I entered Swarthmore last year as a pretty healthy guy with the normal basket of anxieties and enthusiasms. I was excited about developing friendships with people who wouldn’t let me get away with unexamined opinions, yet intimidated by Swarthmore’s rigorous academics. While the gap year I took before coming to Swarthmore gave me a quiet confidence about navigating residential life, I still feared the culinary wrath of Sharples.
These concerns were largely dissolved about six weeks into my first year, as a pain condition caused by musculoskeletal problems abruptly emerged from nowhere.
Take a time you have felt ill, perhaps you had the flu or a broken hand. Imagine that it dragged on and on, for weeks and months. Then add in the lifestyle of Swarthmore. You walk past carefree frisbee throwers as you trudge to Sharples, try to concentrate through demanding seminars, vainly impress inauthentic smiles upon your dinner company. Next add multiple weekly physical therapy and acupuncture appointments you have to drive ten, twenty, or forty miles to get to. Finally subtract most of the friendships you’ve made in the first weeks and months of your time here.
At first, it feels like some ugly appendage suckered onto your body. But after the calendar starts flipping, and September turns to March, the pain blossoms from physicality and into identification. Your ambition, optimism, idealism, love for the outdoors, and big ideas withers. Your hopes and personality simplifies to the level of a grotesque caricature.
I realize that this is a depressing portrait, but I think it’s important for people in our community to recognize that chronic pain—and other medical conditions—have a significant role on campus. Being sick is still stigmatized. Even if it wasn’t, sufferers are still often unable to advocate for themselves. As a result, the profile of pain on campus is nearly nonexistent. I don’t think I have heard of a single campus lecture on the topic of disability, nor do I think I’ve heard a single student initiate a conversation on the marginalization created by disability. Issues of class, race, and gender are rightfully some of the staples of a Swarthmore dinner conversation. But pain is like a tree that falls and no one hears. As the trope goes, does that mean it doesn’t exist?
While discourse is validating in and of itself, its absence has real reverberations. My PE instructor insinuated in an email that I may have been skipping his classes for reasons other than illness. He reported me to a dean when I sent a firmly worded response. Another professor rebuked me in an email, writing “Classes take priority over extracurricular activities,” when I asked if I could change sections in an introductory class to avoid conflict with doctor’s appointments. A member of the administration literally raised her voice at me when I insisted that I would need a car on campus to get to my doctor’s appointments. She maintained that Swarthmore had very few available parking spaces and I agreed to the consequences of that when I enrolled.
The lack of campus awareness of students with illness has created an atmosphere where this behavior is permitted. While the majority of my interactions with my professors have been positive, I’d still like to see enhanced faculty awareness training and administration-sponsored lectures on illness. The creation of a student support and awareness group could even further combat the invisibility of chronic pain.
I think the lack of visibility has percolated into policy. Take the PE requirement. This might come as a surprise, but every student has to fulfill the full PE requirement. If you’re wheelchair bound or, like I did, face chronic pain, the physical education department is willing to work with you to modify the requirement. But that almost seems besides the point.
Generalized physical education is practically irrelevant to someone who has specific health needs. It even has the potential to exacerbate health problems, as my PE class did before I withdrew from it. PE is a big expense of energy for students whose vigor is already constrained. Isn’t the responsibility of balancing illness, which in my case entailed hours of work every day, with demanding academics a challenge enough?
I’d also like to see a formalized role for social support and mentorship in the administration for students with pain conditions. A.L. Chen ’18, another student fighting pain conditions, noted that she was able to find faculty who supported her, but only on an ad hoc basis. There isn’t any designated person to go to for practical tips or coping skills.
At this juncture, I am skeptical that I can enact meaningful change by myself. I want people to reach out to me with their experiences and thoughts. If you are having trouble coping with illness, if you have had a serious illness in the past, or if you just think pain is an issue worth discussing, it would be great to hear from you.
Inevitably, people will suffer from chronic pain at Swarthmore. I hope we can make the journey easier for them.
You can contact Max at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image courtesy of Colin Kerrigan.
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