A Private Experience
by Emily Gordon
When I was younger, my father used to say that “education is a private experience.” At the core of my personal educational experience is self-advocacy. The obstacles I have faced over the years make it so. I have worked tremendously hard to get to where I am in life, and faced significant adversity over the course of my graduate school experience. The ableism and lack of understanding of learning differences I faced from the internship department in particular is shocking and disappointing, especially coming from an institution that prides itself on principles of inclusion and social justice.
As a Master’s in Social Work student, I was required to do an internship. For my second year, the internship department gave me a placement where I was originally very excited to work. The placement instructor, knew that I had a learning disability and a hearing loss because I casually disclosed that information. As a student, I know that I need structure and guidance, especially when I’m not in a traditional classroom environment. Early on, I could tell that my instructor’s own responsibilities would make it impossible to accommodate my learning needs, and so I left my internship after several days.
On my last day, I had a meeting with the instructor and my advisor (who I had just met). My advisor, who knew nothing about me, said that my issues (needing more structure and guidance, having anxiety and trouble acclimating) were typically not issues that she encounters with second-year students. I explained to her that I need certain accommodations because of my learning disability, and she casually said that “the school should have sent in disability documentation.” Both of them said that I should not feel bad or be hard on myself. The instructor even said that it would not be fair to me.
A week and a half later, I met with the internship directors to explain my side of the situation. In short, they said that the disability office is not allowed to disclose information about students, contrary to what my advisor said. To me, this showed disorganization and lack of communication on the school’s behalf.
I received an email a week after that meeting saying that the directors requested an educational review meeting. I knew nothing about educational review meetings, so I did some research. The student handbook said that educational review meetings handle students who are having “serious problems” at their internships, which was ironic to me because frankly, I didn’t even have an internship. I was still anxious about finding a new internship and having to make up my hours.
Sitting through this meeting made me feel like I was on trial for a crime that I did not commit. Prior to the meeting, I saw that the director wrote that “I cannot understand how my behavior affects others from their point of view.” It hurt to read that. It stands contrary to the fact that people who know me, know me for my empathy. I was furious to read language like “cannot” or “unable” when describing students, especially based on their limited interactions with me.
The outcome of the meeting was that I should go to the disability center and create a list of accommodations for my internship. I was extremely grateful to the disability center for advocating for me. It was difficult for me to operationalize exactly what I needed, which is common in individuals with learning disabilities. However, the internship department was very quick to stigmatize me, both for struggling to describe what my needs would be and for needing accommodations. (My “accommodations” included clear guidelines, step-by-step instructions, repetition if needed, and meeting with me regularly, which frankly, are things an instructor should be doing anyway).
The way I was treated by the school amplified my pre-existing anxiety, depression, and self-worth issues. I am continuing to recover from that damage, and it includes reminding myself that their actions--or failure to take action, in some cases--are in no way a reflection of me as a professional. I am an individual with a story and a path of my own. I remind myself that I am not an anomaly. I am not an inadequately performing student because of my learning needs. My learning disabilities are what drove me to the social work field in the first place, so I could work with students with learning disabilities, both in a school setting and through advocacy work.
I am grateful to the disabilities office and all those who supported me in school. In my moments of self-doubt, I have relied on those who have unconditionally supported me. They remind me of how far I’ve come and what I’m continuing to do in life. I know that my struggles have shaped who I am and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to tell my story, with the hope that it’ll help someone else. Being an individual with a learning disability is something that I will carry for the rest of my life. It will drive me to fight for my students to receive the support and understanding that they deserve.