NFTD: Learning to Redefine Disability

By Daleelah Saleh

Sabrina Templeton

I have anxiety and depression. My favorite color is purple (or blue, depending on the day). I’m happiest in libraries, at concerts, on the beach or watching sunsets. I’m passionate about multimedia storytelling and creating positive representation for marginalized communities. Fall is my favorite season (partially because my birthday is in October and partially because of how beautiful the leaves look). I’m a New Yorker and thought I would never survive outside a city, but am learning to love the access to nature that living in a rural setting affords me. I understand rationally that these are all facets of my being, that without any one of them, I would not be the person I am. But I’m still wary about attaching the label of “mentally ill” to myself.

I’ve been grappling with my mental health for most of my life. After my parents divorced, my mom decided it would be healthiest for me and my brother to learn how to process our feelings in therapy. As first and third graders, respectively, we weren’t thrilled by this prospect — especially since we had some therapists we didn’t get along with. In retrospect, I give her major kudos for this: recent studies have found that only about 10% of children see a therapist before they turn 18. 

I was in sixth grade when we found someone we really liked and I have been meeting with her ever since. I’ve also been a proponent of mental health initiatives and in high school I advocated for more accessible mental health resources on a local and state level through the New York Civil Liberties Union. As a student at Midd, I’ve had multiple conversations with peers about mental health, some of them even among the Editorial Board of the Campus.

On a wider level, mental health isn’t the taboo it once was. Whether diagnosed officially or not, many of my friends are open about the ways in which they’ve struggled with their mental health, both on and offline. Over the years, social media accounts dedicated to raising awareness around mental health and promoting resources have become more commonplace. There are varying stats on Gen-Z mental health, but studies agree that more than 2/3 of Gen-Zers are mentally ill in some capacity — a proportion much higher than for previous generations. 

Despite this generally more mental-health savvy culture and all of my own resources — having access to a therapist, having a mom who “got it,” having a Posse mentor and a greater support network on campus, I still fell through the cracks. 

I spent my first semester in college on a schedule fit more for a vampire than an 18-year-old. I’d wake up at 7:30 a.m., spend my morning trying not to fall asleep in classes, get lunch, then go back to my room and pass out until 7, 8, or sometimes 9 p.m.. I would proceed to stay up until anywhere from 2 to 5 a.m., struggling to focus and get my homework done. Rinse and repeat. 

On paper, I had a great first semester. Sure, I was constantly on the verge of a breakdown, but at least my transcript and résumé were strong. 

In retrospect, this feels like an almost superhuman feat. I can’t imagine pulling off the grades and extracurriculars I did, while running on the consistent lack of sleep I had. Maybe it’s because Covid-19 drained me of the capacity to run on nothing but sheer willpower, caffeine and adrenaline. Or maybe it’s because I’ve learned not to push myself past my limits anymore — or at the very least, how to stop prioritizing everyone and everything above myself. 

I don’t think I turned a single assignment in on time that semester. While I had been repeatedly assured that everyone struggled with adjusting to their college course load, this felt outside of the realm of typical transition-period difficulties. People in my hall and in my classes were still somehow able to be up at the same time the sun was, and maintain some sort of a social life.

While I recognized that functioning in a constant state of burnout wasn’t healthy, it was second-nature to me — I didn’t have a blueprint for operating any other way. I graduated from high school with an IB diploma at the cost of my sleep and my sanity. I was privileged to learn how to write strong analytical papers, how to conduct research, how to engage with my course material and the world around me in meaningful and critical ways. But I also adopted a really toxic mindset of prioritizing assignments and grades over my mental and physical health. This mindset transferred over to my time at Middlebury. It’s one that seems to thrive in high-pressure academic environments known for their rigor. 

After multiple FaceTimes with my mom that ended in tears, I was forced to admit to myself that something was wrong, that I was drowning, that I needed help. But asking for help was easier said than done. I worried that admitting I was struggling would be conceding that I didn’t belong at Midd, that I wasn’t capable of handling the workload, that I didn’t deserve to be here. These fears were rooted in imposter syndrome — which is especially common for women of color at predominantly white institutions. 

I eventually reached out to all the resources at my disposal. Soon, my mentors knew I was struggling, my professors knew I was struggling, my dean knew I was struggling, my academic advisor knew I was struggling. They were sympathetic, outlining various avenues of support I could access — but not one of them suggested that I try to get accommodations. Instead, they advised me to go to the Center for Teaching, Learning and Research and work on creating schedules for myself — a method I had already been taught in high school. I was made to feel like it was my fault, like if I just managed my time better and worked more effectively I could stay afloat. 

I was made to feel like it was my fault, like if I just managed my time better and worked more effectively I could stay afloat. ”

While schedules and time-blocking can be helpful, no amount of time-blocking could cure my brain fog. I’d sit and stare at my computer for hours, willing words to appear on the screen, but I couldn’t do it. I spiraled into a vicious cycle where I would get so anxious about something having to be not only good, but perfect, that I would avoid doing it. Then, when the deadline had passed and I was still faced with my blank screen, I felt guilty, which made me more anxious. With fight or flight out of the picture, that left me with a third option: feeling frozen. These are classic symptoms of mental illness, symptoms that, in retrospect, so clearly point to a need for help. 

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with accommodations, it’s that I never thought they applied to me. Being high-functioning means that the struggles I go through because of my mental illnesses exist below the surface. One of my family members has ADHD and he’s had an Individualized Education Program, the pre-collegiate version of accommodations, for many years now. Professors are required to include information about the Disability Resource Center on their syllabi and they often encourage students to reach out for accommodations. I always skipped over this part. My perception of accommodations was that they were for people with learning disorders or physical disabilities, not those struggling with anxiety and depression. You can’t advocate for yourself if you don’t think you deserve help.

You can’t advocate for yourself if you don’t think you deserve help.”

Halfway through my sophomore fall, I discovered that one of my friends was given accommodations because she had panic attacks — something that I also dealt with. This surprised me, not because I didn’t think she deserved them, but because so much of the language surrounding accommodations highlights “disability.” I was forced to redefine disability — not only on a larger scale, but in my own relationship to it. My mental illnesses were so ingrained into my daily life that I overlooked the fact that they were just that: illnesses. More importantly, I overlooked the fact that being neurodivergent meant I had to work harder than my neurotypical peers to complete the same assignments — not because I was any less capable, but because I had to overcome the barriers that come with anxiety and depression in the process. Somewhere along the way, I forgot to be proud of myself for what I’ve been able to accomplish despite having to overcome so much. Instead, I fell into cycles of beating myself up for not meeting my fullest potential. 

The next week, I applied for accommodations. Despite this being a multi-step process, as outlined on the Disability Resource Center website, it was less of an ordeal than I had braced myself for. I had expected to undergo an interrogation of sorts, to prove that I genuinely needed help and wasn’t trying to cheat or find an “easy way out.” I reached out to my therapist beforehand to ensure that she could produce documentation to back up my claims. While this streamlined the process, I later found out that it wasn’t even necessary (despite what the language on the site about documentation suggested), and that students could get assessed through the school. In comparison to these daunting preconceptions, the actual process seemed almost overwhelmingly simple. 

I emailed the Disability Resource Center, set up an appointment with them, and over the course of an hour, explained the ways in which I was struggling and was presented with different solutions in the form of accommodations. Almost immediately after, I received a provisional Letter of Accommodation and got a permanent one after filling out some paperwork and sending documentation from my therapist. 

While I was grateful for how straightforward the process was, and for the lack of red tape around it that I had previously envisioned, I felt bitter (and still do) that it took so long to get there, that I had been so wary about reaching out for help before. There’s an astounding amount of irony in the fact that the site for the office dedicated to accessibility uses official language that is inaccessible to students and doesn’t have clearer guidelines on what qualifies as a “disability” for the sake of acquiring accommodations.  

There’s an astounding amount of irony in the fact that the site for the office dedicated to accessibility uses official language that is inaccessible to students and doesn’t have clearer guidelines on what qualifies as a “disability” for the sake of acquiring accommodations. ”

While I wasn’t told to seek out accommodations my first semester, I was advised to drop a class. This happened again last semester, when I was falling behind on readings and assignments. Both times, I refused. I told myself I could stick it out, despite the sleep and peace of mind I knew it would cost me. 

Even though I was granted the institutional support I so desperately craved two years ago, there’s a sense of shame that continues to hang over me, that exists in tandem with a self-imposed expectation to prove myself: at first, just as a woman of color at Middlebury, but then, as a woman of color who qualified as having a disability. At the beginning of this semester, I was hesitant to send a professor I admired my letter of accommodation, worried it would make him think less of me, that I’d have to work harder to prove I was a “good student.” 

I think this is representative of a wider stigma associated with mental illness, that it is something that is a burden, something to be worked around, something to be “dealt with.” On the flip side of this stigma, I’ve seen discourses that reframe mental illnesses in an overly positive light, even going so far as to call them “superpowers.”   

Neither of these feel right to me. 

My anxiety and depression mean spirals and panic attacks — where it feels like the walls are closing in on me and I can’t catch my breath no matter how hard I try. On good days, though, I can acknowledge that they’re the parts of me that make it easier to empathize with others, to provide a good listening ear and advice if needed. 

The fact that I have mental illnesses is not good or bad, it just is. They’re a part of me just as much as my favorite colors, settings and seasons. But even as I type that sentence, I know that it is something that I’m still coming to terms with. 

The fact that I have mental illnesses is not good or bad, it just is. They’re a part of me just as much as my favorite colors, settings and seasons. But even as I type that sentence, I know that it is something that I’m still coming to terms with. ”

My ability to acquire accommodations was entirely circumstantial, a combination of privilege and luck. If I had never met my friend who had accommodations because of her panic attacks, I’m not sure that it would’ve ever crossed my mind to pursue accommodations for myself. If my mom hadn’t put me in therapy, it might have taken me a lot longer to name the issues I was facing and learn how to cope with them. The list goes on. 

I want to envision a world (or at least a better version of Middlebury) where if you’re struggling, you get the help you need. Not just through individualized support like accommodations, but more structural solutions that allow grace and create room for students to get extensions and similar “aid”— not because a Dean said they should, but because they know themselves best, and they know they need it. 

But that can’t happen until we’re able to have open, honest, vulnerable conversations about the ways in which we are struggling. This, in turn, requires overcoming the shame and guilt associated with not meeting expectations — whether those be your own or those imposed upon you. I hope that this article is a start.