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Accommodations As Creativity And Advocacy

Illustration by Ketaki Kulkarni

This is the first article in a series about accommodations. Today, we are focusing on undergraduate students. In the future, we will look at graduate students, faculty, and staff.

On the first day of the spring semester, an animation professor advised me to drop his class and compared my disabled body to another studentʼs unreliable, broken car. I had stayed back after our class to go over my accommodation letter from the Disability Learning Resource Center (DLRC), as I usually do on the first day of a class. As I explained my needs, and the fact that I was very excited and dedicated to being part of this class, he refused to hear me out. He referred to my chronic illness as a “lifestyle,” and the more he talked, the more it felt like he was not just talking about me being able to take his class, but me being able to be an animator, period.

His response was shocking to me. I have never had a professor at School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) leave me feeling humiliated and unworthy of being in their class. I stood in his classroom, trying to find the right set of words to defend myself, to prove myself. Iʼve been an overachiever for my entire school career, not in spite of my disabilities, but because of them. But the truth is, there was no magic set of words that would change this professorʼs mind. He didnʼt want to work with me to find a way for my accommodations to function in his classroom. My body could not fit his standards, and thus I was not welcome to learn from him. But this is not a story about him. He does not define my academic or artistic practice. When I got home that night at 9:30 p.m, the first thing I did was email my advisor at the DLRC, our schoolʼs office and resource center for disabled, neurodivergent, and chronically ill students who require classroom accommodations as well as support.

By the next day, my DLRC advisor was helping me see my options moving forward. She gave me the kindness, time, and support I needed. She promised to help make sure I would get the accommodations I needed if I chose to stay in this class. I was not alone in having to handle this problem. And ultimately, after a long conversation with her, I decided to drop the class. The DLRC gave me a lifeline of institutional support when advocating for myself hit a dead end.

However, many students at SAIC donʼt know what the DLRC does, how it functions, or even who is eligible for accommodations. When I reached out to other disabled and chronically ill students, I learned that many undergraduate students who have accommodations didnʼt receive them until after their freshman year. This was partly because they were unsure of the process or because of delays in getting medical paperwork from their doctors for the school. Some students, however, talked about being embarrassed about needing to ask for help and accommodations.

The Role of the DLRC

The DLRC plays two roles: a legal role and a support role. Valerie St. Germain, the director of the DLRC, explained, “Officially, our role is to ensure that students receive the accommodations theyʼre supposed to receive. I think facultyʼs role, as employees of the institution, is that they are required to provide the accommodations that a student needs. […] So, weʼre fulfilling a role that is, one, a legal requirement, and two, student support and faculty support.”

The Americans with Disability Act of 1990 and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 ensure that students with disabilities cannot be discriminated against. This applies to SAIC because the school is federally funded. All students currently enrolled at SAIC are eligible to receive services from the DLRC, and many actively do. Valerie estimates that about a third of the student body is working with the DLRC in some form. This amount has risen over time, in large part because of the expansion of the legal definition of what a disability is in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, and then because of the increased awareness of disability, mental health struggles, and chronic illness brought by COVID-19 pandemic. Once students reach out to DLRC, they are matched with an advisor. The DLRC facilitates sending out letters of accommodation to studentsʼ instructors at the start of academic semesters. Advisors can help with choosing classes, give thoughts on instructors, and help put accommodations in place. The goal of all of this is not to let students “get out” of doing work, but to give them the support they need to succeed in the classroom and as artists. As Valerie put it, “The main thing is, I want students to be able to attribute their success not to the accommodations [they] got, but to their work, to who they are and what they have done.”

Accommodations in Practice

Iʼve had some form of accommodation for nearly ten years, all the way from fifth grade up through now, my sophomore year of college. The accommodations a 10-year-old needs arenʼt going to be the same as for a 16-year-old or a 19-year-old, and the legal system for accommodations differs from elementary school to middle and high school and finally to college (and graduate)
school. But regardless, accommodations, when handled well, allow chronically ill, disabled, and neurodivergent students to thrive instead of being left behind or left out of classroom spaces.

Still, finding ways to make accommodations work in the classroom isnʼt always simple. As Valerie put it, working to make classroom accommodations work, especially at a fine arts-based college like SAIC, “in a way, [is] kind of a creative process.”

Kyla Robateau (BFA 2025) shared with me: “I think [accommodations] are super important. I struggled a lot my freshman year without any help. It took me a while to get the accommodations. But it makes it less pressure knowing that I can get a bit more time with assignments or that I can leave class if Iʼm feeling overwhelmed or unwell.”

Another student, Tess Vega (BFA 2024), who has a chronic pain condition and an inflammatory condition as well as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), talked about accommodations providing a “safety-net” for her. She explained, “For myself specifically, I feel like I use my accommodations very little. I try not to lean too much on them because I know myself, and I want to keep myself, like, accountable. […] So I try not to use them too much, but when I do, the teachers already have that understanding.”

When professors are willing to work on creative solutions to disability, it allows students to succeed in their classrooms. But when professors treat disabled individuals as a burden, all it does is alienate and harm the student. Some of the best experiences Iʼve had with professors regarding accommodations came when they offered to meet with me early in the semester to organize a plan that will work for both of us. Though sometimes a little awkward at first, these short meetings, which are usually like 10 minutes long at most, make a world of difference.

And then there is the unique and comprehensive approach taken by Bess Williamson, Associate Professor of Art History, Theory, and Criticism. Bessʼs syllabus includes a comprehensive section applying accommodations to her classrooms as a whole, not just for students with DLRC accommodations. Bess explained to me: “I sort of have an ongoing fluctuating relationship to disability myself. But itʼs an area that I think once you get involved, it really shifts your point of view on whatʼs typical and whatʼs normal.” Bess has learned most of her teaching approaches to teaching from a Disability Studies framework.

Bess went on to say, “The way that disability accommodations work in most American universities is this individual accommodation approach, which is that faculty are supposed to teach with their own standards and approaches in the classroom, and then we receive on a case-by-case basis various requests from students. […] Itʼs a microcosm of the way access works.” But her approach is different from this, Bess strives to structure her class with universal design in mind: “The idea that many situations can include the concerns of both disabled and non-disabled people in the same output. And I always want to clarify that I donʼt think universal design is possible in every situation, but I think itʼs a really good baseline principle for asking the question ʻif thereʼs any kind of request for a change in our approach, like, is that a request that could possibly apply more broadly.ʼ ”

Self-Advocacy in Addition to Institutional Support

Whether you grow up disabled or become disabled along the way, you learn to advocate for yourself. Itʼs a means of survival. Advocacy exists as part of the long history of the disability rights movement. And even with the structured institutional support of the DLRC, being your own advocate for your health is important.

J Swain (BFA), a student who works in fiber, takes primarily hybrid online courses because of their disability. And as online options dwindle, Swain has learned to seek out specific professors they know are willing to work with them to allow them to take the class virtually. They explained that “right now, Iʼm having to do all this advocacy because there is not a, like, plan in place for hybrid to be an on-going option. […] But Iʼm taking it one semester at a time.”

The Broader Conversation

It is easy to feel alone as a disabled, neurodivergent, or chronically ill person, and there is a lot of stigma around talking about our bodies, our experiences, and even, yes, our accommodations.

Mae Lyne (BFAW 2025), a student at SAIC who was diagnosed at age four with autism, shared that “recently, like, Iʼve found, like, communities. Thereʼs like a local punk community — Iʼm in a band and all of us are like autistic and ADHD. So, itʼs like, I feel more comfortable with my diagnosis than I used to. […] Nobody understands autistics like autistics, you know what I mean?”

Maeʼs words come back to me as I think about my own experiences. For the two years I have been at SAIC, I have felt very shy about sharing the number of courses I take each semester. I, typically, can only handle taking about 12 credits, or four classes, a semester. And Iʼd believed that this was unusual because I saw so many of my peers taking 15 credit hours. But while researching this article, I heard from many fellow students with accommodations who, often after a year or semester of trying to take 15 credits, realized that wasnʼt healthy for their bodies and went down to 12 or even nine credit hours instead. And for those of you who didnʼt know, yes, there is an accommodation that allows you to take 9 credit hours and still be considered a full-time student. There is no shame in the number of courses you take each semester. There is no shame in needing to do what is best for your body.

Our disabled bodies belong here as much as the bodies of our abled-bodied peers. Accommodations give us back the space that otherwise would not be accessible. Disabled artists have always existed, so have disabled students, but they havenʼt always been seen or heard. Having more conversations about disability as a school and artistic community, will make asking for help and existing within the needs of your own body less of a shameful, stigmatized, or anxiety-inducing task.

I donʼt know what would have happened if I had stayed in that animation teacherʼs class. And frankly, I donʼt want to know. I will not be stuck in a moment of isolation and humiliation. Instead, I choose to prioritize fostering community with other disabled artists and animators, and I will keep pushing, supporting and advocating for teachers who make time and space for their disabled students.

By Sidne K. Gard
Source F Newsmagazine



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