Eight hours is all Megan Lane (C '17) gets in a day to be productive.
Sometimes more, if the Adderall goes through her system slower. Sometimes less.
Studying at night is “a waste of time,” she says. Megan’s Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder keeps her from focusing the appropriate amount of time on learning a new concept or doing homework. Oftentimes, the headaches and fatigue that come with withdrawal from her medication is enough to halt productivity anyway.
“People don’t realize how hard it is to get everything done that you need to get done in a day in eight hours,” she says. “It’s hard to have to respond to emails, find subletters, study, get food, do everything you have to do in one day in only eight hours.”
While playing a game of catch–up to meet Penn’s standards, students with learning and developmental disabilities face stigma, skepticism and obstacles in acquiring appropriate accommodations. Students with disabilities are perhaps the hardest workers at Penn, putting in twice the effort just to reach the baseline.
Every Leap Day, Daniella Cass (C '19) receives a card from her parents. It marks the anniversary of the day Daniella began to speak again after stopping as a baby.
16 years ago, Daniella was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Doctors told her parents she may never be able to speak again. Even if she did, they listed all the things she wouldn’t be able to do: socialize, attend a regular school, live on her own, make friends. Daniella surpassed these limits.
“Even when people say like, ‘I never would have guessed,’ I honestly am never sure whether to take that as a compliment or not,” Daniella says.
She recalls a time in class last semester where the students were reading a passage where a character was arrogantly listing their accomplishments. “And somebody sitting behind me was just like, ‘That sounds like it was written by an autistic person,’ “ Daniella remembers. “I turned around and I gave him what I thought was like a death stare.”
Daniella says a major misconception about autism is “that there’s some sort of way autistic people have to be. Because people forget that it’s a spectrum.”
The same is true of other disabilities. Olivia* (E '18), who was diagnosed with both ADHD and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, says her behavior does not align with many of the stereotypes of either disorder. She’s neither meticulously tidy nor constantly energetic. “It looks different in different people,” she says. “The things you can’t see—just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”
While Olivia never quite fit the bouncing–off–the–walls archetype of a person with ADHD, her brother, “is like the ADHD poster child,” she says. So her parents didn’t really buy the idea that their well–mannered, high–achieving daughter could also have the disorder.
But in 10th grade, Olivia hit a wall.
“I would take notes and stuff and then I would go to study and I would remember none of the things that I had seen,” she says. “It was as if I had never seen any of the stuff before and now I was looking at an insurmountable wall of text that now somehow I needed to force into my brain.”
It wasn’t until she started seeing a doctor for her potential OCD that she was recommended for testing for ADHD.
Olivia saw her grades shoot up from the point of her diagnosis but also noticed the skepticism she received from peers, who knew she now received extended time on exams.
At Penn, Olivia chooses not to use her extended time accommodation. A computer science major, Olivia finds she can get by without it in classes that don’t require pure memory recall.
But the process of setting up elongated exam times through Student Disabilities Services is also a deterrent.
“I feel like I have so many things to deal with in my life and I don’t want to make that another thing,” Olivia says. SDS encourages students to schedule their exams with the Weingarten Learning Center at the very beginning of the semester. But even when tests are scheduled in advance, last minute changes can cause additional stress. For students with disabilities, taking and scheduling exams requires much more forethought than just cramming the night before.
Megan, who takes advantage of her accommodation of 1.5 times the length of her exams, says she’s showed up to exam rooms only to find that her test has moved location. She’s learned to show up at least 30 minutes before the scheduled time.
Still, students may lack necessary information in these alternate settings. A student in Megan’s physics class told her, just before the final, that the teacher announced during the first exam that students could use calculators. That information never made it back to Megan.
Receiving accommodations in the classroom is not as simple as getting someone to sign off on a sheet of paper. It can often involve expensive testing and pushback from professors.
The number of students reporting disabilities to SDS has increased significantly over the past five years. In 2011, three students identified as on the Autism Spectrum, 205 identified with ADHD and 263 identified with a learning disability. In 2015, nine reported autism, 349 ADHD and 308 a learning disability.
Prior to secondary education, Jesselson Director of SDS Susan Shapiro explains, curricula can be altered to meet students’ needs—accommodations are treated as an entitlement under the law from kindergarten through 12th grade. At Penn, however, the aim is mainly to protect students from discrimination, limiting SDS’ power in the classroom.
Students who have received accommodations throughout their schooling are sometimes greeted with frustration upon learning they may not extend to college. Chloe Nurik (C '17) experienced this stress her first semester while waiting for approval for a foreign language substitution. Chloe’s ADHD and a verbal and nonverbal learning disability prevents her from being able to properly process foreign languages. She now takes four classes in place of her language requirement—none of which can count toward a major.
“We really tell the students go out and talk to the faculty yourself and my experience has been usually that’s kind of the best approach,” Learning Disabilities Consultant at SDS Pam Balkovec says. “And really kind of empower that student to be an advocate for themselves.”
But while SDS encourages self–advocacy, students say not all professors are sympathetic. Megan notes that while there is the occasional professor who will go out of their way to provide her with good testing conditions, about a quarter of them will give her a hard time. When this happens, she’s frustrated by what she sees as SDS’ unwillingness to intervene, and worries that the professor’s frustration could be reflected in her grades. Megan’s disability prevents her from being an anonymous student in a lecture and forces her to ask more of her professors.
Anthony Rostain, a professor of psychiatry and the co–chair of Penn’s Mental Health Task Force, recognizes the scrutiny disabled students face.
“The two sources of stigma at the university are either your peers or your professors who don’t buy in,” Rostain says. “They think you’re making an excuse. Really? You really need extended time? Sure. So there’s a lot of work to be done.”
But even when professors think they are being accommodating, they still may not meet student’s needs. Megan recalls a teacher who asked that all students who needed accommodations come up to the front of the room after class to talk to him.
“I was like oh my God, you definitely can’t do that. You definitely can’t point us all out,” she says. “Because I knew of like five other people in that class [with disabilities] and no one stood up. Like we would rather get a bad grade I guess than have people be like oh my gosh, you get accommodations? Do you need Adderall? Can I buy Adderall from you?”
Ask Olivia if you can buy some of her Adderall, but don’t expect a warm response. “That’s absurd,” she says. “Every pill I gave someone else would be a day that I couldn’t function.”
Olivia, along with Chloe and Megan, believe the prevalence of stimulants like Adderall for studying and recreational use dilute its necessity for those who actually rely on it for medical reasons.
“The interesting thing about a drug like that is that it impacts everyone as opposed to other medication that only works if you have the disease. But Adderall works on everyone,” Chloe says. “So when so many people take it that don’t need it then other people think that no one needs it and it’s just like this extra drug.”
But Adderall isn’t a total fix, let alone an advantage, for those with ADHD.
“People think similarly if you take Adderall now that’s all. Now you’re fine, and now you’re completely with everyone else,” Olivia says. She takes issue with the idea that her disability could be curable, especially since it took her so long to find the proper balance of medications. She also thinks it’s an unfair evaluation of a perceived advantage.
“People develop study habits their entire lives,” Olivia says. “They have their entire lives to figure out how to learn things. And I went my entire life not understanding why I couldn’t do what everyone else did. And now [I] am in this difficult academic environment having half the life experience that people do with work ethic and study habits.”
Megan described the negative side effects she experiences every day from the drug. While the nausea and rapid heart rate she experienced when first starting her regimen has gone away, headaches, hunger and a skewed sleeping schedule are constants in her life because of Adderall.
Students with disabilities say their conditions have expanded their horizons in some aspects, rather than limiting them.
“It’s just made me who I am basically,” Daniella says. “It’s allowed me to access more of my brain. It’s given me this interesting outlook on life.”
David Mandell, director of Penn’s Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research, says it’s important to put the experience of students with disabilities at Penn into perspective.
“One of the things about being at a place like Penn, is that when we’re talking about learning disabilities or developmental disorders, what you see is so far to one end of the spectrum,” he says. “Regardless of what impairments you bring to the table, regardless of what barriers people threw in your way, you overcame them and did really really well.”
*Names have been changed.
Lauren Feiner is a junior in the College studying Communications, Creative Writing and Political Science . She is the Editor–in–Chief of the DP.