Seeking Accessible Education at Stanford

Farah Weheba
Farah Weheba

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In this post, advisor Farah W. shares her personal account seeking reasonable academic accommodations. Her journey started at Stanford University in response to clinical anxiety. By sharing this story, Farah hopes to de-stigmatize mental health struggles. There are resources available to you, and you deserve to thrive. Accessible education at Stanford and similar schools is possible.

Sharing my experience

Mental health and invisible disabilities are so important, but stigmas and fear still circulate about disclosing any struggle. I want to share my experience at Stanford University as a grad student. With the support and accommodations of the Stanford Office of Accessible Education (OAE), I was able to complete a co-terminal degree, leaving Stanford with two degrees in 2014. I’m sharing my personal account to de-stigmatize mental health struggles, whether temporary or chronic. 

I’m also sharing to promote self-advocacy. I want to reassure anyone with a diagnosis that you can succeed– with the proper and reasonable environmental accommodations that you’re entitled to– if you have a clinical need. You can and deserve to shine at your university. You don’t have anything to prove to anyone by waiving your right to these hugely helpful accessible education resources. It’s in your best interest to advocate for yourself, utilize these accommodations, and reduce the impact of obstacles you face in order to thrive. In sharing my experience, I hope to demystify the fears floating around culturally and academically about registering with an accessibility resource on campus. 

As a senior at Stanford…

As a senior at Stanford, I had some epileptic episodes and was required to take an anticonvulsant medication that made me drowsy and unfocused during my early morning lectures. I was also experiencing depression to the level that retaining written information and focusing on completing a written product became– for the first time in my life– challenging and taxing. Anxiety manifested into perfectionism and I couldn’t get assignments completed. Decision paralysis, a common symptom of depression and anxiety, made it nearly impossible for me to prioritize tasks and assignments based on scope or due dates. My executive function as a high-achieving Stanford student felt sabotaged. Things that were once easy were now insurmountable. 

After sleeping through several lectures for a psychology class, I knew I had to seek help. I actually liked the class I was missing- Intro to Perception- about the behavioral and neural visual and auditory systems. As a psychology major, I was geeking out on the material, but felt my attendance and ability to fully engage were being adversely affected by these new neuro-happenings. I felt frustrated, and a bit helpless. The psychology geek in me wanted full participation so badly, that some deep-seated self-advocate inside me impervious to depressive symptoms dragged me out of bed in an oversized sweater to visit the Office of Accessible Education. 

The Office of Accessible Education

There, I talked to a supportive staff member. My advocate listened to what I was going through and let me know I sounded like a candidate to receive some accommodations. 

She asked me to supply a note from my therapist to verify. I did so with ease, and then the next step was to complete a simple Registration Form and submit online on their website. Was the document difficult to complete, written in legalese? No. The office has no vested interest in making the process hard or complicated for students seeking resources rightfully. 

It was simple, and the staff was supportive, not antagonizing. They’re not there to shame you, poke holes in your story, or deny you the rights you deserve. I felt so much better having their support. You’ll also feel like a complete Titan for advocating for being your own hero. 

A world of difference

Everyone’s recommended accommodations look different depending on their specific needs. The OAE composed an accommodation letter for me, and then it was my responsibility to send the letter by email to relevant professors. The letter recommended I receive extra time to complete my written final exams, proctored by a teaching assistant in a quiet room, and receive recorded audio files of my Intro to Perception lectures.

This made a world of difference. Knowing I had ample time to complete tests kept my anxiety quiet enough to allow me to perform. Processing the lectures through auditory instruction helped me retain the material better than I could via reading notes. My grades after the accommodations, versus muddling through with my tough guy act prior, definitely reflected the positive shift. I’m grateful to the Office of Accessible Education, and I’m proud of myself for being able to self-advocate and solution seek even at a low point. I only wish I’d checked them out sooner, so it’s my hope this post will inspire and catalyze action. 

Why do resources like the Office of Accessible Education exist? 

Because students deserve access to the resources they need. Stanford’s position is: “Providing reasonable accommodations allows students with disabilities to have equal access to education and services at the University. Students with disabilities […] meet the same academic and technical standards as their non-disabled peers, using reasonable accommodations.”

What does reasonable accommodation mean? 

Accessible education at Stanford takes a few forms. Stanford’s OAE describes reasonable accommodation as “an adjustment designed to mitigate the impact of a student’s disability without compromising the integrity of an academic course.” For instance, these may include: 

  • Assistive technology
  • Sign language interpreters
  • Instructional strategies
  • Extended time to complete degree, assignments, exams, etc. 

In summary, the Stanford OAE Faculty FAQs spell out the culture of advocacy, confidentiality, and assistance that Stanford’s OAE upholds. Here are a few questions that professors have posed that may answer your questions, too. This content also quotes from the OAE Faculty FAQ website

A student has asked for accommodations. How do I know the student truly has a disability and needs accommodations?

Firstly, you may ask the student to provide you with an Accommodation Letter from the OAE verifying a disability. The student, if registered with the OAE (and after providing documentation that the OAE determines supports the accommodation), receives a letter. The letter details the required accommodations so long as they do not fundamentally alter an essential component of your course. For every student registered with the OAE, the office has a file with documentation of the disability. However, for reasons of confidentiality, the office will not disclose the nature and specifics of the disability to faculty and teaching staff.

Am I required to provide exam accommodations to students who request it?

Yes, if the student’s Accommodation Letter from the OAE sets forth such accommodations.  The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the ADA Amendments Act, protect students with disabilities. In essence, these laws require that qualified students with disabilities must have equal access to an education, including exam accommodations.  

Am I allowed to request disability documentation from the student?

No. Stanford has designated the OAE as the repository of all disability documentation for students with disabilities. Documentation stating and describing a student’s disability is confidential information. Recognize that most students feel very vulnerable in disclosing their accommodation needs to faculty.

While faculty may be able to surmise the condition on the basis of the accommodations, probing for disability information is inappropriate. Ultimately, seeking accessible education at Stanford or any other school should not put the student at risk in any way.

Do I have to keep the student’s disability information confidential?

Yes! Faculty should always keep disability-related information confidential. In fact, for many students with disabilities, disclosure of their disability is a very personal and sensitive matter. You can always contact the student’s assigned OAE staff member if there are any questions, issues, or concerns. Nonetheless, inappropriate disclosure of disability information should not happen.

Concluding Thoughts from Empowerly

If you would like to receive support from an Empowerly counselor while you navigate your education journey, reach out. We are here to help students.

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