An invisible disability may not be obvious to others. Examples of invisible disabilities include chronic pain, autism, dyslexia and mental health disorders. Even though they might not be immediately apparent to others, these can significantly impact a person’s daily life.

The Honors Advocacy Council (HAC) held an event, “A History of Disabilities in College,” on April 12 to raise awareness of invisible disabilities. It showcased accommodative services on campus while encouraging people to be empathetic toward individuals with disabilities within the NAU community. 

Corina Roche-Baron was the main speaker and is a full-time lecturer in the English department at NAU. She was asked to speak to share her experience as someone with an invisible disability. Roche-Baron has Hashimoto's thyroiditis, which is an autoimmune disease. 

Roche-Baron said she struggled the most when she taught during the pandemic. Faculty at NAU had to come in person to the classroom every day while students attended via Zoom. She said it was difficult coming to work while having an autoimmune disease during the pandemic because of the higher risk of severe symptoms. She continued to wear a mask after the end of the mandate to protect her health. 

The phrase “Be your own mom” has become her motto, Roche-Baron said, and she has also found it important to know when she needs to take a day off. 

“You have to advocate for yourself,” Roche-Baron said. “If one doctor won’t listen to you, I recommend you go find another one. I have to be diligent and listen to myself.”

Receiving accommodations as a student with disabilities can be a long process that requires patience, Roche-Baron said, and putting in the paperwork does not guarantee students will get the help they need right away. She said a student of hers submitted accommodation paperwork at the beginning of the semester, yet they did not receive their needed accommodations until the end of the semester. 

She said communicating her needs with her husband and friends can help when she is not feeling well. People can also help, Roche-Baron said, by advocating for those with disabilities because it can be scary to do it all themselves.

“Understanding and not being judgmental is the number one thing I need from people, because I judge myself harshly enough,” Roche-Baron said.

Freshman Elise Baldemore is a member of HAC and also spoke at the event on Wednesday. She said the club develops solutions for problems faced by those with disabilities and makes them feel secure and valued in their community — they strive for equity, inclusiveness and diversity. 

Baldemore has polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Living with these disabilities, she said it can be difficult to go to class or take a five-minute walk, but she is glad to have the support of her friends. 

“I am very thankful because I do have friends on campus who are very supportive of me,” Baldemore said. “They are very understanding of me not being able to have energy most days.”

She said many people do not think about accommodations for students with invisible disabilities. People with physical disabilities often use accommodations like walkers or wheelchairs. Accommodations for people with invisible disabilities, however, are often less noticeable.

One accommodation available at NAU is modified attendance. Students with disabilities can take under 12 credits and still be considered full-time students.

“Even though 12 [credits] is a typical full-time student, for someone who is struggling, it can feel like more than that which is why they make this accommodation,” Baldemore said.

Extensions can be provided for students with disabilities, Baldemore said, because it can be more difficult for students with disabilities to balance school work with other activities. It might take more time and effort for a disabled individual to complete an assignment than for a non-disabled student.

Another speaker from the event was freshman Artemis Jones, a member of HAC. She also talked about the importance of having support systems. Jones said she has two invisible disabilities, which can make everyday life difficult. She said there are not many physical things people can do for those with invisible disabilities, but being there can be enough.

“It is about supporting the people around you, especially if they are struggling a lot,” Jones said. “You can’t wave a magic wand and fix them, but you can be there as a shoulder for them to lean on.”

NAU also provides students with devices for hearing assistance like communication access real-time translation and FM systems. Jones said she uses FM systems to help lower background noise in class and understand professors better. However, this form of auditory assistance does not work for deaf students, who may require a translator or transcriber.

Jones said there is also assistance provided for disabled students while in class. Students have the option to have someone accompany them to class and assist with tasks like taking notes and helping with technical labs.

“It helps bridge that gap, to help you learn the full lesson and understand everything going on despite the handicap,” Jones said. “It helps bridge the gap between the students and the teacher, especially in large classrooms.”

When it comes to the classroom, the traditional learning styles used are designed for students without disabilities. There is a common misconception that accommodations give students with disabilities an unfair advantage in their coursework. However, accommodations work to make opportunities in the classroom equal. Students with disabilities, visible or invisible, are often excluded in class settings. For example, students with hearing loss who need interpreters might get left out of class discussions. 

Senior Sedona Stewart is another student at NAU with invisible disabilities. Stewart said NAU's Flagstaff Mountain Campus is “notoriously inaccessible” for those with disabilities. 

She has an auditory processing disorder, autism, chronic pain and an autonomic nervous system disorder. The autonomic nervous system controls everything in the body that operates on its own, including digestion, heart rate, breathing, blinking and blood pressure. Stewart’s autonomic nervous system does not function properly, meaning her nerves can not regulate her necessary body functions. 

Last semester, Stewart attended a class at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences West when a fire alarm went off. Her chronic pain stops her from using the stairs, but fire drills prevent people from using elevators. She said making things more accessible would not only benefit her, but everyone else on campus. 

Sometimes, Stewart said, she walks with her cane, and sometimes without, although she chooses to use it most of the time because of the different ways people treat her. 

“Most of the time, I walk with a cane because it is a visual for other people,” Stewart said. “Because I am treated so much better if my disability is visible, which is not fair.”

Stewart has had issues with campus transportation not stopping for her, and she said when waiting at bus stops with her cane, only half of the buses would stop for her. If she did not get picked up, Stewart said she would have to wait until another bus came for her.

In class, Stewart said she has struggled to get accommodations from professors. Some professors have made her write out all her needed accommodations, she said, but they are not very flexible. The biggest obstacle for Stewart is the required attendance policy for all her classes.

“I do not get to choose when I feel good and have availability to go to class,” Stewart said. 

She said professors should have more awareness of their students with disabilities. Stewart misses opportunities to complete in-class assignments because she can not get absences excused. She said sometimes her disabilities cause her to have many unexcused absences because she is unable to get out of bed.

There are limited clubs and support groups at NAU and around Flagstaff for people with invisible disabilities, but Stewart said she wants a place for these students to connect. Invisible disabilities can be responsible for a large amount of distress. Anyone can help by being mindful of accommodations and helping with things that were not created with people who live with disabilities in mind.

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