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Ableism in the Tufts Administration

Opinion | October 10, 2016

Content Warning: suicidal thoughts

I was crying in Harvard Yard. I felt hopeless, helpless, and tired of being alive. I didn’t want to hurt myself, but I was afraid of what might happen if and when my thoughts overwhelmed my body. A friend held my hand as I told her I needed to go to the hospital. She told me I was strong.

Lying in the emergency room bed, I finally felt safe. I had spent the last three weeks afraid to drive my car, afraid to take a bike ride, afraid to sleep alone. Choosing to admit myself to the hospital is the bravest thing I’ve ever done. The person sitting in Harvard Yard was a hollow shell of Brianna. The moment I asked for help was the moment I felt myself returning. Through a crack in the curtains of my depression I could see my strength, my courage, my resilience.

I spent two weeks in a short term psychiatric unit, anxious about my return to school. I was afraid that the intense academic environment and focus on productivity at Tufts would send me spiraling back downwards.

Tufts does not know about my hospitalization because it occurred during the summer. Students who are hospitalized during the semester and must take a medical leave of absence are in a much more difficult situation when attempting to return to Tufts. In addition, mentally ill students, regardless of whether or not they have been hospitalized, are not given academic part-time status as an option for accommodation. While an option for reduced course load does exist, it is insufficiently publicized and not encouraged by the administration for mentally ill students.

The root of these problems is that Tufts is a business. Mentally ill students are a liability to the University, and their needs are a threat to its prestige. Although I do believe individual administrators care about Tufts students, the administration as a whole prioritizes itself over our wellbeing. Ableism is discrimination against people with physical and mental disabilities, and Tufts discriminates against mentally ill students by offering insufficient accommodations.

Accommodations such as part-time status are not offered because as an elite academic institution, Tufts has a vested interest in its reputation. After my hospitalization, I decided that returning to Tufts and taking a full course load would not be a healthy decision. Tufts offers part-time status, but it is not accessible to the vast majority of the student population. According to the Tufts website, only students who complete the “residence requirement of eight semesters of full-time study” can enroll part-time. In practice, this means that part-time status is only an option for students who are seniors.

This came as a surprise to me. I thought Tufts offered part-time status for all its students. But part-time students are not good for percentages: accommodating part-time students would mean that Tufts would have a lower percentage of students graduating in four years.

The desire of the Tufts administration to have an impressive percentage of students graduating in four years is understandable, but it uniquely discriminates against mentally ill students like myself who might benefit from part-time status as an accommodation.

Not all mentally ill students are the same: not all of us want or need to attend school part-time. But I believe part-time status would be valuable, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment. Part-time status would serve as both a long-term solution for students like me, and a short-term solution for students returning from hospitalization who need to focus on their recovery and transition back to Tufts.

As a consolation prize, Tufts does offer a reduced course load (RCL) option. I am actually taking a RCL this semester because I was recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Kirsten Behling, the director of Tufts Students Accessibility Services, said that a RCL would be reviewed and granted for mentally ill students “if the student’s disability at that point in time warrants RCL as an accommodation.”

But RCL is not well publicized as an option. I only learned about RCL after I did some serious digging on the Tufts website. I am the only person I know currently on RCL. In addition, the supposed availability of RCL does not negate the need for part-time status. Acquiring RCL requires a lengthy petition and doctor’s note. Part-time status would be more accessible, normalized, and institutionalized.

In addition to the issues of part-time status and RCL, there is also the issue of re-entry to Tufts after medical leaves of absence. The Tufts Medical Leave Committee decides whether a student is ready to return to Tufts—once again, the Tufts administration adopts an ableist mindset that strips students of their dignity and agency in determining what is right for their own mind and body.

One student, Maya*, who is currently on a medical leave of absence, did not realize she was signing away her right to return to Tufts this fall. She spoke with her dean over the phone while in the hospital, but she was on “heavily sedating and disorienting medication,” and had “only fuzzy memories of conservations with the dean.” She did “not remember agreeing to take a medical leave for the fall semester.”

Another student, Sarah*, also expressed her frustration with the medical leave of absence process. “I could tell that they cared about my well-being, but I could also tell they cared about Tufts’ well-being. With a mental health challenge, I felt I was a liability for Tufts, and it was clear that they were afraid of letting me remain on campus,” she said.

Sarah and Maya petitioned for re-entry to Tufts for the Fall semester. Both of their petitions were denied. “I was very upset at the news because, feeling generally disempowered in my life, I had zero agency,” Sarah said.

After Maya received psychiatric treatment and felt ready to return to Tufts in the fall, her re-entry petition was also denied. She said, “I am so frustrated with the re-entry process because you have to prove that you’re very ready, basically ‘cured.’ But anyone with mental health struggles knows that you’re never ‘all better.’”

Tufts is actively excluding mentally ill students from this academic community. In an ideal world, both Maya and Sarah would be on campus right now, studying part-time while dealing with the emotional transition of coming back to campus after a psychiatric hospitalization. In the world we live in, their re-entry petitions were denied and there is no option for part-time status.

This is not a nebulous problem. There are concrete steps this University can take to improve the quality of life for myself, Sarah, Maya, and other mentally ill students on campus. Tufts, offer part-time status. Prioritize your students over your percentage numbers. Give students more agency in determining what happens after medical leaves of absence. We are not liabilities—we are dynamic, thriving members of this community.

If only more of us felt like we could speak out. If only we felt like we didn’t have to be anonymous to be safe. I wrote this article because I am tired of the way the Tufts administration fails to accommodate my friends and peers who suffer from the same challenges that I do. I want students struggling with mental illness to know that they are not alone. Your outrage, sadness or frustration at the way you are treated will not go unnoticed. I think about you every day. I hear you. And now, the Tufts administration will hear me.