The office of Disability Support Services (DSS) at the University of Washington Tacoma extension campus considered my anaphylactic airborne reaction to peanuts to be so serious that it was documented disability. I didn’t have to eat or even touch peanuts for my throat to start closing up; my life would be in danger if a classmate so much as ate a peanut-y treat during lecture. This meant going to school was risky—very risky. And I knew that better than anyone. But I thought I had support.
Despite the risks, I didn’t ask the University of Washington to ban peanuts from the campus or require all of the security staff to be trained on how to use an Epi-Pen (although, both would have made me much safer). Instead, I worked with the DSS office to figure out what my reasonable accommodations were: visible “peanut-free” signs on my classroom doors to remind students, teachers would be contacted by DSS so they’d know to enforce the policy, and an email was sent out at the beginning of each quarter alerting everyone who’d be in my classrooms that quarter not to eat peanuts in those rooms.
The game plan wasn’t perfect, and I knew my “peanut-free” signs wouldn’t truly prevent a rule-breaker from eating their Reese’s snack in my classroom. Because the university is an urban campus (right in the heart of the fun, artsy section of the city), it doesn’t have a cafeteria, so people eat pretty much everywhere. This is dangerous for me. There also aren’t rules about eating in classrooms. Extra dangerous. While my accommodations may not have been perfect, having support from my university made the difference between whether or not I could attend the school.
Food in the Library
This quarter (Spring 2013) the food policy in the library buildings changed to allow food, so it became very challenging for me to find anywhere relatively safe to study, work on a group project, or eat my own lunch. And I’d completely lost access to the tutoring center, computers and printers in the library and the books (how do you go to college and not have access to the books?). I was told the policy was just a “pilot program”; something that could be changed if the library received enough complaints. So I tried to alert people in charge at the library to the fact that I was experiencing an access issue, and also a safety issue, to due to my disability.
The director in charge of the library was concerned, contacted the DSS office, and decided to return to the original food policy—no food in the library buildings. The school Chancellor (the school president, the woman in charge) then got involved, and told the library that they wouldn’t be changing the policy back; the “pilot” was now the rule.
This left me without anywhere relatively safe to study on campus. And I still couldn’t access the library tutors, librarians, computers and printers, or the books.
And Then Everything Got Worse
At this same time, and of course right at midterms, the Chancellor also took away my official disability accommodations. Completely. No signs, no support, nothing.
Due to the signage, the DSS office was told that my disability was a “facility issue” now because it impacted the building and, therefore, was no longer under their jurisdiction. Despite still having a life-threatening documented disability (whether it was a disability or not was never in question), I was left high and dry.
I’d basically been identified by the school Chancellor as a possible liability. The way she put it was that she didn’t want “peanut-free” signs because that wasn’t a “promise” she could keep. In other words, the school couldn’t guarantee my safety and didn’t want to get slapped with a lawsuit if I ended up in the ER or died; therefore, they’d do nothing. No signs. No accommodations through DSS. This meant forbidding the library director from returning the library buildings to being food-free and taking away my disability accommodations completely.
My anaphylaxis had become a weapon—a way to scare me off of campus.
You’ve Got to be Kidding Me
I met with the university Chancellor and one of the members of student government last week to discuss the situation; she made it very clear that she didn’t think I should be at the school at all, or at any of UW’s other campuses. And that I was just a liability as far as she was concerned.
After our meeting I’d thought there’d been enough compromise to at least keep me in school until the end of the quarter, but I didn’t think I’d be able to return in the fall for my senior year. But our “compromise” turned out to be all talk.
The Chancellor had told me that I could no longer get my accommodations through DSS and, when it came to handling my disability, I would only have access to her office from now on (something I don’t think she was at all legally allowed to do). I had been removed completely from DSS’s charge and paced fully under the Chancellor, who is neither an official DSS worker nor an allergist. As a result, she said that her office would make me signs—better signs even, more professional looking.
Well, they did make me signs. But they were a joke. They weren’t on the classroom doors—where they needed to be to remind students and staff. And they weren’t at all visible. The signs looked like they’d just printed something directly out of Word—12 point font, Times New Roman, black ink on a white piece of paper. Completely invisible.
The signs were also hidden; one was at the very front of the classroom next to another sign (ironically the statement about how school doesn’t discriminate based on things like disabilities) and stuck on the wall with blue painters tape (yup, that’s professional looking). The other sign was lost on a cluttered bulletin board in the back of the class; it took me and a friend hunting before we were finally able to find it.
I didn’t want signs just for the sake of having signs; I needed visible reminders to my classmates and instructors that would help keep me safer.
I was also promised an unofficial “office” with a key, so that I could determine who went into it. I was given a key … but not to the “office.” The key unlocked an entire wing where the adjuncts’ offices were. My little room was the only one with a printer and computer, so if anyone needed to print something they’d go into my office. And because I didn’t have a key to keep them out (or even a sign on the door saying that it was being used), there was no way for me to keep the room safer than any other faculty-only area on campus. And the office didn’t even had a window, so I wouldn’t have even been able to air it out if there was ever a problem.
Saying Goodbye to My Academic Dreams
Without even a little support from my previously extremely helpful school and no access to the Disability Support Services office thanks to the Chancellor telling them that they could no longer work with me, I was basically barred from the university because of my disability. It was unsafe for me to attend my classes, or even go to school to take my midterms. And my school had made it clear that they weren’t even going to assist in helping to protect my life, so I had to drop my classes. And my program of study (the only one of its kind in the area, my dream degree). And left the University of Washington Tacoma completely.
I would’ve been a third-generation Husky alumni when I graduate; my grandpa and mom were so excited for me. Now, because my degree was so specific, I’ll have to start back over with 200-level course requirements, which will likely add at least another year, if not two, to my prospective graduation date. And I have to transfer to another university when I’d wanted to finish not only my BA at my school but also do my grad work at UW Tacoma. I now wonder if I’ll ever even finish my four-year-degree let alone grad school. My transcript was beautiful—high honors all around—now I’ll have to explain to future prospective schools why I got all “W’s” (withdrawn) this quarter.
My university decided I was a liability, so I was essentially kicked out of school. And then left with the bill. Literally, thousands of dollars in financial aid, student loans, and academic scholarships for a quarter I wasn’t able to complete through no fault of my own.
What’s frustrating is how many staff made sad puppy dog eyes at me, but never did anything because they were afraid. They were using words like “illegal” and “a violation of your civil rights” and “discrimination based on your disability,” which I feel like should’ve been a call to arms. But the best I got was pouty faces.
Life has completely turned on ear, I have no idea what this means for me now, and I’m still in shock.
[Update 6/4/2013: Still trying to figure out the whole financial thing. I've been sent a bill for this quarter and until I pay the whole thing in full the university won't release my transcript, which makes even applying to another school out of the question until that's figured out.
For those of you who are wondering, I will absolutely be finishing my BA, no need to worry, but my graduation date will be about a year or two farther off than originally expected. And my diploma will have the insignia of a different university, which after all this I'm honestly not too worked up about. One possible option at the moment is finishing the last year and a half of my BA online through my former state university's rival school, Washington State University, which I feel like would add a bit of poetic justice to a very unfortunate, frustrating situation. I'm all for a bit of irony.]