College is a stressful and overwhelming time. But for a few students with disabilities, life at Huntington University comes with an extra set of challenges.
By Peyton Pitman, Assistant Editor
Dressed in jeans and a charcoal gray Huntington University shirt, freshman Onalivia Smith gets ready for a group presentation by putting on her SpeechEasy—a device used to reduce her stutter.
“It looks very similar to a hearing aid,” said Smith. “It’s not a cure for the stutter, but it does eliminate it to the point where I may not stutter at all some days.”
Every time Smith says something, the SpeechEasy repeats the words in her ear in a different frequency.
“People who stutter, usually won’t if they are singing or talking in sync with other people,” said Smith, explaining why the repetition of words helps her. “Since the SpeechEasy uses a different frequency, it doesn’t sound like you—it sounds like you’re speaking with someone else.”
The SpeechEasy has helped Smith gain more confidence when reading aloud, answering questions in class, and simply talking to the people around her.
Smith isn’t the only one with unseen struggles. Other students, such as Michelle Same, who has depression, and a nursing major who has PTSD and asked to remain anonymous, find themselves facing daily challenges because of their hidden disabilities. Group presentations, homework, and even routine activities can become difficult. Of the U.S. population, 1 percent have a stuttering speech disfluency, 6.7 percent suffer from depression, and 5 percent experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I was diagnosed with clinical depression,” said Same, a pre-veterinary medicine major. “I tended to just be emotionally numb. I didn’t really feel happy, but I also didn’t really feel sad.”
Same was also diagnosed with a thyroid disorder that makes it challenging for her to maintain a healthy diet. Although she only eats one meal a day at times, she will continue to gain weight if she doesn’t properly manage her condition.
During her time at HU, Same has kept relatively quiet about her disabilities because they haven’t affected her life in the classroom too much. One of the only staff or faculty members on campus that knew of her disorders was a former chemistry professor, Timothy Troyer.
“I was showing up late to his class every single day,” said Same. “I would just have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning because I didn’t want to have to do anything at all. Even just sitting up feels like a lot some days.”
Same also said that the students and staff who did know about her disabilities seem to be understanding. Because of the negative stigma attached to depression, Same is unsure who takes her disability seriously and who thinks she is faking it to get special treatment.
“No one would say that about a student who’s blind,” said Kris Chafin, the director of the Academic Center for Excellence, when asked if she has seen students faking their disability to get accommodations in the classroom. “Now I’m finishing my 25th year here, so I’ve been here a long time. And I’ve seen very few instances where students were abusing an accommodation.”
It is important for students and non-students alike to have a disability identifier, or ID card, with them, said Jess Stainbrook, vice president and operations director of the Invisible Disability Association. That way the accusations about them “faking it” will decrease.
“The national disability ID initiative comes about as a result of a case that happened in Ohio,” said Stainbrook in a phone interview. “A gentleman was driving, got pulled over, handed his license to the law enforcement officer, but did not make eye contact.”
The officer thought the driver was drunk because of his erratic behavior and “pulled him out, cuffed him, and put him on the ground,” said Stainbrook. “Well, it turns out he had autism.”
Stainbrook also believes that disability ID’s are important for people who don’t feel comfortable explaining their condition to others. The Invisible Disability Association runs a FaceBook page for those who can’t—or won’t—speak up about what they go through.
A nursing major, who asked to remain anonymous, has PTSD due to a sexual assault that she experienced three years ago. She agrees with Stainbrook and says she understands the discomfort that comes with revealing a disability.
“I’ve gotten a lot better when talking about my story,” she said. “But for a long time, I couldn’t even say the ‘r’ word—rape.”
She explained that most people on HU’s campus have been careful with their words. But she has heard people make insensitive comments and jokes about rape and PTSD. These remarks can trigger nightmares, flashbacks, or anxiety attacks.
“It’s like, I can hear the words so many times, and then I kind of hit my point,” she said. “And then I’m kinda like, ‘I can’t—I can’t do this anymore.’ That’s when the symptoms start to come back.”
The best advice she said she would give her peers is to watch what you say around others. Being gentle with your words can be helpful to those who may have an invisible disability, she added.
Michelle Same advised to always check in on people who may not seem well from time to time. Being forceful, or demanding answers from someone is not the way to get them to open up.
“Everybody wants to talk about it, or figure out what’s wrong,” said Same. “But sometimes all you need is to be distracted for a few minutes, and you’ll feel better later on when you’re trying to process it all on your own.”
Onalivia Smith said that most people with a disability are going to have some part of their day be more challenging to them than it would anybody else. Whether it be anxiety that comes with ordering out or not having the willpower to get up in the morning, each person will feel differently about their experiences.
When asked what she would say to others who have invisible disabilities, she said: “If you have a disability—whether it’s physical or mental—then you have a disability. That’s just how it is.”
She also said that nobody should be down on themselves, or compare themselves to other people who are not like them—even those with the same disability.
As she finished her words, she removed her SpeechEasy, looked at it in her hands, and said, “Everyone’s different. You should just embrace what God has made you and created you to be.”