Katie Vahey Gaebler
Learning to self-advocate: Chloe's story
Updated: Feb 27
If you live with a disability in any regard, self-advocacy is pertinent to your success. The ability to succeed in school is something that I have struggled with since a very young age. Although I’ve always felt intelligent, I have a hard time retrieving and executing my intelligence when I need it. It often feels like my brain is buffering or getting side tracked mid-thought. I’ve always felt like I’ve been set up for failure academically. Although having a neurodivergent brain makes me unique, I’ve also felt like it’s something that sets me back from the majority of my peers. When I was younger, my parents had to advocate for me, but as I got older, particularly in college and found my own voice, I refused to let my challenges from ADHD be my downfall and learned to advocate for myself. After my first Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) at 13yo, everything about my life changed. Following subsequent concussions and another TBI, my ADHD and executive functioning challenges only increased. This led to a condition called Vestibular Migraines and vertigo as well as nervous system disfunction. This disorder significantly changed my life both mentally and physically. There were periods of my teenage years where I didn’t smile in photos, I missed months of school due to health challenges, and encountered inadequate support from teachers and administrators along the way. Being successful academically seemed completely out of the question.
As a senior in high school, there was talk from the school counselor on whether or not I’d even be able to attend college, let alone a good one. My struggles with health and school masked my intelligence and competence. I had always wanted to go to the University of Colorado Boulder so I ignored my counselor’s recommendations and applied. When I got into CU, I was determined to do everything I could in order to set myself up for success. Prior to starting my first semester, I went into the Disability Services (D.S.) office at CU to meet with their intake counselor. I had to provide documentation of all my diagnoses, as well as proof of the 504 I had previously had in high school as support due to my TBI and health conditions. D.S. required a lot of documentation to be eligible for a Flex Plan with accommodations. Had I not had proof of a 504 and diagnoses for my head injury and how that impacts me, the whole process would have been even more difficult. I remember hating the feeling of being associated with “Disability Services” and labeled with a disability. It was something that was difficult to come to terms with, and I felt nervous and embarrassed starting off my college career differently than other students. D.S. provided me with accommodations and what’s called a Flex Plan. My Flex Plan had specific accommodations and protocols that would provide the structures I needed to stay on top of school work and have a better chance at being a successful college student.
Some of my accommodations that applied across all my courses included:
An assigned note taker
10 minute breaks as needed
Additional excused absences (as assigned by the professor)
Extended time on exams
All of these accommodations were vital to my success. Even with the Flex Plan in place, it was challenging learning to navigate college with my health concerns and ADHD. Then, mid-way through my freshman year I had a health relapse with daily debilitating vertigo and had to take a medical leave from school. This was near the end of the semester, and I had wanted to complete all of my classes from home since I couldn't actually attend class. Despite my Flex Plan, out of my five professors, three of them were unwilling to accommodate me. Even with letters from my neurologist, these professors would not work with me. Although DS wanted to work with me, it was articulated that there was “...only so much we could do,” and that at the end of the day, the professors had jurisdiction over how they would or wouldn’t accommodate me. They trumped my Flex Plan. I ended up having to withdraw from half of my courses and only finished six credits that Spring semester. That course withdrawal and delay to my academic plan had financial ramifications and many bureaucratic hoops to work through and was very frustrating, compounding the stress as I struggled to stabilize my health.
Going into my sophomore year, I realized I could approach self-advocacy differently compared to the previous year. Although I still had a Flex Plan due to my neurodivergence, I would not be successful without stronger self-determination, proactive communication with all my faculty, and consistent organization. I had received A’s in the two classes I completed in that Spring term, which should have been reassuring to my self-confidence around my intellingence, but I was nothing but discouraged. I went into that year by communicating upfront with all of my professors on the first day of class, made it a priority for myself to express my challenges, needs and expectations, and I placed expectations for myself on how I could be more successful despite my ADHD and chronic health challenges. After struggling during freshman year to maintain the GPA I knew I was capable of, I knew things had to change. Outside of the classroom this included:
Using a planner
Emailing professors weekly and as needed regarding my disabilities
Attended class as much as possible
Finding study groups
Uninterrupted homework time
Giving myself grace
I had lost a year and a half of college not only due to a lack of understanding, empathy and flexibility from professors but due to lack of recognizing my own learning needs and how to advocate for them. By the second semester of my sophomore year, I finally found a groove and was keeping up better with courses. My GPA improved immensely, and I realized that I had to find ways to be successful despite the inflexibility of some professors and despite my disabilities. Now, as a Senior at CU, I’ve realized that although DS tried to set me up for success with a Flex Plan, I was the person who had to put a plan in place for myself, accept my neurodivergence and take ownership of my own success. Perhaps if I had a college consultant or someone overseeing my academics and helping navigate when I started college, that may have helped me keep up with my peers instead of falling behind the race, but I didn't. Although my college career took me longer than the majority of my peers, I am just a year behind and now on track to graduate in May 2023 with a degree in Sociology and a minor in Writing and am looking into law or advocacy for a future career. I don’t want anyone with a disability or neurodivergence to think that their differences equate with intelligence or that they can’t succeed. Being neurodivergent requires learning to understand your own unique brain, to take ownership of your learning, persevering through challenges, and working hard to maintain resilience throughout the highs and lows. Being neurodivergent doesn’t mean being less capable. It means learning how to understand and advocate for your own needs in order to thrive.