My invisible abilities: You say you see me, but you don't

Header image for Interrobang article CREDIT: DEE-DEE SAMUELS
Students with invisible disabilities have very unique talents and valuable perspectives on life to offer.

“Tell me what you know about brain injury.”

It’s what I asked the Accessibility Department after my futile attempt at trying to navigate the accessibility system during my first few weeks of my first year at Fanshawe. By the look on her face, I could tell I caught her off guard by my bluntness. Word-finding and phrasing are some of the many issues a person with brain injury can experience, especially when overwhelmed, and I was. There was a time I could express myself with such grace – a skill I honed for years, now gone – but brain injury is anything but graceful. It’s clunky, jarring and off-key for the most part. The brain is as complex as the universe, and every brain injury presents differently. To accommodate it needs great consideration, not a generic approach. I was frustrated with good intentioned individuals not grasping the complexity of my brain injury. I, like my injury, was becoming more and more invisible. If I didn’t advocate for myself and the students that would come after me, I would slip through the cracks as so many of us with brain injuries do.

Pursuing higher education as a mature student was not in my plans, but neither was an acquired brain injury. Life would never be the same, my doctors repeatedly remind me. All I heard was, “different could mean better right?”

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Next thing I know I’m scrolling through the Fanshawe College website and there, like a sign from the universe, under the Accessibility Department it reads ‘Acquired Brain Injury.’ “That’s me,” I thought excitedly, and the tears that I try to fight spill out onto my cheeks.

Cognitive effects of brain injury

Energy crashes, mixing up of words, difficulty focusing, flooding (brain gets overwhelmed and shuts down), sequencing (trouble knowing what order to say things in), organizing, understanding what appropriate behaviour is, and serial tasking. Just writing this is exhausting, but these are the barriers someone, (me) with a brain injury experiences daily.

On my first day of school, the hallways were buzzing with bright-eyed, excited students and my brain injury and I were proudly one of them. With my game face on, I headed to my first class, ready to relearn a subject I had worked professionally in for most of my life but was now scattered in my brain like an unmade puzzle. During my first class, the noise was alarming, students were flapping around me, and there were so many conversations to block out. I wanted to crack and inside my head starts spinning, my brain injury reminding me it’s still there, bubbling away beneath my shining game face.

Fear not, Fanshawe College has a system in place for students with a brain injury. So, I reached out for the help they offered. But there were trap doors to accessing this mysterious “help.” I had to email one department, wait to be matched with a tutor and then set up a meeting with them. If you need more than one tutor and also a learning advisor this means keeping track of multiple emails and responses. When I was feeling overwhelmed and asked for emotional support, I had to set up another meeting and wait for a response. My brain flooded and it shut down because of the tsunami of administration needed. Remember, I have a frontal lobe, executive function disability.

On top of all this, I had to study, organize work groups, and rearrange some classes, and when I spoke up, I was reminded that the beginning of term is very busy, and there is often a flurry of activity. For the first time I felt shame. My executive function was the one thing I needed now, but it was shattered. What they were asking me to do to receive help for my cognitive disability was equivalent to informing someone with a physical, visible disability that the help they needed was at the top of a staircase and all they needed to do was just climb.

You say you see me, but you don’t

My school has moved online due to COVID- 19, which meant more administration and even more need for the executive function of my brain. At the beginning of this term it took three weeks to get an appointment with my accessibility counsellor. I was already overwhelmed and actually forgot what the main purpose of the meeting was. There was a flurry of activity for me and my brain injury, too. It’s an exercise in futility; I don’t want to be difficult and I refuse to be invisible.

But there is a light at the end of this sordid tale. People at Fanshawe did hear me. The entire department of Television and Film Broadcasting listened to me, worked alongside me and made adjustments and adaptations to my course work, while I made sacrifices and reduced my course load. It’s teamwork. I did not expect perfection but improvement and patience. They told me that because of my persistence, they would change the way they communicate with the accessibility department. They have also hired the appropriate tutors and advisors specific for our department. With the understanding from my professors, I went on to win a national award for my work. The girl with the broken brain has not slipped through the cracks this time.

Students with invisible disabilities have very unique talents and valuable perspectives on life to offer. A very brave and honest conversation needs to be had about an accessibility department that needs to rethink its approach to the way they assist these students. The counsellors are caring and intelligent educators who can, with the right approach, transform students with invisible disabilities into students with remarkable visible abilities.

Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.