Navigating the university’s attendance policy with chronic illness

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Students learn to navigate college life while living with chronic illnesses

Senior Reporter

For the average student, the first week of the semester means going out, not doing coursework and reading syllabi to find out the best way to skip as many classes as possible without damaging grades.

But for a number of university students, even courses with lax attendance policies become daunting.

According to Disability Support Services (DSS), the university has over 1,500 students registered. 17 percent of students registered listed a chronic illness as their primary disability. Even more attend class without registration and assistance, navigating attendance policies while balancing appointments, symptoms and flare-ups.

In most cases, attendance policies fall upon individual professors who determine how many absences are allowed and how that affects course grades. Frequently, professors only offer a finite number of absences before lowering grades.

“I’ve had a number that only allow one absence and more that allow zero absences,” Maggie Billingsley, a recent alumna diagnosed with Crohn’s disease says. “I’ve also had courses that allow absences, but will have in-class assignments that can’t be made up.”

“I feel embarrassed by my illness, and I don’t want to be seen as unhealthy, so I don’t let it affect my attendance as much as it should,” Billingsley says. “This results in even more severe symptoms for me later or even bigger flare-ups.”

An anonymous student with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome also mentioned embarrassment in talking to professors after having a professor criticize a lack of documentation after a flare-up that sent them to the hospital.

“He told me my hospital note would ‘be enough just this time,’” the student says.

“I was so worried about talking to him about my illness that I dropped the class.”

The student continued to say that the work would be “impossible to make up even with official excused absences.”

Senior Rachel DeLauder is the president of Chronic Illness Advocates, a Registered Student Organization (RSO) working with DSS to create a supportive environment on campus for students with chronic illnesses.

When asked about how the university excuses chronic illness, DeLauder raised concerns that the policy does not consider illness flare-ups, only provides aid in withdrawal and “doesn’t reflect or advocate for students with chronic illnesses at all.”

DeLauder is referring to the university’s one-sentence policy stating: “Students who experience long-term absences of a week or more should consult with their Assistant Dean; in such cases, it may be possible to negotiate with faculty for the opportunity to take an incomplete grade, or a withdrawal may be more prudent.”

For Billingsley, a self-described “academically-motivated student,” withdrawal has never been an option.

“The policies do not discuss meeting the student halfway and making the requirements of the course be completed virtually,” DeLauder says.

Anne Jannarone, director of DSS, discussed advocacy on behalf of students. If students require additional absences, DSS will work with students and faculty to excuse absences. Additionally, students can register with DSS even through the diagnostic process to accommodate absences and gain additional services.

Despite the aid offered by them, many believe professors still need to ensure flexibility in syllabi to avoid sentiments like those of Billingsley, who questioned her role as a student.

“The syllabus said no reason would be acceptable,” Billingsley says. “So why would my case be different?”

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    Anand 2 years

    I graduated in 2011 despite suffering a traumatic head injury a few months before coming to UD. I was registered with DSS after navigating a tremendous amount of red tape and in the end all I received were accommodations granting me extended time on exams, despite having chronic insomnia and other cognitive disabilities. So it fell to me, every semester, to have to explain to my professors about my situation. Some were reasonable about it however others weren’t and in the end my GPA suffered tremendously as a result. Disappointing to see this is still going on.

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