Renleigh Spencer (COL ’15) excelled in high school. A natural scholar, he hoped to continue his academic achievements in college so that he could go on to earn a doctoral degree. But as the workload picked up, he would stay up for days in a row to finish a single assignment, sometimes not even finishing it because it did not measure up to his standard of perfection.
“I spent too much time thinking and not enough time doing — at least I know now, through therapy, that I have a problem. I know that I spend too much time and care on my work,” Spencer said. But his perfectionism was not just a product of excessive competitiveness but a manifestation of a learning disability, as well as other mental issues. Spencer first sought help from the Writing Center, which helped him focus a little but still left him unsatisfied with the quality of his work.
“I thought my writing skills were that of someone who just wasn’t able to formulate thoughts correctly,” he said. By his freshman spring, he was experiencing severe depression, some weeks lying in bed, catatonic, for a span of days.
“It got to the point where I just kind of gave up,” he said.
By the time he made an appointment with the Academic Resource Center, he had already finalized plans to take a leave of absence last fall. He is currently being tested for being autistic and manic depressive. He identifies himself as disabled and not neurotypical — a person whose brain functions in a way considered “normal” by society. Still on leave, he said he feels taken care of by his family and friends back home but that the support system Georgetown offers leaves room for improvement.
“I’m not blaming Georgetown for anything, and Georgetown is doing the best they can within their means,” he said.
Yet Spencer believes something could have prevented him falling through system’s cracks.
“I feel like there needs to be a more open line of communication between disabled students and the ARC, and disabled students need to feel as though they can advocate for themselves,” Spencer said. “Nobody is really talking to the student.”
In Spencer’s case, emails in his inbox piled up during his days of depression. Phone calls went unanswered.
“I didn’t really know how to express I wasn’t OK,” Spencer said in reference to his bipolar disorder. “We need to be aggressive in our self-advocacy.”
But “coming out” as autistic can be difficult in a culture dominated by perfectionism that perpetuates aneurotypical and able-bodied set of norms. Spencer said he encountered stigma against those with autism — whether being treated as a “problem” or solely in an academic context that ignored the individual.
Such bias against disabled people on the basis of their disabilities, whether they are physically visible or invisible, is known as ableism.
“Autism is not a problem; it’s just something that exists,” Spencer said. “People treat it like an academic issue when it’s not an academic issue — it’s a cultural issue. We’re being treated like science projects.”
He feels like dialogue is the best way to combat ableism, but also thinks that it involves able-bodied and neurotypical people being respectful of disabled students’ space.
“Mental health has not been integrated into our philosophy of education,” Spencer said.
Similarly, former student Izzi Angel agreed that Georgetown’s environment does not foster a healthy attitude towards disability.
“I feel like for me personally, the culture of perfection and the rampant ableism that goes along with that really inhibited me from getting the help I needed or admitting to people that I needed help,” Angel said. “By the time I did ask for help, it was because things were kind of already in crisis mode.”
Angel entered Georgetown in the fall of 2009 at the age of 17, already with a handful of credits under her belt from Northern Virginia Community College.
“My first year at NOVA, I had a 4.0 and everything was going swimmingly, [and] then I came to Georgetown and it was just completely different,” she said.
As a transfer student younger than the average freshman, Angel felt that the care she received from Resident Advisors or Orientation Advisors was not on par with that offered to first-time students.
“They assume you’ve been to college [and] you know what you’re doing. And in terms of what I needed as a 17-year-old, that wasn’t exactly it,” she said.
She made her first appointment at Counseling and Psychiatric Services before final exams in the fall semester. Her counsellor determined she was experiencing test anxiety, but Angel did not feel such a diagnosis was accurate. She took a leave of absence beginning in the fall of 2010, and during that period, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which she identifies as a disability.
“One of the things that I was struggling with was anxiety — particularly centered around writing papers — that would just spiral out of control,” Angel said. “I didn’t feel comfortable going to the Writing Center because it was my peers and because I didn’t want to admit how much trouble I was having. … I didn’t want to be seen as crazy or stupid.”
Angel sees ableism as part and parcel of the culture on campus.
“Even just in terms of the way people talk — ‘I’m not crazy. I’m not stupid. You’re crazy. You’re stupid’ — or the way people are treated when they are labeled as ‘crazy’ or ‘stupid,’” she said of the attitudes she perceived while on the Hilltop. “People act differently toward you at best, or they try to ignore it.”
Angel reflected that she perceived the campus as a whole inaccessible in spite of the proclaimed mission of cura personalis.
“Because everyone, not only students but also faculty and staff, is so focused on achievements and just getting to the finish line first, there’s not a lot of care taken for what might happen on the way to the finish line,” Angel said.
If her time at CAPS was brief, Angel’s interaction with the Academic Resource Center was briefer still. She said she knew the center existed but was not aware of its ability to accommodate students with psychological disabilities.
An office within the division of Student Affairs, the ARC provides academic support for all students, including those with disabilities or facing academic challenges.
“I think is important for people to realize that our primary focus is with students,” Jane Holahan, director of the center, said. “So when you think about it, the academic resource center has a similar mission to [Center for Multicultural and Equality Access], the LGBTQ center, where we are an advocacy office as well.”
In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, ARC strives to accommodate disabled students in a way that puts them on a level playing field with their peers.
“There’s a range of accommodations. There are some students who do not need classroom accommodations — their accommodation may just be that they need accessible paths,” Holohan said.
Often, the ARC will refer students to CAPS, a separate office also within Student Affairs. However, thecounselling services are under Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act medical privacy laws, so ARC advisers are not legally allowed to check in with CAPS to see if a student followed through with an appointment.
“That confidentiality needs to be preserved. And I’ll be honest with you: I treat students as young adults,” Holohan said. “I’m going to say this is the student’s responsibility. They have a choice to make, and if they believe that going to CAPS is not in their best interest, that’s their choice.”
Holohan noted that students can grant the ARC permission to communicate with their counsellor at the center.
But Angel feels the outcome of her college career could have been different if the overall structure of Georgetown’s support network better accommodated disabled students.
“I feel like if the culture was different, if there were more resources, if the resources were better known, if the resources were more useful, if the resources weren’t stigmatized — like glancing over your shoulder when you’re coming out of CAPS,” Angel said.
Disagreeing with claims that ableism exists at Georgetown, Holohan argued that the community is one of understanding, not intolerance.
“Are some people feeling that people with disabilities are being looked down upon? That people are being discriminated against? I don’t see that,” Holohan said. “I will say that in respect to the individuals who might see that, that’s a perception they have, and I have to respect that perception.”
Holohan noted that even as a person without a disability, she shares the perspective with those who do.
“As somebody who grew up with a brother with a significant disability, I do understand … discrimination,” Holohan said. “I understand how people gawked at my brother when he was out in public. I understand the feelings you get when you see that happening.”
She said that she does not detect such ableism on campus.
Holohan contends that the center works within its power to accommodate students, provided they make the first step.
“One thing I have discovered at Georgetown … [is] the students who are proactive and not afraid to speak up in a way that [says,] ‘These are the difficulties I’m having’ — those are the ones we can really help out,” she said. “But people who are reactive or shutting down or not giving us the information, there’s not much we can do to help them out.”
Holohan described the center as a small but extremely busy office, seeing some students once a week and others only once a semester, depending on their respective needs. Whitney Weldon (COL ’15) said that the office would benefit from additional resources.
“Due to the large amount of students who go to the ARC, they should maybe have two other people working in the department so they can be more flexible about meetings and such when needed,” Weldon said.
Overall, Weldon thinks the lack of resources devoted to disability access poses the greatest challenge to students.
“I think it’s unfortunate that the school has limited resources and funding to provide the small challenges a disabled person has,” Weldon said.
Weldon has a rare bone disease, fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, that makes walking difficult for her, so she uses a wheelchair for faster and safer transportation across campus. Although many campus buildings’ doors are automatic, Weldon cannot extend her arm to press the button to open them.
“In order for me to be independent, my dad donated money to Georgetown to be able to have all of the buildings accessible by a key fob,” she said.
Holohan noted that physical barriers were of great concern for her and that the ARC works with facilities management when blue buttons for the automatic doors are broken. She said many students do not realize that when they kick or jam the button, it can break the door, hindering the mobility of those that depend on it.
“By the time I graduate, I would love to have transformed Georgetown to be very accessible so other disabled students can succeed despite physical challenges,” Weldon said.
Angel’s decision to transfer after last semester came after two and a half years of struggling at a place she did not feel provided all her needs. Not all disabled students at Georgetown decide to leave, though they face challenges nonetheless.
Lydia Brown (COL ’15), who is autistic and a vocal advocate for disabled people, considered leaving the university. Some of her family members discouraged her from returning to Georgetown after her first year.
“I had thoughts about just dropping out of college altogether because I was feeling useless, as though being in the university environment wasn’t conducive to my well-being — that things were unchangeable,” she said.
Just last week, one of her professors suggested she transfer to a different school — one that was less challenging academically. The professor even reminded Brown of the upcoming deadline for transferring.
“I don’t know if we would have been having that conversation if I were not disabled,” Brown said.
Just like any undergraduate student, Brown admits that balancing academics and extracurriculars is trying at times, but she has no plans to leave.
“As much as there are things about this school that I find fundamentally problematic — and sometimes outright hostile — that I’d love to see changed, I feel adamantly that it is far more important for me to be here so that I could potentially be a part of effecting change — as well asbenefitting from the many positive aspects of being a part of this university,” she said. “I want to be a part of this community.”
Spencer is similarly undeterred from accomplishing his goal of coming back to the Hilltop after his leave of absence. He plans on returning next fall and being part of the conversation of ableism on campus — a complex situation that deserves a complex discussion, he said.
“I’m definitely coming back,” Spencer said. “I’m getting a degree from Georgetown and it’s going to be on my wall and I’m going to be proud of it.”