In my very first semester at Penn, I sprained and fractured my ankle during a Pilates class at Pottruck Health and Fitness Center. Looking back at it now, I can laugh about how silly it was. When I tried to get in shape for the first time in a while, I made the next few months an extraordinarily difficult time to do just that.
If you asked me how I juggled school and trying to get better, I probably would have been a few short minutes away from a breakdown, wondering how to keep up in a school that relentlessly stopped for no one. Figuring out how to get to physical therapy appointments whenever possible, either before or after a tiring day of classes, left me exhausted for the first few weeks.
Fortunately, my accident happened a week before Thanksgiving. I took four days off before I formally went on break, and I could fit these absences within the language department’s allowed four days of absences before my grade started to drop. At that point in the semester, I hadn’t yet taken any days off, so I (metaphorically) jumped at the chance to go home early.
While lying in bed, attempting to rest, all I could focus on were the classes I was missing, the midterms I needed to write, and the impending nightmare of navigating campus with one less foot. Whether it was worrying about getting to classes in one piece despite the steep path leading to Williams Hall, or hoping that the main elevator in Hill College House would be functional and on time almost daily.
Although one of my professors took pity on me and allowed me to attend the rest of our classes via Zoom, a few others were either unable to or preferred that I make it to the rest of the classes. One professor reasoned that since there were only three classes left in the semester, I would benefit from being present rather than watching recorded lectures.
All I could do was hope for the end of the semester to come sooner, especially since some of the campus accommodations offered through the Weingarten Center’s disability services weren’t publicized well. I struggled to locate some of the accessible entrances to places I used to frequent — I didn’t go to the Fisher Fine Arts Library for months because I had no clue there was a side entrance to the building. I struggled to figure out who to contact, or where to go to determine what kind of support there was.
I was eligible for access to Penn Accessible Transit for two weeks at any time of the day. However, the first time I tried to get to a physical therapy appointment a few minutes away from my dorm, absolutely no one was available to pick up my call.
I decided then that I would try to walk there on my own. Several hours later when I called someone at the Weingarten Center to figure out what happened, I was met with someone who wanted to end the call quickly and didn’t particularly care to help me reach someone else for help.
When it comes to disability services, many universities, including Penn, fall short in the quality of care they should provide. Before getting hurt, I didn’t take the time to consider how many obstacles there are for students with permanent disabilities in university. When it comes to accessibility on campus, universities that meet ADA requirements can still pose problems for students getting to class.
My accident could have been a lot worse. It could have taken me a lot longer to heal, especially without the support of my family who live nearby and my friends. Students separated from family members miles away, or even those without friends and community on campus, can feel this struggle on a much deeper level.
In my case, it was my friends who accompanied me to the dining halls and carried plates of food for me when I couldn’t, who walked with me to my classes rain or shine, and it was my mom who talked me through crying over the phone when I didn’t think I could get to the end of the semester. Often, it’s the students that fill in the gaps overlooked in larger schools like Penn.
In my case, it often felt that I would be left behind if I couldn’t keep up, that what happened to me was a problem that I had to figure out and deal with by myself, despite some of the help that should have been there.
I didn’t feel like I could reach out to the Weingarten Center again to figure out who I could lean on for support, especially when the operator didn’t want to help the first time, so I never did. I believed that was the better option than being redirected to multiple different lines where I was told no one had any information to help me. No matter how much accessibility is made to seem like a “shared value”, it remains a personal burden when there’s no follow-through to ensure these services work.
The main way Penn disability services can improve is by ensuring that when there are issues with their services, there will be an immediate response and troubleshooting as to what went wrong. Although the Weingarten website offers many resources that exist on campus for students to use, there are gaps that can be overlooked which can stop these services from properly functioning. Rather than leaving students in the dark after being unable to access the accommodations they are owed, take accountability for these shortcomings and make sure they don’t happen again.
These are problems that students with disabilities have brought up long before I knew about them, which continue to exist since I’ve healed. But having gone through what I did, I believe that it's important for others to understand the extent of their privilege. It’s important to keep an eye out for spaces on campus that don’t seem like they accommodate other students, and to elevate their voices when they reach out for support.
HANADI ABDULKADIR is a rising College sophomore studying international relations from Philadelphia. Her email is email@example.com.