In the summer of 2020, I started having health complications which would eventually require I take a medical leave for that fall. I had been unsure if I wanted to take the leave, because I was incredibly worried about what a return to campus would look like. My health, however, left me no choice, and I spent my junior fall resting and working with my doctors.
I didn’t realize how stressful returning to campus would be until I had to start the process. According to the Hamilton website, returning from a medical leave of absence requires three steps:
Writing and submitting a Letter of Intent, explaining why you’re ready to return, the ways your medical issue(s) have improved, and how you’ll ensure to stay on top of your health after returning.
Submit a Provider Return Form, which a care provider of yours (physician, psychiatrist, therapist, etc) must fill out, which helps the College determine whether you’re well enough to return.
Create a CARE plan, which includes a required visit with a Case Manager from Student Support Services.
When I first declared a leave, I wasn’t explicitly told these were the requirements of returning. Yes, it’s available on the website, and I was aware that return would require documentation, but at no point did someone make these requirements explicitly clear to me. If I hadn’t done my own research prior to taking me leave, I wouldn’t have even known that there were any requirements for return.
When it came time for me to begin the return process, I found that I didn’t particularly enjoy writing up my Letter of Intent, even though in the end it turned out to be the least problematic part of the process. As explained on the website, in the Letter of Intent, the student must explain why they took their medical leave, “what you have done to address these concerns, and in what ways you feel ready to return to the responsibilities of a full-time college student.”
Although a short letter, I felt deeply uncomfortable about the fact that I had to explain what health issues led me to taking a leave, especially as someone who had just been diagnosed with three new health issues, put on medication for the first time in my life, and still in the process of getting new diagnoses.
My medical leave was an extremely personal and vulnerable time for me. Never before had I had serious health concerns, and suddenly I was thrown into the realities of what it means to be a disabled person. And then I had to explain all of that to the College to prove my ability to return.
Nonetheless, I wrote and submitted the letter and was approved on conditional return; conditional, because it was COVID, and I wasn’t returning to campus itself. The worst of the return process would come later that spring semester, when I’d have to submit the Provider Return Form (in addition to a second Letter of Intent).
The Provider Return Form is unequivocally one of the most invasive and disgusting forms I’ve ever had to fill out during my health journey. Not only does it ask for information that the College certainly does not need, such as what treatment I’m seeking, what medications I’m on, and what health issues I have, but it quite literally asks the provider to rank how suicidal and at risk of self-harm a student is.
I can’t help but think of Julia Dupuis ‘21 investigative piece, where she writes about the ways the College essentially kicks out students showing any signs of a mental health crisis, and of course, the infamous NY Times piece about the suicide of Graham Burton.
I absolutely despised that form, but I had too much on my plate to be able to fight it, so instead my psychiatrist filled it out, and I submitted it to Dean of Student Services, Sarah Soloman, with a note about how disgusting I found it. In her response, she explained that they were planning to change it and asking if I wanted to offer more advice on what to replace it with, but I never had the chance to take her up on the offer, and I never heard back about it either.
While I didn’t hate meeting with the required Case Manager in fall 2021, I did find it incredibly redundant and unnecessary, as by that point I had three care providers and my health was more manageable.
The next few months went without issue, and then I got another health diagnosis that meant it would be much easier for me to be in complete charge of my diet and eating schedule, i.e. I never visited the dining halls. Given I was spending hundreds of dollars a month for access to dining halls I never visited, I decided to reduce my meal plan to the 7-day option. Of course, Hamilton students aren’t allowed to do that unless they’re in specific dorms, so I had yet another hoop to go through: the meal plan appeal process.
I had to prove over and over, to multiple people, that my health made it difficult to depend on the dining halls. To get my appeal approved, I had to:
Speak to someone from the national Bon Appetit offices who would have to relay to the Assistant Dean, Travis Hill, that the dining halls couldn’t accommodate me.
Ask my doctors to write letters explaining my health complications and approving of my decision to appeal.
And wait for a committee to decide there was enough evidence to prove that I actually needed the appeal.
While not required, I also felt the need to write another letter, once again detailing my health complications (the third time), in hopes that it would aid in the appeal process. Although Dean Hill was incredibly helpful, and the process itself wasn’t the worst I had experienced (re: provider form), the fact that I had to prove multiple times that my needs were valid was incredibly demeaning.
If someone is asking for an accommodation, it’s because they need that accommodation. I haven’t even bothered getting academic accommodations for my disabilities because I know that the process will be horrible and belittling, and I’m lucky that my academic requirements for this year are lenient enough that I don’t need the College to officially give me access to accommodations.
If disabled folks have to go through hoops and practically beg for an accommodation at Hamilton, then Hamilton is not accessible (not to mention the complete lack of physical accessibility here, given no one in a wheelchair would be able to attend school or work at the College).
Disabled students, faculty, and staff deserve to have their needs accommodated for and the place they work/live/study at to be completely accessible to them. They also deserve for their knowledge and understanding of their own health complications and needs to be respected, and more importantly for their right to privacy to be respected by the College.
It is absolutely horrifying that disabled folks at Hamilton have to depend on the College’s willingness to treat them as humans in order to attend and/or work here. As always, Hamilton needs to be doing significantly better.