How I face ableism in university on a daily basis 

Having a service dog on campus makes my life a million times easier and allows me the opportunity to go to classes and feel safe on campus. Peach offers me the support I need for the functioning problems my disability presents. However, as someone with an invisible disability, I used to be able to walk around campus unnoticed. I told my therapist last year that I wish I was invisible because I feel like people are constantly looking at me, judging me, and of course, bullying and making fun of me. As someone with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) my brain is conditioned to interpret whispers, laughter, and talk from behind me as negative and directed at me personally. Due to my disorder, I usually jump to conclusions based on my biggest insecurities which usually manifest in weird obsessive thoughts; Did I forget to wear clothes? Do I have something stuck to me? Do I walk funny? Do I look weird?

Another huge fear stems from the fact that my disability is invisible and therefore invalid.

Background

I have learned how to accept these thoughts and de-escalate them; I’ve learned to cope. After being discharged from the hospital in which I spent over a thousand days in, I realized that I couldn’t go through society alone. 

The first year at McMaster University, my grades took a hit because I was trying to adjust to regular life and get an education at the same time. I saw several doctors and went through several treatment programs. We considered ketamine injections, electroconvulsive therapy, day treatment programs, quitting school for integration programs, moving into a supported household or crisis home indefinitely, etc. My meds tripled and right before I was ready to give up everything, someone came to me with an idea…“why don’t you get a service dog?” Peach was the key to my success and I was able to make it through summer and gain the confidence to try again because of her. But little did I know that this meant I would have to face my biggest fears every single day. 

My biggest fears as mentioned above are people making fun of me so I went through a phase when I didn’t want to be photographed ever because I hated how I looked and thought people would post it on the internet. Another huge fear stems from the fact that my disability is invisible and therefore invalid. I fear that it’s all made up in my head and I’m still in the hospital, just dreaming of getting out. After a few weeks of going to campus with Peach, I realized that I had to learn to cope with a whole new problem: people taking photos, staring, and approaching me due to my service animal. Of course this included all of my biggest fears because why the hell not! 

Hidden forms of ableism (and the obvious)

The benefits of having Peach with me outweighs the negative effects of people interacting with her, for the most part, so I choose to keep bringing her to school with me. I considered not bringing her several times but without Peach I lose a sense of safety, my anxiety increases, and my hallucinations (which are brought on by stress) start to get worse. But now that I learned that university students aren’t educated enough on disabilities to know that you should never interact with a service dog, I needed to learn to cope. Ableism on campus is funny because it’s so subtle people rarely notice it, or choose not to. For example, using the handicapped washroom which was built for accessibility purposes for persons with disabilities, for convenience, using handicapped entrances to get a better seat in class, blocking an accessibility entrance, blaming a student due to “laziness” when they know the student suffers from mental health problems/a mental illness, getting angry when someone with a disability inconveniences them especially when it means making them wait longer periods of time, and of course  interacting with service dogs. 

The most obvious way I can explain ablism to you in regards to Peach is a struggle I have everyday, twice a day; getting a seat on the bus. Due to Peach’s tiny legs and small size, she cannot stand on a bus without blocking people, falling, or sliding. It causes safety issues for people on the bus along with her own safety and mine. People love to take pictures of Peach on campus and yell at her (I’ve even received a comment from someone in a car driving who yelled “I love your dog”) but when I start to inconvenience them with my disability, such as needing a seat on the bus, they act like they don’t see her at all. Ableism at it’s best. 

How does it affect me?

Ableism on a university campus is alarming because we are there to be educated and are the future of the workforce. It’s sad to see so many people who don’t understand or ignore people with disabilities. What I personally struggle with are the people who literally stop what they are doing to get their phone and take a picture, I’ve even been filmed several times by people who didn’t even try to hide it. This makes me feel disrespected and almost like an animal in a zoo. My disability is on display. Peach is accessibility equipment, she’s not a toy. When Peach has her vest off, go nuts and take pictures because she’s a normal dog but when you take pictures of someone with a service dog, ask yourself; “would I do this to a person in a wheelchair?” If the answer is no: DON’T DO IT. I have become someone on campus to “spot with the cute dog.” As someone who wants to be invisible, this isn’t nice or comfortable for me in any way. Sadly, these people who interact with my service dog make me feel unwelcome, judged, and like I’m a freak because of my disability. This then triggers the thoughts in my mind; is my disability valid? If it isn’t then why did I spend 8 years in the hospital? Was it worth it? Did I waste my adolescence? Am I a joke?

 

How do I deal with it?

So how do I deal with facing these huge fears that have impacted my life so severely? I have an amazing support network at McMaster University. I am a part of a peer volunteer network for students with disabilities led by students with disabilities known as MACESS. I’m also a lead with the JackOrg McMaster chapter who focusses on de-stigmatizing mental health. On top of that I have a girlfriend and my sister who are extremely supportive in every possible way. Luckily, my girlfriend goes to the same school as me. I also have treatment about 4x a week and see my GP and Psych biweekly, so I get lots of support there. On top of that I have a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) group every week so I also get lots of support from there. The Wellness Centre at McMaster is fantastic and I’m so grateful for them. 

As for coping, I had to find my own way with how to deal with it when these outlets weren’t enough. This is when I created Peach’s Instagram to try and connect with other people who have service dogs. I was met with a really great community. After seeing Cole Sprouse’s “camera duels” I decided to take back control of the pictures being taken of me, by the ableists who took them. I did this by taking pictures of them and creating a card to hand out to everyone who interferes with Peach and I. I don’t actively have the cards for every single “awhhh” but if someone stops or takes a photo I make sure to give them one. 

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