“I guess you have to take it elsewhere.” and other experiences as a disabled student at Stanford (plus lots of tips!!)

You might be shocked to know (I was) that professors receive zero training in disability accommodations. Zero. I have been working on this, and after many meetings faculty chairs will have their first ever disability training (15 mins) in January during their 3 hour mandatory training. This is only the beginning – Stanford has so far to go – and I want all students to know that your professors do not know what they are talking about! They do not know your rights. They will often tell you that an accommodation is not possible or reasonable when you have an absolute right to it. I am going to list some of the issues I have faced while attending Stanford as a disabled student. If you don’t care about that (no worries, I won’t be offended) skip to Part 2 for tips on how to navigate Stanford with a disability (many of these tips are universal, so if you don’t go to Stanford they can still be helpful!). Also, I came with receipts – I really went there.

Part 1: My Experiences at Stanford

Housing Costs:

When I returned to school for the first time in January 2017, I was placed in Munger as a result of my doctor-mandated disability accommodations. Okay, great, I thought. Then I got my student bill. It costs about $10k more per year to live in Munger than it does to live in an undergraduate dorm. Stanford did not cover these expenses. I contacted my OAE officer, who basically told me tough luck and that this wasn’t covered. I asked financial aid, who told me to ask OAE. This is really common – being pinged around but no one actually solving the problem. I finally reached out to Lauren Schoenthaler, Stanford’s disability lawyer, and she shockingly resolved the situation by getting financial aid to increase my package to cover the difference. This took hours of my time and was super stressful, but what bothered me the most was that OAE told me no. The answer was not no, and it shouldn’t have been anyway. It is not an accommodation if I can’t afford it. I tweeted about this, and several other undergraduates placed in graduate housing reached out to me about their expenses. I explained to them what I had done, and they followed the same process. But most students don’t know about this. When you are told “no” it is not intuitive to keep asking. Stanford knows this. “No” does not mean no when it comes to accommodations.

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By the way, two years later Stanford is in the final process of approving funding to automatically pay this difference for disabled students placed in graduate housing. When you make noise you can make a change!

Stanford Chemistry:

Most of you know about my experience with Stanford Chemistry. I wrote a post about it here: Stanford While Disabled. Here is an excerpt:

There are 9 labs in my organic chemistry class. I made it to labs 1-7 and missed lab 8 due to a freaking transfusion reaction to IVIG. I was literally shaking, my kidneys were freaking out, I obviously could not go to chemistry lab. I emailed the professor and she told me that the lab would have to count as a zero, dropping my grade about 5%. I responded that there was no way for me to make it to the lab and this is why I have OAE accommodations. She responded that she was “starting to become uncomfortable with being able to say that you actually completed enough of the course.” To clarify, I completed 7/9 PSETs and 8/9 labs. I also took both midterms and will obviously take the final. She is uncomfortable. Sorry prof – I’m uncomfortable every second of my life.

Little did I know this would become a 6-month long debacle. I know it’s normally not cute to talk about grades, but it’s relevant here. I need a B in all my medical school prerequisites as a condition of my acceptance to Mount Sinai. After this missed lab, I received a B- in Chem 33. If this were any other scenario, I probably would have let it go, but this meant I would have to retake the entire class. After how it went the first time around, I simply could not do this. Also, it wasn’t right. So, I met with OAE, who again shrugged their shoulders. Finally, I got a meeting with the chair of the chemistry department. This event had occurred May, the course had been completed in June and by now it was October. This meeting was honestly traumatizing. The chair went on and on about how they did not have the resources to offer make-up labs, how there was no possible alternative assignment, how they also have this issue with NCAA athletes (which is a really offensive comparison). He said disabled students are a burden. I asked if he knew about the ADA and he physically scoffed, countering that he was not a lawyer. I responded that neither am I, but I still have to follow the law. Finally, I asked him what he wants me to do as a disabled student. After a long pause, he said the words “I guess you have to take it elsewhere.”  My jaw dropped. Since that day, I have heard those words thousands of times in my mind. The chemistry department has made it extremely clear that disabled students are not welcome, and despite knowing about this OAE did nothing. In the end, he changed my grade to a B, probably just to shut me up. I took it and left.

Moving in:

When I moved back into Munger this year after my second medical leave of absence, my move-in window was set for 1-5 PM. I had a doctor’s appointment at 2 PM in Oakland that day, so I emailed the manager explaining that I am disabled and have a doctor’s appointment. I asked if I could come at 11 AM instead – I didn’t even need to go into the apartment, just get the keys. She told me I would have to do after-hours check-in. I did this last year, and I had to wait 2 hours outside in the sun, sitting on the ground outside of a building in Escondido Village. Because of my photopheresis treatments, I cannot wait in the sun. I explained this, and she responded that getting my keys 2 hours early would not be “equitable.” I had to call OAE, have OAE call her and explain disability accommodations, and finally she was required to allow me to move in. While this was not a huge deal, encounters like this are frequent. No one at Stanford is trained in the ADA. They don’t know your rights, and they will tell you “no” even when you are entitled to an accommodation. Read her cute, condescending email here:

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Medical Late Withdrawal: 

Last fall, I was enrolled in 3 courses. I went into kidney failure and could not complete the quarter. I was able to finish one class and received incompletes in the other two. When I came back this fall, I needed to finish these incompletes on top of my other courses. I quickly realized that this was not possible, and immunology was the obvious one to drop because I was missing so much class (it conflicted with BMT clinic frequently). I reached out to OAE, and this was their suggestion: If you take the F, will your medical school rescind you? Do you think you can do the minimum and get a C or a D?

This is a horrific thing to say. Disabled students are entitled to accommodations that allow our transcripts to be reflective of our work, not how much class our disabilities cause us to miss. I asked about a late withdrawal and whether that was an option, and my OAE officer had no idea. I went to UAR, who said they had no idea and sent me to a dean. Finally, the dean told me that yes, there is a form to petition for a late withdrawal. I turned in medical documentation, wrote a long statement, and got an email of support from my professor. It was a lot of work. After the withdrawal was approved, I received this message:


The only proper response to that message is this:

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^thank you for this, Vanessa. ilysm.

The idea that I withdrew because I was not “attentive” is so offensive. I was “attentive.” I got really sick after I enrolled in that course. Incompletes last a year before switching to Fs, and a year later I still wasn’t better. This had nothing to do with inattention. Not to mention that this petition is hard enough to file, and I doubt they are approving them because someone was not “attentive.” If they approved it, then they decided you had a good reason. There is no reason to shame the student.


There have been more incidents than this, but these were some of the ones that stuck in my mind. The common theme is that I am often told “no” when “no” is not the answer. The most maddening thing, in my opinion, is that OAE is often the team telling me no. They are supposed to be our advocates, so when they say “no” of course most students would be inclined to believe them. I almost wonder if OAE is doing more damage than good.

Part 2: Things you should know

So, when should you take “no” for an answer and when should you not? If someone is telling you “no” then what should you do?

First of all, you are entitled to “reasonable” accommodations. This means that in a class your accommodations cannot change the “nature” of the course. For example, if you can’t show up to class then a group/project-based class won’t work. They can’t let you do it all from home. If you have anxiety that prevents you from speaking publicly, then you can’t take a public speaking class and do no speeches. However, for something like missing a chemistry lab, you should be able to make it up or have an alternative assignment. If you are sick you are entitled to an extension even if the professor says no. Your professors have to work with you – this is not in addition to their job, it is part of their job. When a professor tells you no in response to something you could not prevent, escalate it. This also goes for issues with housing, late withdrawals, mobility accommodations, paying for accommodations, and anything else you might encounter. Do not take professors’ (or other university employees) word about what is “reasonable” as law – many of them know this is a buzzword and say it even if the accommodation is reasonable. If you think it is reasonable, or even if you aren’t sure, then keep asking. So, who should you ask? Here goes:

  1. OAE – You have to start here. Forward your email communications to your OAE office and ask them for help. I find that it is helpful to offer suggestions to the professor about resolving the situation (i.e. I missed a chemistry lab and you say you don’t have the TAs to hold another one, so can I do the write-up and then go to office hours and talk to the TA about the lab for 20 mins?). If you don’t have an idea, you can also ask your OAE officer for suggestions. Many times this will be the end of the road!
  2. When OAE isn’t helpful you still have options! Here are some of them:
    1. The Diversity and Access Office: Rosa Gonzalez, the director of ADA compliance, can help you resolve the situation. If she can’t, then she can also help you file a grievance with the university. I have never filed a grievance because no one had ever told me about it! It’s important to file grievances relatively soon after an event occurs, but of course no one told me about this in the six months of meetings about chemistry.
    2. Lauren Schoenthaler – She is a lawyer and Vice Provost of Institutional Equity and Access. She is one of very few people at Stanford who has ever taken me seriously and actually helped me resolve a situation (i.e. housing).
    3. University ombuds: Ombudsman are here to “help you resolve and cope more effectively with tough situations.”  I have met with them before, but I didn’t find them very helpful. Maybe others have, though.
    4. Susie Brubaker-Cole: VP of Student Affairs. She holds office hours. I went once and told her about all of my experiences. She didn’t actually do anything for me, but she did listen and promise to take my thoughts into account. We will see if this actually happens.
    5. Deans, provosts, professors: Ask people you trust. The most important thing in a conflict is to have someone on your side. The hardest part of finding accommodations at Stanford for me has been that no one seems to care. I am frequently sent from office to office with no resolution. If you can get someone to be invested in helping you, it will go miles both logistically and emotionally.
    6. Other disabled students: Know that you are not alone. There are so many of us and we all have tips and tricks.

These tips are Stanford-specific, but the overall message is this: keep asking. Know that the people telling you “no” have no idea what they are talking about. Trust your instincts. Ask for help, even if you aren’t sure you “deserve” an accommodation. Don’t take no for an answer unless you fully understand why that is the answer. I am not saying you should get everything you want – I don’t expect magic grades handed to me for no work, or a 3-month-long extension on a reading response, or someone to carry me around on a throne. I just want to go to school, do my assignments, and live in a place that is safe for my health like everyone else. You deserve that, too.

PS here is some info about some changes I am trying to make at Stanford. Click the tweet to unroll the thread and read all of them.



One thought on ““I guess you have to take it elsewhere.” and other experiences as a disabled student at Stanford (plus lots of tips!!)

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  1. Hey girl, I’m an alum, ’08! Just wanted to let you know that after reading this post, I let the alumni office know that I won’t be donating again until they show me concrete improvement measures for everything you experienced here. I know it’s just a drop in the bucket, but it’s what I can do! Please reach out if there’s anything I can do to help.


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