Defining Safe: For students with accommodations, AccessibleNU is helpful, but can still go further

Haley Fuller, Copy Chief

HALEY FULLER: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Haley Fuller, and this is Defining Safe, a podcast about the experiences of marginalized communities on campus.

Like many colleges around the country, Northwestern has an office dedicated to accessibility on campus in order to serve students who need accommodations. That office is AccessibleNU. According to AccessibleNU director and Communication alum Alison May, as of March 2018, around nine percent of the undergraduate student body was registered with the office for accommodations. One of these students is Weinberg freshman Christine Potermin. Christine has polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis, an autoimmune disorder with several symptoms including severe pain, sickness from her medications, decreased mobility and mental health issues. She had accommodations in high school that she hoped to transfer to Northwestern.

CHRISTINE POTERMIN: So it involves lots and lots of medications that make me very sick and also have limited physical capacity, etc, etc. I’ve had mental health issues related to it and all sorts of other fun complications.

HALEY FULLER: In high school, Christine had a Section 504 Plan as part of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Act prohibits the discrimination of students on the basis of disability. Schools are required to provide accommodations to allow students to fully participate in academics and school life. When she arrived at Northwestern in the fall, she gave AccessibleNU a copy of her 504 Plan and set up a meeting with the office, who worked out a plan for her. She said the plan is working pretty well.

CHRISTINE POTERMIN: So we mostly looked at, like, how my 504 Plan accommodations would transfer into a college setting. For example, in high school I had extra passing time between classes, just because I can only walk so fast when I’m in a lot of pain. That’s not as much of a thing on a college campus. Coming in late isn’t something that is as penalized as it is in high school. So, the option he gave me was priority registration for classes so that I can plan out my classes so that they’re not too far, I have plenty of time to walk. Another accommodation I have is notetaking in class. My arthritis is really bad in my hands. They’re, like, swollen all the time. And I have limited range of motion, which basically translates to: I can’t write very fast. So, I have a hard time keeping up in class when they’re going real fast, etc. So, they gave me a software for my computer for free — that usually costs a lot of money — and they gave me permission to record lectures. It’s really nice, I record the lecture, and then I, like, type notes into it, and it lines up the notes with the part of the lecture and then I can go back and listen to it and finish writing my notes later on, which is really nice, because otherwise, I literally wouldn’t be able to copy down the other information where other students can get down everything. So it just kind of levels the playing field a bit.

HALEY FULLER: The goal of AccessibleNU is to provide students with disabilities the opportunity to access all aspects of a Northwestern education, from academics to housing to extracurriculars.

CHRISTINE POTERMIN: I guess I’ve been lucky in that regard. Another accommodation I have is separate testing, so I have extended time for testing — I have one and a half times the regular amount of time, which is nice for, like, written tests because, again, I can only write so fast physically, and then it just usually is in a separate environment, just because that’s how AccessibleNU testing works. So, depending on the test and depending on the professor’s preference, I will either take it at AccessibleNU, they have testing facilities there, or if there’s enough kids, students that have accommodations, that professor will have a separate testing room at the same time. That room will just go longer and usually, a TA will be proctoring that exam.

So far, I haven’t really had any issues with it. There was a couple technical difficulties with scheduling testing, but we pretty much resolved that. I haven’t really taken very many classes with exams. They’re mostly just papers, so I just kind of write the paper on my own.

HALEY FULLER: While the system usually works, sometimes it malfunctions and it’s necessary to speak directly to the professor to get the appropriate accommodations. Getting Northwestern approval does not guarantee you will seamlessly get support in class.

CHRISTINE POTERMIN: You have to register for accommodations for all your classes at the beginning of the quarter and choose which accommodations you want for each class. I just generally check all the boxes and hit ‘done’ even if it doesn’t necessarily apply, which I recommend doing, just in case. My Spanish class said that I was good for accommodations. And then a week later, it was like, no accommodations. I just talked to my professor. She’s great. There’s not a whole lot of exams in Spanish and I haven’t really needed any extra time, because they’re short and she gives plenty of time. So, I just talked to her and she was like, “If you ever need extra time on something, you can just stay late.”

An accommodation I wish I had was I really want to be able to have extended deadlines in case something happens. A lot of professors are great, you can work with them and figure something out. But some of them are more like, “Oh, if you’re going to need an extension you need to let me know a week ahead of time.” But unfortunately, that’s not really how my body works. I get really sick really suddenly. I was in bed sick with a fever for a week. I also would really love if there was an accommodation for absences to not count against your grade in smaller classes. Because of that, I’ve had to go to class with a fever a couple of times, which was not fun, and being sick and having to go out and do things just makes me sick longer. And even if it’s not a cold and fever kind of thing, my medications make me really sick sometimes, and it’s just day-to-day. There’s days when it’s just really hard for me to get out of bed or I’m throwing up because the medications. It’s been a struggle for me to do my work and do it well. I’ve been having to turn things in without them being the best that I can do or just not turning them in. So, it’s been kind of hard to juggle that.

HALEY FULLER: While Christine is mostly happy with her accommodations, the differences between high school and college call for more accommodations. While her academics are doable right now, she said other adaptations would allow her to achieve her full academic potential, which is the mission of AccessibleNU. However, the biggest problem Christine has faced has been judgement and misunderstanding from her peers.

CHRISTINE POTERMIN: I feel like the campus culture with AccessibleNU is kind of interesting. I’ve had several — more than several — conversations with people that have been like, “You get priority registration. That’s so nice. I wish I could have that. You don’t even need that. That’s so nice. That’s a luxury. You’re a freshman and you got into Morty’s class. How the heck did that happen? That’s not fair.” I get a lot of that. And I do get it. People are jealous — they want to have this also, but I wish I didn’t have to have priority registration. I wish I could just have a normally functioning body. That would be great. I think people don’t realize what they have, and then they throw a fit about trying to level the playing field. I’ve also had things said to me about recording lectures and it’s, yes, it is allowed. Yes, I need it. Yes, this is a valid thing. You don’t need to attack me for it. It’s just a culture thing and a stigma thing and just having an invisible disability. No one really understands or gets it.

HALEY FULLER: Despite the stigma she’s faced, Christine is overall satisfied with the support she’s received from AccessibleNU and the transition from her 504 Plan. Communication sophomore Chloe Bivona has had a similar experience academically, finding the process to be pretty straightforward.

CHLOE BIVONA: Getting AccessibleNU — so, I think there was something that I had to fill out by July before I entered my freshman year to make sure my accommodations from high school transferred over. And then, from that point on, it was a pretty straightforward process where I think I met with somebody when I started school about how to set up classes and how to register, so that the teachers know that I have the accommodations and that AccessibleNU knows. Especially in those larger lecture classes, where you might have the teacher proctoring it versus actually taking it in AccessibleNU, and that’s pretty simple. At the start of every quarter, I, like, click all the classes and then I register for my accommodations and I do it for pretty much every class, even if I know I’m not gonna have a test or assessment, because just in case something comes up, I want to have it.

HALEY FULLER: Chloe hasn’t run into any huge issues with AccessibleNU or her professors. However, like Christine, she finds that sometimes things need to be done differently for different classes.

CHLOE BIVONA: The only class that’s kind of a different situation is Italian where the teachers will proctor it and I’ll go take it in the office and I’ll find time with them to take it, which is helpful, because for something like that, I obviously wouldn’t want to take it in that test center because I’d probably need to ask questions for somebody who speaks Italian, and that wouldn’t be reasonable in the test center. The other thing was last year, I had a seminar professor, where we only had papers and I think he was confused why I requested the AccessibleNU thing. He emailed me and was like, “What’s your issue?” The way he reached out was, like, through AccessibleNU, so they knew, and they were like you don’t have to answer anything you’re uncomfortable with. So, that was helpful.

I have testing anxiety. So, I put in the accommodation request just in case something comes up or there’s a change in the syllabus, but I probably shouldn’t need anything because it’s an essay-based class. But we got on well. It’s not like he was impolite. I definitely need the extra time. I do definitely freeze up on tests and I tend to use up all the time.

HALEY FULLER: While accommodations can be a tricky thing to navigate, Christine and Chloe have found that the plans generated by AccessibleNU have leveled the playing field and helped them get the support they need. To learn more about AccessibleNU or register yourself, you can go to

HALEY FULLER: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Haley Fuller. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time for another episode of Defining Safe.

HALEY FULLER: This episode was reported and produced by me, Haley Fuller. It was edited by Kalen Luciano and Heena Srivastava. The Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Northwestern is Troy Closson.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @haley_fuller_

Related stories:
In Focus: With demand for greater accessibility, Northwestern staff, students aim to close institutional gaps
Office of Services for Students with Disabilities now AccessibleNU, changes location