Submission: “The University’s Inadequate System for Handling Disability Made Me Sicker”—An Open Letter to Vice Chancellor Pettit

Photo courtesy of Krys Méndez.

Krys Méndez
PhD Candidate, Ethnic Studies
University of California, San Diego

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Dr. Becky Pettit
Vice-Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion
University of California, San Diego

Dear Dr. Becky Pettit,

I write this open letter in an attempt to open a dialogue around issues faced by students with disabilities and medical conditions on our campus, highlighting my own case (as described in The Triton’s article from February 4th, 2019, “Student Workers Stand Behind Graduate Student Facing Unemployment Due to Disability”) as an example of the consequences of administrative failure to address life-and-death issues impacting student employees.

For over a decade, I’ve lived with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), an incurable, autoimmune condition that causes damage to the brain and spinal cord. In fact, MS is one of the most common causes of disability among young adults, and in the absence of aggressive intervention, can lead to progressively worsened health over time.

Undoubtedly, while getting through five years of graduate school is a hard-won accomplishment in its own right, it is especially so when you embody intersecting marginalities as a disabled, queer, first-generation scholar of color. Yet, despite having faced obstacles and adversities unfamiliar to most in academia, I never anticipated a harrowing ordeal like my current situation—one in which I’ve been forced, for no fault of my own, to fight for income security and health benefits on a quarter-to-quarter basis.

Of course, no one goes to graduate school hoping to endanger one’s health. Yet, in failing to provide timely and reasonable accommodations, the university administration continues to play Russian roulette with my life, exacerbating an already-precarious situation while impeding on personal efforts to manage my medical condition. Despite having done my due diligence in researching funding options, I was still left with no choice but to advocate for myself month after month, in one academic office after the other, while fighting off neurological pain, fatigue, and other aggravated symptoms. To my disappointment, the administrative response to my predicament has consisted of much shoulder shrugging, finger pointing, and references to ‘legal responsibilities.’

It doesn’t take much to imagine what months of chronic stress and insecurity will do to you, particularly in a state of heightened vulnerability like mine. Consider, for instance, the impact of the abrupt cancellation of my TA appointment in September, in which I was left without an equivalent reassignment or comparable income and healthcare security. While last-minute advocacy by my union helped safeguard my medical insurance in September, I was still negatively impacted by the loss of over half my income while attending to my research and academic responsibilities. Months of living in the shadow of chronic stress and insecurity also led to new infections and symptoms that interacted poorly with my pre-existing condition, landing me in the Emergency Room four times in two and a half months.

It bears repeating: The university’s inadequate system for handling disability made me sicker and drove me to the ER.

It is difficult for me to understand and accept this situation. For one thing, I took several measures to avoid this crisis. Not only did I communicate my health needs and provide medical documentation in a timely manner, but I also provided administrators a number of options and strategies for accommodating me. I also have a fairly straightforward case of disability, with countless organizations, books, and websites devoted to the study of MS.

On the other hand, UCSD has demonstrated it not only has the resources to create jobs, but that it can also make work re-arrangements when necessary. Thanks to our family accommodations policy, many abled students and faculty at UCSD can access much-needed job modifications (such as temporary relief of teaching duties) as well as paid leaves of absence for childcare. Additionally, given my medical need for a self-paced job with a flexible workload—a standard accommodation for MS—I’m perplexed by how an internationally acclaimed university with over $1.2 billion in research funding could argue a scarcity of funds for a graduate researcher position.

While I understand that creating a new set of policies to deal with cases like mine may take time (to say nothing of creating a culture of inclusivity), please consider how my ordeal could have been prevented through previous decisive action. My 9-month-old case has already exceeded stipulations of timeliness set by the student union contract, as well as 30-day time frame suggested by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It is also  my understanding that this issue of accommodations for sick and disabled graduate students has been recognized and discussed by administrators for years. If your office is unable to take swift action, who can?

Last year, in an interview with the magazine, Women in Higher Education, you described a desired legacy of making UCSD a “more welcoming, more inclusive, more vibrant community” in which people are encouraged to take “accountability seriously.” While I believe we should all play a role in dismantling academic ableism at UCSD, as the Vice-Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, your office will be particularly crucial to any short- or long-term term solutions that emerge.

Dr. Pettit, I would like to work with your office to help create a more welcome, inclusive, and vibrant community on our campus. Yet, if we are truly committed to tackling ableism, we must act now. Today, in the middle of Black History Month, it may behoove us to remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s classic refrain, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Sincerely,
Krys Méndez

Krys Méndez is a fifth-year Ph.D. Candidate in Ethnic Studies. Krys’s research examines Central American migration, urban geography, and security politics. You can learn more about Krys in his fundraiser page for more aggressive MS treatment, or keep up with his Facebook page or website.

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