Navigating Post-Secondary Education with SpA

Navigating post-secondary education in itself can be challenging. 

Moving away from home, making new friends, declaring a major and balancing your social life, relationships and school life can be challenging  for anyone. Adding chronic illness to this mix may seem like an impossible balancing act, but rest assured, young adults with SpA from all across Canada have been surviving and thriving throughout their time at post-secondary institutions. It is possible to be successful with good planning.

Below are tips to help you navigate post-secondary education while living with SpA.

Register with your School’s Accessibility or Disability Service Office  

It can be daunting and intimidating to do this, but it can alleviate so much stress from your life. Every school’s office will be different but usually you can register for accommodations for exams, assignments, attendance and more. 

In general, registering with the office means that you have “approved accommodations” and therefore you are not required to repeat and justify yourself to every professor you meet. However, many students have had very positive experiences disclosing directly to professors, it depends on your level of comfort. 

If you are newly diagnosed or new to post-secondary education, you may not even know what accommodations you need but the advisors from the accommodation’s office should be able to guide you through it. In some cases, accommodation advisors may ask for medical documentation (i.e. a letter from your doctor or rheumatologist) to verify your condition. 

It’s recommended to register for your accommodations as soon as you are diagnosed. Even if you don’t end up needing all of them right away, you’ll thank yourself later. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a flare during finals season without any available accommodations. You can use this printout to help guide your conversation with the accessibility advisors.

Remember that asking for help is NOT giving up. Asking for help will allow you to optimize your academic environment to allow you to succeed. Below are some possible accommodations you may want to consider: 

  • Time accommodation for exams. Extra time or “stop-watch time” may be allotted to students. Stop-watch time allows you to pause your exam and take breaks as needed, which may be useful if you frequently need to take stretch breaks. 
  • Ability to write exams on your computer (for short answer and long answer questions). This can be beneficial if you experience pain in your hands or wrists. 
  • Ergonomic chair and/or desk for exams and assessments as well as in the classroom. Most accessibility offices will have special rooms for writing exams where you can request a more comfortable option depending on your symptoms. Some classrooms may have reserved accessible chairs for students who need them. If the classrooms aren’t already set up for you, the accessibility office can often bring the required equipment into the classroom on the days of your courses. 
  • Extensions for assignments. Living with a chronic illness often includes countless appointments with healthcare professionals which can take up a lot of your time. Additionally, fatigue is often a symptom of SpA. All of this combined means that it can be difficult to keep up with due dates. 
  • Flexibility with attendance. Some courses may require mandatory attendance which can be difficult if they interfere with doctors appointments, flare days or extreme fatigue when going to school and sitting in a lecture feels impossible. The accessibility office can usually help you design a plan that allows you to come to an agreement with your professors. 
  • Access to lectures notes. This can be useful if you are missing a lot of class time or if you cannot take notes during class. Typically, it is another student in the class who takes the notes and it is all done anonymously. 

Consider Taking a Reduced Course Load

Prioritizing your health and well-being is more important than finishing your degree “on-time.” Doing well in 3 courses is better than suffering in 5. Some schools consider lighter course loads as full-time for students with disabilities which still allows you to qualify for funding and other things that require full-time status. 

Look into Financial Aid Opportunities for Students with Disabilities

Your institution’s student aid office may have bursaries available for students living with disabilities and you may qualify for extra financial aid from your province as well. 

Make Prioritized To-Do Lists 

We all know that living with chronic illness is basically a full-time job so it can sometimes be difficult to balance academics with this. Every day, write a (realistic) list of what you need to do, both for your academics and for yourself/your health and then prioritize what is most important.

Stop Feeling Guilty 

We all know that one person who is studying 24/7 and can make you feel bad when they tell you they’ve already read the entire textbook and are ready for the exam. Don’t let that person get to you. If you need to stop studying because fatigue is taking over you, or you need to go for a walk to keep your joints mobile — DO IT! You will notice that you will be more productive academically when your body and mind feel good. 

It’s also important to stop comparing yourself to others. Yes this is cliché but it’s so important. Remember that everyone is on their own journey. 

Set Boundaries in Your Social Life

It can be so easy in post-secondary institutions to get caught up in a busy social life with events happening almost every night. While this may sound fun, it’s always important to prioritize your health and your body when it comes to socializing. Know your limits, get enough sleep, plan ahead and clearly communicate these boundaries with those around you. 

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