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Seven Things I Tell My College Suitemates About My Disability

How I talk to my college suite mates about my vision loss, disability, and chronic illness.

As a college student with vision impairment and chronic illness, I have lived with several suitemates, meaning that I have my own bedroom and share a common area and bathroom with 1-3 other girls. Often times, I am the first vision impaired person that they have ever met, and they don’t know how to react to having a suitemate with a disability. One of my friends who also has a vision impairment was telling me how their college roommates and suitemates often didn’t understand how their vision loss impacted them, and how it led to a lot of frustration. Today, I will be sharing seven things I tell my college roommates about my disability, and why being open about these things is important.

How I use assistive technology in my dorm

When I lived in an apartment-style dorm, I put small tactile dots on the side of the door so I would know where to swipe my ID card, and I added dots on top of parts of kitchen appliances as well. There was a shower grab bar in our bathroom so I could balance myself in the shower. I also told them that I use a blindness cane when traveling outside of the apartment, though not inside the apartment because it is a familiar place. I think it helped for them to know that these items didn’t just come out of nowhere and that they were there to help me.

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I’m not going to wave back at you

A couple of my suitemates were confused as to why I seemed to ignore them in public whenever they waved at me. My friend had the same problem and wondered why their roommates were upset with them for not waving. The reality is, neither of were purposefully ignoring our suitemates- we just could not see them. I told my suitemates to identify themselves when they approach me so that I would know who I am talking to and could properly hold a conversation. It’s as simple as saying “hey Veronica, it’s My Name!”

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There are times I don’t realize I am making a mess

Once upon a time, I spilled a large amount of water on the counter and had no idea, because I couldn’t see that the counter was wet. I’ve also exploded chicken in the microwave and couldn’t see the white meat of the chicken against the white color of the microwave, so it went unnoticed. I request that if my suitemates notice I have made a mess and didn’t clean it up that they should tell me so I can clean it.

When it comes to cleaning the apartment as a whole, I have trouble bending over and instead buy cleaning supplies or try to do simple tasks such as taking out the trash.

Please don’t move things without telling me first

So, this isn’t my story, but one of my other friends came back to their apartment to find that their roommates had rearranged all of the furniture. My poor friend found out about this new arrangement after they tripped over a table and fell on the floor. After that, they asked their roommates if they could give them a warning if they were going to be rearranging the furniture so they could be prepared. This is especially important if you use mobility aids such as leg braces or walkers, since you have to make sure you have adequate space to walk.

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Being mindful of environmental triggers

I have a chronic migraine condition that can be triggered by flashing or strobing lights, and the only treatment for my migraines is sleep. As a result, I ask that my suitemates do not make a lot of noise or use strobe lights in the common area (yes, I actually had suitemates that did this). When I lived in a suite-style dorm, meaning that we only shared a bathroom, I didn’t feel it was necessary to share this information.

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What to do in an emergency

Okay, this one is pretty important. Make sure that your suitemates know how to help you in the event of a fire alarm, flood, or other emergency that requires evacuation. Since I am sensitive to flashing lights, I would ask my suitemates to guide me out of the building while I had my eyes closed if it was necessary.

For students with chronic illness, I recommend also telling your suitemates what to do if you have a medical emergency. Do they need to call 911? Do they need to leave you alone? Or do they need to follow another set of instructions? For example, when my suitemate passed out in the shower, I knew that I needed to check on them because more than an hour had passed since they got in the shower, and that I would need to turn off the water and call 911.

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If needed, an explanation of my condition

While I am open about my vision impairment and chronic illness, I don’t feel the need to explain my entire condition unless my suitemates ask for more information. One of the tools that I find is the most helpful is showing them a picture that simulates my vision loss.

One of my friends doesn’t tell their roommates that they have chronic pain because they are worried that they will try to steal medication. This illustrates an important point- you don’t have to reveal everything right away, or at all.

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How I have these conversations

When I talk to my suitemates about my disability, I try to make it an informal sounding conversation so that they aren’t intimidated. We have these conversations the first week of living together so that they aren’t surprised later, but I found that these conversations are just as natural as the ones I have with my professors about my disability accommodations.

Final thoughts

I have found that being upfront and honest about my disability and how it affects me has helped me a lot with my relationship amongst my suitemates. By telling my suitemates these seven things about my disability, we can coexist and live peacefully together, instead of arguing and being confused later on.

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com
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