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UW Tacoma Associate Professor Sushil Oswal and recent graduate Allison Kruse co-authored a research paper on barriers to higher education for students with bipolar disorder.

Allison Kruse graduated from UW Tacoma in 2018. She presently works as a project manager for Terawe, a company that specializes in cloud and artificial intelligence software solutions. “My workload includes writing, audio and video production, and research as well providing support for clients,” she said.

Kruse majored in writing studies on the technical communication track. “I learned about the possibilities of technical commuincation in my junior year during my first class with Dr. [Sushil] Oswal,” said Kruse. “I realized that there were so many opportunities in the field where I could really thrive.”

Kruse’s relationship with Oswal has evolved over time. The former was often a student in the latter’s class. “Dr. Oswal was definitely more than just a professor to me, he was a mentor, and, at times, my biggest and only support as I worked toward my degree,” said Kruse.

The traditional student-teacher role morphed as Kruse neared the end of her time at UW Tacoma. She and Oswal collaborated on a research paper that started during an independent study and continued after Kruse graduated. The finished product was published in the December 2018 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Social Inclusion.

The idea for the paper – barriers to higher education for students with bipolar disorder – came from Kruse. “I had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was still coming to terms with my diagnosis,” she said. “I struggled seriously with attending class and participating appropriately when experiencing a manic or depressive episode.”

Kruse’s experience with bipolar disorder is a major part of the paper. It says something that she was willing to talk about her struggles in a public forum and that she asked Oswal to help her through the process. “Every conversation I had with him was a lesson and every lesson he taught me helped both in my personal and professional life,” said Kruse. “I believe he always understood that, due to my bipolar disorder, stressors and difficulties in my life could create truly debilitating episodes that stretched for weeks or even months.”

An Education

Associate Professor Sushil Oswal defines accessible design as “design that has been conceptualized with all sorts of bodies in mind and takes into consideration the fact that different users employ different senses, abilities and approaches to access services, products, and ideas.”

Oswal’s research and teaching intersect with the fields of design, spatial and environmental technologies and accessibility for users with disabilities. “Most of the work in the field of accessible design has been done by people who have little, or no, firsthand experience of disability,” said Oswal. “I came into accessible design to fill this niche and a good percentage of my research builds on the lived experiences of disabled users.”

The prospect of working with Kruse appealed to Oswal for a number of reasons. For one, he relishes the chance to work with students. “A student’s interest always takes the upper hand because we want them to have an opportunity to study something they are curious about,” said Oswal.

Besides helping students pursue their scholarly interests, Oswal gets a chance to expand his knowledge base in the area of accessible design. “In Allie’s case, I learned a great deal about mental disabilities which is not the focus of my own research in disability studies,” he said. “More than that, Allie sharing her lived experiences with me during the writing process was an education in itself about my own teaching, our curricula and the institution where I’m a member of the faculty.”

Oswal guided those early efforts with Kruse. He pointed her toward reading material and offered critiques when needed. The nature of their collaboration changed as it proceeded. “Since this was Allie’s first paper for publication, she was both a student and co-author in our process of expanding and revising her original paper,” said Oswal. “She was a quick study in this learning process and very soon I really did not have the need to play the teacher.”

Ableism

The paper Kruse and Oswal co-created looks into the issues faced by students with bipolar disorder. “There is this idea that your disability cannot possibly be debilitating if it can’t be seen,” said Kruse. “From researching I found that students with bipolar disorder are more likely to give up or dangerously overwork themselves due to both external and internalized stigma.”

At the heart of Kruse and Oswal’s work is the concept of ableism. Ableism, as defined by the Center for Disability Rights, “is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities.”

Ableism in an academic setting can be difficult to spot. An example Kruse uses is class attendance. A faculty member might have a policy in place to promote participation. What happens to a student like Kruse whose bipolar disorder can make coming to class difficult, if not impossible. They can contact Disability Resources for Students and request accommodation but this can be problematic. “Stigma affects how a student is treated when asking for accommodations from professors, how they interact with other students and even how they’re perceived when they seek counseling through a university.”

“Disability-focused curriculum and pedagogy ask us to pay attention to the lived experiences of our students. It asks us to move our focus from information to people, from academic concepts to social contexts, and from theoretical propositions to community problems.” – Associate Professor Sushil Oswal

Thus, a well-meaning policy can have unintended consequences. For Kruse, being able to disclose one’s needs free of judgment shouldn’t be a difficult choice. “I often asked myself if it were going to be more helpful or hurtful to disclose or ask for help,” she said. “That internal struggle alone was often enough to trigger episodes for me, despite the fact that disclosure should never hurt.”

Kruse and Oswal identify issues in higher education but they also advocate for solutions. Training for faculty and staff is on their list as is including people with disabilities in the conversation. “It’s our moral responsibility as educators because when we originally built what we call a university in the United States and other parts of the world, we excluded a majority of the population from institutions of higher education,” said Oswal. “Certainly, we gave different reasons for each but all of those reasons denied the humanity of those who were kept outside the gates of the university and we failed to recognize their intelligence, their peculiar worldviews, and above all, their lived experiences.”

Access and Accomodations

“Our job is to work with a student to find out what accommodations are going to help them be successful in the classroom and in life,” says UW Tacoma Associate Director of Disability Resources for Students (DRS) Victor Flores.

Housed in the third floor of the Mattress Factory, DRS works to provide “access and accommodations” for students, faculty, staff and even the larger community. “Let’s say we’re hosting an even on campus,” said Flores. “A member of the public can contact us and we’ll work with them to make sure they get their needs met.”

In terms of students, DRS has established a system. “It really depends on a student’s prior experience,” he said. “If they’re new to the process then we typically start with a 30 minute consultation which gives us an opportunity to talk about the ways we can assist them.”

From there, students login to “myDRS” to submit an application for accommodations. “After that, they [the student] has to submit documentation about their diagnosis,” said Flores. “Then we schedule an access planning meeting where I sit down with the student and we work out a plan together. This part is crucial because it’s important for the student to know that we’re here to be their advocate.”

The final part of the process includes notifying relevant faculty. “We get them connected,” said Flores. “This gives them a chance to get to know each other and to talk about what is expected from each person.”

The range of accommodations varies and includes things like extra time to take a test or supplying chairs that support a student suffering from a back injury. “We’re always thinking about how students, faculty, staff and the community can access the campus and the university without any barriers.”

Section: 
Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / October 9, 2019
Photos by: 
Ryan Moriarty
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu