Living With a Chronic Illness: College Presents Problems

By Jori Hamilton

College should be a time in your life when you broaden your horizons, meet new people, and enjoy the challenge of learning new ways of thinking. However, if you have a chronic illness or disability, you might be met with interruptions to the normal rhythms of college life that make it a bit more challenging to find your footing. You must learn to balance your academic success, extracurricular activities, and manage your hardships, often alone for the first time in your life. If your parents helped by advocating on your behalf for an inclusive education in your younger years, you might feel even more pressure as you start your post-secondary journey.

All of this pressure can leave you feeling a bit shaky about continuing your path of higher education. However, with a few lessons and support from your professors, you can get off to a good start in no time.

Challenges of Living with a Chronic Illness in College

Ask any college student if they feel pressure about succeeding in this new world and you will likely be met with a resounding, “yes” — however, because of your chronic condition, the demands of college-life can feel even more significant.


  • You might struggle to find balance living with a roommate on “sick” days. Consider sharing your needs with them to develop a plan.
  • If you have any special dietary needs, be sure to speak with your advisor to see how you notify the cafeteria staff of dietary requirement so that you can remain on any specific diets.
  • If you move away from your hometown, you’ll probably need to find new care providers, which can be a unique experience if your parents have always helped you. Talk to your physician at home or the university clinic to get suggestions of providers in the area who treat others with your condition.

What’s more, college students worry about money. You might be living off a minimal budget while you watch your student loan amounts steadily rise year after year, compounding on top of medical bills, especially if you no longer qualify for your parent’s health insurance. This can leave you with even more stress over how medical bills will affect your credit score and long-term financial success.

If finances are a worry, you may be tempted to prioritize some health concerns over others — however, it’s critical that you understand how ignoring your condition can lead to other chronic health problems. One example of this is the connection between diabetes and eye health. If you make the decision to slack on your diabetes care, the high blood sugar levels in your body could lead to poor eyesight, kidney damage, and nerve problems. It’s understandable that money may be tight when you’re pursuing a degree, but it’s never a good decision to not get the proper care needed for your overall wellness.  

How to Self-Advocate

It’s crucial to know that you have rights as a person with a chronic illness or disability. To fully understand your rights, you need to know a few essential details about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Post-secondary institutions are required by federal law to make reasonable accommodations to provide you with an equal opportunity to participate in college life. You might think that this is only for people with physical disabilities that change how they walk, talk, or otherwise get around. However, college students with chronic health conditions are covered as well.

The first step in knowing how to self-advocate is making sure you have a solid understanding of the ADA. You might need to self-identify as disabled with your university, which could be a simple or complex task depending on the school. One good thing is that most higher-learning institutions are more prepared now than ever before to help those with disabilities succeed.

All college students must learn how to speak with professors about problems or barriers as they arise. When you have a chronic illness, this is pivotal to your success. Schedule time with your professors to discuss possible absences or accommodations in private. It’s not necessary that you share any details with your peers, but if you want to succeed, you need to trust that your professors are here to help you in any way possible. Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a flare-up of your condition before you decide to talk to your instructors.

What Professors and Administrators Can Do To Help

Being a college professor today might be a bit different than it was for professors even 20 years ago in terms of working with people with chronic health conditions and disabilities. The ADA opened a whole new world for individuals with a variety of health issues to pursue higher education. This means that, as a professor, you need to know how you can help.

Remember That Not All Disabilities Are Visible

When you’re preparing activities in the classroom, keep in mind that not everyone with limitations will have a walker or wheelchair. Choose activities, ice breakers, and class projects with inclusivity in mind. Consider accommodations such as auditory software and braille materials for visually impaired students, and sign language interpreters and assistive listening devices for students who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Create a Seamless Process for Identifying

Students are trying to acclimate to their environment, so having to jump through multiple hoops to find the help they need can be tedious and even discouraging. Create a simple process for students to register with your office of disability services. Consider automation of this process through an app or other technology to cut down on wait times for appointments.

Make Classrooms Accessible

Universities often have beautiful old buildings that lack ramps, elevators, and central air conditioning. This type of environment can be difficult and even debilitating for students with mobility issues, breathing problems, heart conditions, or other chronic illnesses. Make sure that you have a process for students to report any special needs they have in regards to the physical facilities.

Host Support Groups

College campuses have a group for just about anything these days. Why not create a group for those with chronic illnesses and disabilities so that they can connect with others who are going through similar challenges? This is also an excellent place for administrators and professors to speak to students about accommodations that might be needed around campus and other ways to improve the college experience.

College is an exciting time of life for young adults. If you or your students are rising to the challenge of heading to university with a chronic illness, remember that this is a critical time for your success. Use these tips as a student, professor, or parent to get off on the right foot when attending college with a chronic illness.

Bio: Jori Hamilton is a writer from the Northwest who is passionate about education and social justice issues. You can follow her on Twitter @HamiltonJori

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