Conflicts over SDS accommodations reveal struggles with invisible disabilities

Nicole Yacura struggles with invisible disabilities of which were worsened by an experience with a USF professor. ORACLE PHOTO/CHAVELI GUZMAN

After her dual enrollment classes let out at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays in summer 2016, Nicole Yacura would sit inside the Boca Raton Tri-Rail Station waiting for her 9 p.m. train to arrive. As she leaned her head back on the wired wall that encased the bridge, a war took place inside her mind. One she had struggled with since she was six years old – her battle with depression and anxiety. 

When she came to USF, her lifelong struggle worsened.

In fall 2016, Yacura began her collegiate journey at USF as an environmental science and policy major. While she dreaded being away from home, she was eager to begin the new chapter in her life. Because of the limitations of having anxiety and depression, Yacura immediately registered for class and testing accommodations with Students with Disabilities Services (SDS). 

With these accommodations, Yacura would be given extra time on exams and would take them in a distraction-free room.

Initially, she never felt her accommodations or her conditions were a problem. For three semesters, her anxiety subsided some — she felt welcome. However, in fall 2017, Richard Pollenz, a professor who has taught for 30 years, changed that feeling entirely. 

She said when she mentioned the need to implement her requested accommodations in the course to Pollenz, her accommodations were viewed as an inconvenience to the course material and syllabus.

She said not only did her professor have a problem with the accommodations, Pollenz advised her to abandon them in the course. For the first time at USF, she said she felt as though her disabilities posed an obstacle between herself and her success. 

“Having somebody essentially call me out and question my accommodations, question the things I have in my life to make it a little bit normal made me feel abnormal, made me feel like a nuisance,” Yacura said. “It brought all that anxiety back.”

Pollenz denies these accusations, mentioning that he even went out of his way to accommodate Yacura and other students. 

“I met with ALL of the students who had SDS accommodation before the start of the semester and explained the four different assessments,” Pollenz said in an e-mail to The Oracle. “We all agreed that each student would take their exams in the SDS office and each would personally determine where they would complete the quizzes and homeworks attempt. 

“We also all agreed that they would take the in class assessments during the class and we would determine if there were any issues moving forward. I also indicated that the grading of in class assignments for SDS students would be based ON THE WORK COMPLETED and that anyone did not finish the work they could always come back after class to complete or review during office hours. This was also communicated to the SDS office. It was stated that if a student had an issue, they would come and see me and would discuss the situation. NO STUDENTS CAME TO SEE ME.”  

Despite her challenges in the course, Yacura never felt comfortable enough to meet one-on-one.  

“The only way I could get help to help my grade was by seeing him during office hours,” Yacura said. “If I’m scared to be in a classroom of 300 students with him, why would I go to office hours?”

Believing the accommodations she relied on to help her succeed academically were not being met, Yacura said she felt elevated anxiety every time she walked into the auditorium-sized classroom. 

“Every single class, I was fearful,” Yacura said. “My anxiety was through the roof every single time I walked into the building. I felt nauseous. It wouldn’t go away until I walked out the door.” 

According to Yacura, she was denied one of the SDS accommodations which states she should only have her pop quizzes be solely graded on the questions that were completed in the short period of time allotted. 

Her anxiety was so bad before one of the pop quizzes that she was biting her nails to the point that her fingers started to bleed, leaving her pop quiz uncompleted and stained with drops of blood. Before handing in her quiz, she wrote on the top “Dude, I’m bleeding” and still received a 25 percent.

During each of her classes, she would be uncertain of what was going to occur. According to Yacura, Pollenz made her feel uncomfortable through antagonizing her and singling her out. 

In one instance, while collecting over 200 pop quizzes, Pollenz approached her aisle with the stack of quizzes. When her professor arrived at her desk, the quizzes were slammed down in front of her following a question asked with what Yacura described as a menacing tone, “Was that too quiet or too loud for you?”

Throughout the semester, Yacura said she felt as though she had no opportunity to succeed and also felt that no matter how hard she tried, she would never be able to overcome the hurdles that her professor set. 

“My depression made me feel like a completely worthless human because it was just one professor standing in the way of me and my dream,” Yacura said. “That just made me feel so low. When you feel like there is nothing that you can do. When there is just one person standing in your way, it is so incredibly damaging to your self-esteem, to your ambitions, hopes and dreams. It ruined the whole semester for me.” 

On Dec. 20, she shared a detailed account of her experience on Facebook with friends and family. She urged the university to take a stronger stance toward helping faculty and students better understand the limitations of undergoing mental illness so no one else would have to go through what she did. 

However, little did she know other students had undergone similar experiences with other professors at USF. 

Larissa Parodi, a senior majoring in health sciences, said she had similar experiences with Pollenz. However, she has faced challenges in the psychology department as well. Parodi said professors view mental illness as an excuse to not accept academic responsibilities or as a lack of motivation. 

“Sometimes, the university, or a lot of professors will think we are all the same, but we are not, and we don’t all have the same stories,” Parodi said. “Some of us are trying to heal from past traumas. If it’s not that, it’s biological, and we can’t change that.”

Daley Drucker, a sophomore majoring in English, said she dealt with a different professor who made her disability feel like a burden on the course as well. Drucker mentioned how ostracized she felt in comparison to other students who didn’t endure the illness she faced. 

“As people with disabilities, we already have to give extra time, strength and energy to apply ourselves to keep up with our peers,” Drucker said. “Having professors that complicate our accommodations process can be incredibly discouraging. There were many times that I wondered if my professors even wanted a student like me in the sciences — I was an environmental microbiology major at the time.”

Director of SDS, Deborah McCarthy, handles accommodations like these. 

“It (professors not complying with SDS accommodations) happens rarely,” McCarthy said. “If there are issues, the student can approach SDS, and we will solve the problem as soon as possible.”

If a formal complaint were to be reported, it would be included in any staff or faculty personnel file. In a records request of Pollenz personnel file by The Oracle, no such complaints were found. 

Due to the nature of Pollenz’s course work, he said that often times students have a harder time being successful.

“Often it is also perceived that my sections are “tougher” than others who do not require homework and always give multiple choice exams,” Pollenz said. “Since I am well versed in working with students with ADA (American with Disabilities Act) accommodations, I initiated numerous personal conversations with several staff in SDS about the proposed pedagogy I was planning to use and about all of the students who required accommodations this semester.”

“However, many of these conversations were on the phone or in person at the SDS office and not recorded or documented, but used to gather information and ideas. I was always asking about options and solutions (before any of these allegations even came to light).”

After Yacura shared her story on Facebook three months ago, an influx of students have come forward with similar stories.

“The reason I’m coming forward is because I don’t know if a lot of students could have done that,” Yacura said. “I’m coming forward because I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”