Students live with ‘silent disabilities’ on campus

By Ellie Willson


As the sun rises over the Nashville skyline, Trevecca’s campus begins to stir. Students begin to wake up for their 8 a.m. classes, and teachers pull onto campus ready to teach. For many, the process of getting out of bed is difficult, but it is a minuscule problem that gets lost in the shuffle of everyday life. For others, however, a war is waged before they step out of their dorm for the day. These warriors look like any other student, but their battles with chronic illness set them apart in a major way.

One of these warriors is Olivia Jarrell, a freshman business major and STUNT athlete. Diagnosed with Addison’s disease, an autoimmune disorder, she lacks vital hormones, which cause her to feel heavily fatigued and appear very tan. She discusses how different her mornings might look from others due to this disease.

“Mornings are the most difficult part of my day because my illness causes me to feel constantly drained and lethargic,” Jarrell said. “This can make it hard to get out of bed to get ready for the day. I can see the difference between myself and healthy students when I look at my roommate who is not sick and wakes up easily in the mornings to go to the gym.”

Jarrell is just one of a large but hidden group.

“There are a lot of students that are managing day to day with hidden disabilities. I probably will never know what the true number is, but I would say around 11% percent of Trevecca students have some sort of disability accommodation,” said Michelle Gaertner, associate dean of student success and coordinator of student disability services.

This group of students might have dealt with these chronic illnesses for years leading up to their time at Trevecca, but with college comes new and unique challenges.

“The adjustment has definitely been hard. I still am not fully adjusted,” Jarrell said. “I am used to being able to go to the doctor any time and get treated immediately. My mom is also a nurse, so I’m used to her constantly keeping my illness in check. Here, I have people who take care of me, but it has been a hard change not having all my medical needs met as soon as something goes wrong.”

Not only do freshmen with chronic illnesses find themselves adjusting to life as college students, but they also must learn how to properly take care of their health on their own—a feat many grown adults may never even learn. To help aid these dramatic transitions, the Office of Student Disability Services is doing what it can to increase accessibility for students facing chronic illness.

“If you have medical conditions, mental health conditions or something that has started impacting your life, specifically in academics, I would love to have a conversation with you to see if the issue qualifies or ‘rises to the level of’ a disability,” Gaertner said. “We can accommodate anything regarding policies, namely academic. If you need solutions to attending class or anything else where you might be starting to see a barrier in things affecting your grades, we want to help.”

Whether it’s a classroom testing accommodation, attendance policies or something in between, these accommodations are imperative to the success of students facing chronic illness.

In the short time since arriving at Trevecca, Jarrell found herself in Gaertner’s office, but she has also already found herself hospitalized with a teammate by her bed, rather than her mother. Not only was she in different company, Jarrell also found herself in a new hospital with new doctors. Although she correctly took her medication and her day did not have any drastic changes from her normal routine, she had to seek out medical intervention—something that is hard to come by for college students.

Difficulties getting adequate healthcare in college are certainly widespread, with one commonly cited issue being access to prescription medication. With many states not allowing doctors to practice telehealth across state lines, out-of-state students often face barriers in getting access to necessary medication, and in fact, can only see their doctor on breaks from school when they travel home.

These changes in healthcare might be personal, but students facing chronic illness face a slew of social differences as well.

“I feel like one main difference between myself and others is that I constantly do not feel good, and my body cannot keep up my day,” Jarrell said. “The second anything is a little off, I can feel it. If I get a little hurt or just a little stressed, it throws off my entire balance. This makes it very difficult to keep up with other students, my class load and athletics.”

When Jarrell does make it out of her dorm for a day of classes, she must pay special attention to the things she eats, where her energy is spent, keeping up on her medications and sometimes even her walking speed. All of this is still before a four-hour-long practice in the evening.

One student, Ashtyn Underwood, a junior communication studies major, knows the ins and outs of chronic illness all too well, as she medically withdrew in her sophomore year.

“Choosing to medically withdraw was not done lightly,” Underwood said. “I was not only facing the greatest health challenge of my life, but I also had to present and defend my new diagnosis to adults and friends. It was hard to be hospitalized and move home, away from my community while in a dark place.”

Just a few months after withdrawing, she returned to school, aided in part by the services from the Office of Disability. Since returning, she has found that while accommodations do help her on the day-to-day, the unpredictability of her illness has continued to surprise her. Such occasions cause her to be reminded of the place she was in last spring, alone in the hospital, but with a necklace that reads “BRAVE” around her neck, she pushes forward.

If you feel that you may qualify and benefit from disability services, Gaertner encourages you to reach out and meet with her to find a solution that enables you to best succeed at Trevecca.

“Students are welcome to email me (, or the disability services email address (,” Gartner said. “You can also look us up on SharePoint, and there is information there on how to fill out an intake form.”

As Jarrell concludes a long day of classes, athletics and managing her chronic illness, she still feels like any other college student. There are, however, differences that she wishes people were more apt to understand.

“I wish people knew that living with this illness is truly a struggle and that I am not just being dramatic,” Jarrell said. “When I tell people that I have Addison’s disease and it makes me tan, some people will make comments like ‘You’re lucky you’re so tan’. Being tan is not worth being sick, I would rather be pale and healthy.”

At the end of the day, everyone at Trevecca is here to earn a degree, grow closer to Christ and become a mature adult. For Olivia Jarrell and many others like her, this just comes with a few extra barriers.

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