The Reality of Accommodations at PLNU

Yuuki performing her deep pressure therapy task, which helps decrease Emi’s symptoms by increasing blood flow, lowering heart rate, and calming the autonomic nervous system. Photo courtesy of Emi Matsuo.

I am disabled. It’s not a bad word; it’s not a taboo subject. My body does not work the way it is supposed to, and it never will. My brain works differently than “normal” people. I have a service dog in training named Yuuki who is learning to help mitigate my disabilities to help me live more independently. I have been continually using my voice to advocate for myself and my service dog throughout the semester.

I am very open about my diagnoses. I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, hypermobility type Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia syndrome (POTs), and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Some of these are well known, some are stigmatized, some are not, but none of them have a cure. The biggest symptoms I deal with are chronic pain, chronic fatigue and brain fog. Many people assume those with invisible illnesses are fine because they look healthy. As a result, people with invisible disabilities need to fight harder for their voice to be heard.

When I came to PLNU in 2020, I was considered able-bodied. I was dealing with chronic pain, but was functioning just like anyone else. I had a friend group. I went out late at night and had spontaneous adventures. I learned how to surf. I went to the beach often. As time went on though, my symptoms got worse. I saw 10 or so new doctors, doctors who told me there was nothing they could do, or who said it was all in my head. These doctors told me, “I can’t fix you.” 

Everything went downhill in fall of 2021. I finally got diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which was something, even though it did not explain all of my symptoms. That semester continued to snowball. By the time midterms came around, I was spending most of my time in bed, not because it was fun or I was lazy, but because I physically could not get up. I was either in too much pain or too fatigued to do much. 

I watched my friends continue to live their lives without me. I decided to take incompletes in 2 of my classes. I almost dropped out, but instead decided with the help of a few professors to take a medical leave of absence from PLNU. During this time, my goal was to focus on myself, see more doctors to figure out what exactly was happening in my body and get a puppy to begin raising and training as a psychiatric, cardiac alert/response and mobility service dog. 

Yuuki came into my life at the perfect time. Jan. 2, 2022 was the day I had the first glimmer of hope I had seen in a very long time. She gave me a reason to live and hope for my future. I spent the next 8 months building our bond and beginning to train her. We started working with San Diego Service Dogs and made significant progress as a team. My trainer and I both agreed that she was ready for college life. By then she was performing some tasks on her own and still working on others. She was shaping into a wonderful service dog. The goal was to take time off from training with this group while I went to school and continued to train her myself until the summer of 2023. We stepped into the semester excited and ready to conquer living on campus. 

The Educational Access Center is the place where disabled students go to receive accommodations on campus and other disability-related needs. I had been registered with them for a year at this point, and was looking to add on an accommodation for a medical single room. That was an easy accommodation to acquire, and I didn’t think we would have much trouble. I knew that the single rooms were small, and was told it would be a tight squeeze but we could make it work. Moving onto campus, I had the tools and knowledge needed to help Yuuki transition to dorm life. 

The small single room in Goodwin Hall began causing issues within the first few days of us being on campus. Yuuki despised being in it. When we went outside to play, she would refuse to come back in, even when she was exhausted and needed water. This got worse as the semester went on. My dog is my life line, and being in such a small space was stressing her out. Even when we spent the majority of our time outside, she still refused to come inside. On top of the small space, our window opened to the courtyard, where there was no airflow and many people coming and going. This was hard on both of us. I am extremely heat intolerant, and living in a small room with no airflow during a heat wave was very hard. Yuuki’s training took a big hit. I had to stop bringing her to class with me while continuing her training. It was harder for me without her in class, but it was the best option for her well-being. 

Now, almost done with the semester, we have finally started making progress in our training again. We restarted the basics, and rebuilt our skills and connection as a team. I am continuing to leave her in my room when I go to class. She is still able to task for me, but since she does not go places with me she can only perform those tasks when we are back in our room together. 

The Educational Access Center should be helpful in this situation. I am struggling mentally and physically living in Goodwin, which is considered the “accessible” dorm. I had been training Yuuki to help me, but with her stressed in the small room, she was not in the mind space to continue to task. I reached out to the EAC asking for help because I knew I could not get through this on my own. I was struggling and needed a lifeline. Our issues with these medical singles in Goodwin, the only dorm that offers them, are the fact that they are all 9’ x 10’ rooms with courtyard facing windows. This means that no matter what room you are put in, you will have no airflow and be right next to the loud noises of the courtyard. 

The fact was, the small room was detrimental to my physical symptoms and my mental health. The only way I could think of to have a better living situation would be to be moved to a different dorm where I could have a room with better airflow and easier to regulate heat in. However, since all the medical singles are in Goodwin, this means I would need a double room as my single. I thought this was a reasonable accommodation request, as it would not just help me immensely but also make my service dog feel more comfortable. 

The EAC said no. Since they are required by law to provide an alternate accommodation if the one requested would cause undue hardship, they told me that they could give me the accommodation of moving off campus. Moving off campus is not an option for me for multiple reasons related to my conditions, which I shared. The next idea was for me to get a roommate in order to have access to larger rooms. As I have the accommodation for a single room for medical reasons, a roommate was not an option for me either. I also did not see these options as accommodations, since it is an option anyone can choose.

Over the past few weeks, I have been asking for help again due to the struggles our dorm room was causing. Yuuki’s stress levels are not decreasing, and there’s no way to train a dog to be comfortable living full time in a small space. I have been putting hours everyday into playing, training and helping her decompress, but no matter what I do, I can not help her feel more comfortable and at home in our room. The easiest solution I could come up with was a double room, which I knew would not be possible now and was told most likely would not be possible in the spring semester, so I was looking into the future for the fall 2023 semester. I was told repeatedly there was no space and there would not be space next year, because they do not know how many students will be coming in. Every year, PLNU gets a record number of freshmen, but does nothing to help with housing all those students. Considering three freshmen in freshman dorms are occupying most rooms meant for two residents, it is obvious that PLNU cares more about the number of students coming in rather than their quality of life living on campus.

At this point, the EAC and Holly Irwin, the ADA coordinator at PLNU, reached out to the trainer Yuuki and I have been working with, as well as a consultant who specializes in helping advocate for service dog teams to get the accommodations they need to succeed. Both of those parties shared the same thing: every dog is different, and they can’t really know what will help Yuuki feel more comfortable on campus. On a zoom meeting with Holly Irwin, Sabrina Mathisen (from the EAC), Joey Ramp (the consultant) and myself, one of the first things Joey asked was if there is a larger space available for us to move into. After hearing the “no” that I have been hearing for weeks, I was told that I just need to put more training into Yuuki because she obviously is not ready for this environment. I shared that I have been putting hours everyday into her training and it makes no difference, which is when I was told that maybe I shouldn’t have her on campus with me if I have been having so much trouble. The only other housing idea they could come up with was moving off campus (something we already established would not work for my situation), and finding a roommate to share a double with (taking away my medical single accommodation). I left the call in tears. Yuuki is the reason I am alive, and having her on campus is helping me hold together, as challenging as it is. 

I was proactive before this semester started. I reached out and shared my concerns about the small room, and was told by multiple people that they would do what they could to make my room the best environment possible and that they were excited to have me back on campus. There was not much that could be done for me then, so we just moved on campus, hoping we could make it work.

The EAC has not had any other ideas to offer to help my housing accommodations. Point Loma does not just need to find better ways to house residents living on campus, but they need to be able to provide larger medical singles to those who need them. I have been very disappointed and discouraged by the things that have been said to me, and I don’t know what else I can do to advocate for myself and get the accommodations I need to thrive here on PLNU campus.

PLNU and the EAC need to find better ways to accommodate service dog teams, or at least support them. I have had to fight to have my voice heard, educate about service dogs and their rights and try to brainstorm alternative accommodations to the ones I am told are not possible. 

If anyone asks me about my experience with having a service dog in training and living on PLNU campus, whether it’s a curious prospective student who utilizes a service dog or someone interested in learning about how well PLNU accommodates different types of disabilities, I will be honest. I would tell the prospective student to look somewhere else. Somewhere that would make room to accommodate their service dog, their medical equipment they use to live independently. If I was not three semesters away from graduating, I would transfer to a more accommodating school or drop out completely. 

I don’t feel like I have a place here. Rather than helping me accept and live with my disabilities, living on campus makes me wish I was able-bodied.  It makes me wish I didn’t need a service dog to help me be independent, and it makes me wish that I could worry more about homework and tests like everyone else, not about fighting to be heard and accommodated. 

Living with a disability is not an easy thing to do. It is not fun to take my dog everywhere with me. It is not fun to miss classes. It is not fun to watch others living a full college experience while you are not getting the help you need to experience the same. As a faith-based liberal arts school, one would expect the people in charge to show empathy and full support to those who need it. This school that claims to be accommodating and accepting of all has consistently shown me that that only applies when it is convenient and easy for them.

Written By: Emi Matsuo