For University of North Texas student Jessica Schlottman, navigating college was a challenging hurdle to clear — even more so with debilitating illnesses that affect her daily functions.
But as a result of her experience, she has formed a group to bring unity and awareness to those similarly challenged.
Schlottman, 20, is a pre-med biology major who lives with fibromyalgia, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Among other symptoms, she experiences joint stiffness, chronic pain, fatigue, migraines, irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety.
During her first semester at UNT, Schlottman navigated multiple obstacles that put her health at risk. UNT’s on-campus housing did not support her disabilities, she said, and a drastic schedule change delayed her accommodation arrangements with the Office of Disability Access.
Schlottman didn’t have enough time to eat between classes, and the amount of time spent walking across campus exacerbated her symptoms. Mentally and physically, she was spent.
Schlottman then took a devastating fall. Doctors told her she couldn’t put weight on her feet for six months.
“I wanted to quit school,” Schlottman said. “I was away from home, with no support system, trying to deal with this chaos and my disabilities at the same time.”
During that time, Schlottman began to recognize a significant gap in accommodations between students with visible and invisible disabilities.
UNT offers many diverse programs and organizations that support students who are visibly disabled, deaf or visually impaired, mentally ill or neurodivergent.
Students with invisible disabilities face a lot more criticism, Schlottman said. Chronic illnesses and diseases are unfamiliar territory and are often overlooked.
“Although it’s uncomfortable, we often choose to reveal our disabilities so that our peers and professors can better understand us,” Schlottman said. “However, whenever we appear upbeat or well-adjusted, people revert back to not believing we are disabled, and this leads to social isolation.
“Our greatest challenge is to educate people on how appearances can be deceptive with students like us.”
Schlottman spoke to other students who felt the same way, reeling from the negative stigmas and prejudices they were experiencing.
These frustrations motivated Schlottman to found Someone Like Me, an organization that aims to represent, raise awareness and advocate for the legitimacy of invisible disabilities.
Since its inception in September 2019, the group now hosts 115 members. Someone Like Me is the first of its kind on any campus nationwide and is endorsed by the ODA.
Members range from 18 to 26 years old and have one or more chronic illnesses, incurable or rare diseases such as diabetes, asthma, cancer, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis and mast cell activation syndrome.
Prior to the pandemic, Someone Like Me held biweekly meetings, but now members post daily on Facebook and GroupMe, sharing pictures and stories about their flare-ups, sleep issues, and fatigue.
Members also exchange helpful information about diet restrictions, specialists, medical procedures, service animals and coping tools.
Unlike other student organizations, Someone Like Me doesn’t require membership fees or obtain funding from UNT, so members host fundraisers to pay for their events and spread awareness about the organization.
Schlottman also sent care packages to the most immunocompromised members in March 2020, implemented Zoom parties, and started an online COVID-19 support group to keep members connected and foster encouragement.
“We are the charity, the ones who need to be indulged with kindness and compassion,” Schlottman said. “Our events reinforce to our members that we are here to support each other and overcome our challenges so we can stay in college.”
Schlottman said Someone Like Me hopes to reach new members and continue to build a supportive community in the future.