Since it was Disability Awareness Month only recently, and every day is actually a day where disabled folks are made very aware of their disability, I wanted to research and talk about how disabled people with “invisible disabilities” have to deal with getting accommodations in college in the US.
To get accommodations, disabled students have to talk to the disability advisor on campus. These accommodations are technically a request by the student, which means the advisor is the one who approves or denies any accommodations requested by a student. Being approved gets harder when a person’s disability is invisible, because the “proof” that person has to show is health records. This is a struggle if the student has only recently been diagnosed or encountered their disability, since the student does not have a record. At that point, it comes down to doctors’ notes and letters. If the advisor does not believe that the student needs these accommodations, the Dean of the college gets involved in the situation. The problem with accommodation requests going to the Dean or any other administrator, is that they have even less experiences with disability, which makes it harder for students to receive accommodations.
According to research, students face many challenges when trying to avail of these accommodations. Students have to deal with stigma, a lack of understanding of accommodations by classmates, personal insecurity, etc. (Mamboleo et al., 2019). So, I decided to connect with a few college/grad students to hear their challenges with getting accommodations due to invisible disabilities.
Laura S. (she/they) was in a Psychology PhD program. They feel that the barrier that kept them from getting accommodations was “an institutional culture that considered academic accommodations as favours and advantages.” Laura guided me through her experience. At first, Laura’s advisor was on board with the idea of Laura receiving accommodations. But due to the program head not believing these accommodations would be “fair”, Laura did not receive the accommodations she requested. Like many disabled students before, Laura experienced administrators thinking that accommodations are an advantage to students. But that is not true at all; in reality, accommodations even the playing field for disabled students.
Several studies have reported that teaching faculty hold non-supportive attitudes towards implementing accommodations (Leyser et al., 2011). When considering that the administration will have bias against accommodation, it is also important to consider that even if these accommodations are approved, actual faculty might not feel the same way.
Personally, I’ve experienced problems with faculty because of my invisible disability. My disability advisor had never heard of my condition, so she had to Google it while I was explaining it to her. Even then, when I was approved for the accommodation to show up late to class, I was still locked out of class by a teacher. It was really painful and invalidating, and I ended up crying to my disability advisor.
Elise C. (she/her) also felt that accommodations are hard to obtain for those with an invisible disability. Currently, she is working towards a Master’s degree. She described her experience with accommodations for her Bachelor’s degree. Elise talked about having to jump through a bunch of hoops to get accommodations. “I have to talk to my whole medical team to sign all of this paperwork, call my school, and go through a lengthy process just so I can get what I need.” Students have to fill out forms and have their doctors sign off on those forms. People also need to consider that some students are international or out-of-state disabled students trying to contact their doctors. While trying to get these forms done, students also have to remember to do other tasks, making it discouraging and almost impossible to make time to get accommodations.
Something that Elise told me that stood out was that she thinks “a lot of able-bodied individuals misunderstand accommodations and believe that they are to help disabled students have an advantage over other students. That’s not the case. It helps us start closer to the starting line instead of 10 steps behind everyone else.” I feel that a lot of disabled students trying to get accommodations can relate to this. Having people believe that accommodations are an advantage to a disabled student is detrimental to students being able to get them in the first place. Even teachers can deny following through with accommodations in the classroom because they feel that the accommodation is an unfair advantage.
I also talked to a parent, Jane*, of a student who had a bad experience getting accommodations. They have decided to stay anonymous due to their daughters’ trauma surrounding the situation and for their privacy. As stated above, even if accommodations are approved by a disability advisor, teachers can still argue about an accommodation. Jane explained how her daughter had to use a laptop in the classroom due to writing being a painful exercise. The teacher would not allow Jane’s daughter to use her laptop in class even though she needed it. Jane had to fight with both the teacher and the disability office to allow her daughter to use her laptop. Even after getting the accommodation, the teacher was still angry about letting her daughter use a laptop. Another accommodation Jane’s daughter asked for was note-taking. This is when the teacher asks for a volunteer to share their notes. Nobody in that class was willing to share their notes; ironically, the other students would ask Jane’s daughter for her notes.
Students with invisible disabilities deserve to have accommodations they need. Having to fight for accommodations is discouraging and bars students from being able to finish school. I personally have experienced this and having to talk with more people about the subject only makes it more apparent that more people need to be aware of the struggles disabled students have.