Students with Invisible Disabilities Unaccommodated in American Universities

The United States’ enrollment of disabled students in higher education has grown at twice the rate of abled students since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 (Addock, 2015).  While we have made advancements in disability, there are still some students that often get excluded. “[During the 90s], while the overall proportion of full-time freshman reporting disabilities appears to have remained stable, at about 9%, the number of learning disabled students has increased significantly” (Wolf, 2001).  One argument for why so many students are not getting accommodated is because they might have disabilities that are not easily recognized (McGuire, Gordon, & Keiser, 1998). These less visible health challenges are known as invisible disabilities. Within the disability community, students with invisible disabilities are particularly liable to fall through the cracks of university disability policy (Grasgreen, 2014).   So why are these invisibly disabled students more liable to being accommodated by university policy? In her article, Allie Grasgreen lists many reasons for this, citing interviews with invisibly disabled students.  Grassgreen argues that invisibly disabled students might not be accommodated because professors are being dismissive of invisible disabilities or possibly because students are not reporting their disabilities out of fear of the stigmas associated with disability.  Furthermore, In a 2005 study, Dr. Mary Collins and Dr. Carol Mowbray collected data from 275 colleges and universities nationwide pertaining to how these institutions accommodated their disabled students.  In this study, Collins and Carol list the difficult nature of obtaining a doctor’s diagnosis for an invisible disability as one of the reasons invisibly disabled students are not accommodated. In short, we argue that students with invisible disabilities are less likely to be accommodated in higher education because their disabilities frequently go undiagnosed, unrecognized, and unreported.

Assistive devices have become the symbol of disability through logos on disabled parking and bathrooms and entrances, but this has had the unfortunate effect of combining disability with assistive device in the public imagination. Studies have shown that one quarter of people with disabilities do not use an assistive device (Connell, 2016). Unless these people choose to disclose the nature of their disability, it can be difficult for outside observers to recognize the struggles of the individual. For example, people with Crohn’s disease or a learning disability typically do not use a visible assistive device to manage their condition. Some invisible disabilities, such as schizophrenia and ulcerative colitis, are difficult to accommodate because their symptoms are unpredictable and can vary in severity over time (Rosenthal & Rosenthal, 2015). These factors can make it difficult for experts to diagnose certain disorders, and they also present unique challenges when discussing what sorts of accommodations are necessary and proper for students with such conditions.

The transition between secondary and postsecondary education is one area where policy leaves students behind. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), K-12 schools are required to provide an Individual Education Program (IEP) plan (Cawthon & Cole, 2010). IEP’s have been linked to increased success for disabled students in K-12 education (Fisher & Frey, 2001). However, a student who might have been covered via IEPs thus far in their schooling, might not be able to get that same accommodation in their higher education courses. IEP programs are not typically, on their own, sufficient documentation to receive accommodations at postsecondary institutions. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA) also requires that students actively participate in the transition process from the secondary to postsecondary setting because it can prepare students with the knowledge and information they need in college (Cawthon & Cole, 2010). However, research has shown that 35% of states failed to invite students to participate in their IEP meetings(Cawthon & Cole, 2010). Studies have shown that students’ lack of involvement in their transitional IEP meetings may lead to low levels of academic preparedness for college and lack of adequate understanding of disability law (Cawthon & Cole, 2010). Students go from having this extensive accommodations program laid out by the IDEA in their K-12 years to not having any government mandated accommodation requirements in higher education.  The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is supposed to cover this gap, but the ADA only requires postsecondary institutions to be accessible, not accommodated (Adcock, 2015).  Leaving students without any of the thorough accommodation coverage they utilized in K-12.

Another difficulty for learning-disabled students is that their disability may go undiagnosed altogether. There exists a subset of learning disabled students’ whose conditions are not diagnosed until much later than the rest of the learning-disabled population. This subset is of students who display “giftedness”. In a study of new college students with learning disabilities, those whose profiles displayed “giftedness” were diagnosed with learning disabilities later than their peers who did not display “gifted” profiles (Ferri, 2016). The researchers suggest that students with high intelligence and a learning disability appear to be normally functioning students, as the two traits “cancel each other out”. This results in a sect of students who experience learning and social difficulties but fail to be identified by classical screening processes, and therefore do not receive proper treatment/accommodation. This raises questions about both disability screening processes and the nature of “gifted” classification. Many students also struggle with anxiety and depression without having been diagnosed and therefore cannot provide proper documentation for accommodations. Students at large are vulnerable to developing these disorders during the first years of college but many are reluctant to report their condition (Rodgers 2015). As a result, many of these students “fly under the radar” of university disability policy (Rodgers, 2015).

Reluctance to identify within the disability community is a major reason why students with invisible disabilities are under-accommodated on campuses. Many students will go on concealing their condition rather than seek help. “While these students are as eligible for protection under federal law as their more observable peers, they may be more subject to misconceptions and stereotypes regarding the legitimacy of their disability and their need for protection (Wolf, 2001).”

A social stigma known as ableism – the attitude that the disabled are inferior to the abled – is one major reason why students may avoid identifying as disabled. This cultural thread not only discourages students from seeking accommodations, but it also results in friction between university faculty and those students who have accepted a disabled identity. Often, students with invisible disabilities seeking accommodations are suspected of trying to “game the system” or gain an unfair advantage over their classmates by claiming disability (Whalen 2016). Jonathan Goldstein of Cornell University says that “ableism is something [he] experience[s] quite frequently” (Whalen, 2016).

A common result of this stigma is negative interactions with universities’ faculties.  Although research has found that faculty members consider themselves to have positive attitudes toward students with learning disabilities and are willing to accommodate and advocate for them in their classes, students often do not feel the same way. Students sometimes feel that university faculty consider them incompetent and need extra help to succeeded. Students also feel that faculties believe that students with learning disabilities should not be enrolled in classes(Cawthon & Cole, 2010). The fact that university staff knows little about students’ disabilities is also a major reason of the negative interactions. Leyser, Vogel and Wyland had examined a large Midwestern research university to study knowledge, attitudes and practices regarding students with disabilities. Of the 420 faculty who responded to the survey, 66.7% of them indicated they had no familiarity with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, while 14% indicated they had only very limited familiarity with it(Barazandeh). This is also true for students with invisible disabilities since such disorders are non-visible and tend to be stigmatized by our society. Many faculty members reported that they had limited knowledge about invisible disabilities and appropriate accommodations for students with learning disabilities. And this can have negative impact on students’ performance.  Angela Winfield of Cornell University maintains that awareness of disability on college campuses is key to overcoming the effects of ableism (Whalen, 2016). Indeed, there is much work to be done in spreading awareness of disability on college campuses. Winfield remarked that “the best kept secret on campus” is that Cornell University houses 1 of the 10 Americans with Disabilities Act centers in the country.

Faculty aren’t the only ones who struggle to identify proper accommodations for their disabled students. The students themselves are often ill-informed about their own disability, either because they are in the process of developing a psychiatric disability, or they fail to recognize their symptoms and seek help. Recognizing the nature and severity of one’s disability is crucial for students’ academic success. “Improved retention rates among learning disabled students have been associated with a higher level of self-understanding and awareness of the impact of the disability, knowledge of available resources and supports, self-advocacy and other interpersonal skills, use of effective study strategies, and use of appropriate accommodations” (Wolf, 2001).

The prevalence of psychiatric disabilities among the student body may normalize certain symptoms, and thus contribute to students’ failure to realize something is wrong.  One study of college students’ Facebook profiles revealed that 1 in 4 students displayed symptoms of depression in their status updates, and 2.5% met the criteria for a major depressive episode (Moreno, 2011). The researchers claim that their results can be generalized to other college student populations. If this is true, we can see that depressive disorders must be very common among college students. For college-aged students, diagnoses of psychiatric illnesses typically begin with self-reporting their symptoms. A failure to self-report and diagnose these disorders may be due to a normalization effect. We certainly see a similar effect of normalization on binge drinking on college campuses. Students are likely to underestimate the dangers of binge drinking and alcoholism, and therefore more likely to engage in it, if they’re in a setting where they perceive this behavior as safe and common (Groskaufmanis, 2016). Likewise, we can understand students’ failure to identify or report symptoms of their own depressive disorders if these symptoms are common among their peers.

The data we have collected has helped us understand unaccommodated disability on a much larger scale.  However, there are many limitations to our research which hindered our ability to completely understand this problem.  One such limitation was that we were unable to find out exactly how many students go unaccommodated at a university in a given class.  Another was why exactly certain students chose not to report their disabilities for accommodation. While we listed some research on this topic, including testimonials featured in scholarly journals, we can never truly know the thoughts of our subjects or what drives them to make the decisions they make.  Lastly, although we tried, we cannot grasp the true extent of every reason a student does not get accommodated by universities.  Again, invisible disability is a complex and widespread issue, it would be impossible to know every reason that a person with an invisible disability did not receive an accommodation.

Our research presents the situation of students with invisible disabilities and analyze major reasons why they do not get accommodations in college. It would be helpful if we could ask students to complete surveys in order to understand this topic more thoroughly. It would be a great if universities could keep track of students who have trouble in school and might need an accommodation but they do not obtain one. By doing this, the university could adjust policies to provide appropriate help and satisfy their request. Since our research does not have the exact number of students who need accommodations and who actually have one, using statistics might help.  For example, one could calculate statistically how many students at a university should have a disability in need of accommodation and compare that to how many actually have one.




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2 thoughts on “Students with Invisible Disabilities Unaccommodated in American Universities

  1. aloizzoblog says:

    I definitely agree with the general consensus about the structure of the first paragraph. You guys have some great information there, but restructure so that the point you and trying to make is first and everything else just supports it.

    I think your second paragraph differentiating visible v. invisible disabilities is essential for the reader to understand the remainder of the argument. The discussion on assistive devices was very helpful and gave explicit imagery to what society currently does that perpetuates the misconception.

    A general comment is maybe considering writing heading or subtopics into your paper. I think it generally flows well, but is a lot of information to take in and remember along the way. Subtopics from the third-ish paragraph and on might help the reader out a bit.

    Discussion on gifted v. giftedness is a new one that I have not heard or been exposed to before. That paragraph brings up some pretty alarming points!

    Bringing a anecdote or real life experience of a student could be very powerful for your argument in the 7th paragraph.

    The 9th paragraph about the normalization of elements of psychiatric disabilities is very relatable for college age students. Something interesting, maybe even unnecessary, to add would be examples of social media statuses by students that exemplify your point in that paragraph. Assuming that some audience members are naive to what those comments and statuses might look like, adding them in might make some readers think about the things they’ve posted in the past. Just a thought


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