Finding a place for students with invisible disabilities

More than 4 million Canadians are disabled; about half of those people live with invisible disabilities.

The term invisible disability is an umbrella term which encompasses all disabilities that affect the ability of a person to live their life, but show no physical or visible sign.  Among the conditions that are classified as invisible disabilities are chronic pain, dyslexia, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

Most universities have centres that offer support and services to disabled students, and the University of Ottawa is no exception. Both the Student Academic Success Services (SASS) and the Centre for Students with Disabilities (CSD) operate on campus and provide services to students with disabilities.  While I did not make use of these services during my undergrad, the CSD has some pretty fantastic resources and programs, especially if you’re looking to expand your understanding of disability.

SASS assists students based on their needs, which are determined through a formal process that requires medical notes detailing the nature and limitations of the disability and asks for recommendations for accommodation.  Programs like this one are often centered on physical disabilities, leaving students who have invisible disabilities alienated.  In the case of mental health issues, it is not always possible to provide a diagnosis and evaluation of a student’s limitations and needs, because they may fluctuate constantly and can be difficult to diagnose.

The fact that many students who have invisible disabilities conceal their disabilities in order to pass as a non-disabled student contributes to their alienation in post-secondary institutions.  When you consider the intense pressures and expectations placed on university students to complete the requisite amount of work, to maintain good grades, to cultivate a social life, to find a partner and so on, be sure to think of the additional barriers placed on students with invisible disabilities as well.

Another major issue facing students who have invisible disabilities is the perception that their disability is not legitimate or real.  The expectations and increased stress levels placed on students creates a mentality that you have to be strong enough, smart enough, and capable enough to succeed in university.  This mentality makes it difficult to ask for assistance, especially when that assistance comes in the form of “extra help” or “special attention” and can leave you with the feeling that you are somehow inferior to students who can succeed without assistance.  We need a solution that can break down accessibility barriers without singling out students with disabilities as less capable or somehow separate from their peers.

During my undergrad degree, one of the ways my anxiety and depression affected my classroom experience was through course evaluation structures.  Both anxiety attacks and depressive episodes can make it difficult to attend classes, and even when I was able to do readings, borrow lecture notes and maintain my grades, the loss of up to 20 per cent of my final grade for class participation took its toll on my marks.

The stress of final exams can lead to increased stress levels and panic attacks for some students, and the inability to attend class can cause students who would otherwise be succeeding to get lower grades, fail courses and, in some cases, drop out of school entirely.

Introducing alternative or more flexible course evaluation structures is one way to accommodate students with invisible disabilities without singling them out as special or less capable as their peers.  A flexible course evaluation structure might entail a professor providing two or three slightly different options for evaluation.  For example, the professor might provide an option where the exam grade is worth less with an additional assignment, or where participation is worth less and a major paper is worth more.

There are many ways that invisible disabilities can add stress, barriers and complications to the lives of students living with them. While there has been an increase in discussion about disabilities on campuses, there needs to be a more active discourse about invisible disabilities and how they affect the learning experiences and lives of students.

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