Moving Beyond Stigma to Support Students with Invisible Disabilities

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Millions of Americans live with physical and mental challenges that significantly affect their ability to complete daily activities but have no visible characteristics. Commonly referred to as invisible disabilities, these include, but are not limited to, autism spectrum disorder, mental illness, learning disabilities, physical conditions like asthma and diabetes, and chronic illnesses such as Crohn’s disease and lupus.

While the exact number of people living with invisible disabilities in the U.S. is difficult to pinpoint — estimates range from 3 to 26 million — it is believed that, among college students, the most common form of disabilities are those with few or no visible characteristics, according to Invisible Disabilities in the University, a report published by The Ohio State University. Although many of these conditions are legally documented, their invisible nature, along with the stigma sometimes associated with having any disability, keeps many students from requesting the accommodations they need, according to the Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA).


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Some colleges and universities, however, have developed innovative programs to ensure that these students feel comfortable seeking accommodations and have access to the support they need to succeed.

Laurel Grigg Mason

University of Arizona
The Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center at the University of Arizona (UA) specializes in assisting with learning disabilities, attention disorders, or other conditions that directly affect a student’s ability to learn. While UA, like most schools, has a Disability Resource Center (DRC) that provides necessary accommodations for students with any form of legally documented disability, the SALT Center offers “comprehensive academic support above and beyond what the law requires,” says Laurel Grigg Mason, interim director of the center.

[Above: The Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center at the University of Arizona]

All students who register with the center are assigned a learning specialist,with whom they work on challenges related to their particular disability. Students typically meet with their specialist at least once a week and attend weekly tutoring sessions. While the SALT Center offers the same services to each student, Mason acknowledges that there is no “one size fits all” formula that will work for every person and every disability. “We try to work with each student to figure out what his or her needs are and what support we can provide,” she says. “The type of services they engage with are the same, but students might use each one of them differently.”

For instance, she says, students with traumatic brain injuries may have no trouble learning in the classroom, but they often experience difficulty with memory and recalling information later on. They may need to attend tutoring several times a week to review class material, as well as work with a learning specialist on memorization techniques. Conversely, Mason says students with autism spectrum disorder don’t often experience challenges with memorization, but do have difficulty learning abstract concepts and communicating. At UA, those with this disorder are able to work with tutors to better understand such concepts and with learning specialists to overcome communication challenges in the classroom.

According to Mason, speaking with instructors can be a difficult task for any student with an invisible disability, even those who don’t struggle with communication skills. In K-12, she explains, learning specialists and teachers work together on individualized education plans for students with disabilities. In college, however, once students have registered with their university’s disability resource center and have been approved for certain accommodations, they are usually responsible for informing instructors of the disability and the accommodations required.

However, the idea of telling strangers — especially new professors — that one has a disability and requires special accommodations can be a daunting task for many students, particularly incoming freshmen, says Emily Pendleton, an alumna of UA who was diagnosed with auditory processing challenges as a child. “It’s scary being a young adult and suddenly having to navigate this process on your own,” says Pendleton, who now serves as the assistant director of regional retail operations at UA and advocates for students with learning disabilities.

As a freshman, Pendleton sought assistance from the SALT Center, where her learning disability specialist helped guide her through the process of informing her professors of her challenges and the accommodations she needed, such as permission to record classroom lectures. Having the support of a learning specialist, Pendleton says, also helped her build confidence and enabled her to be more open with others about her disability. “The SALT Center provided me with a great sense of advocacy,” she says. “In part, that’s why I’ve been so open about my challenges — because there shouldn’t be a stigma.”

Northeastern University
Teaching students with disabilities to be self-advocates is the most important role of any DRC, says Mary Barrows, MEd, the senior director of learning strategies and student success at Northeastern University. Being a self-advocate means knowing how and when to disclose one’s disability to an instructor or a peer, as well as knowing how to ask for help and necessary resources, she says.

Northeastern provides accommodations for a variety of invisible disabilities, including arthritis, chronic migraines, and seizure disorders. No matter what the condition is, says Barrows, the university’s DRC strives to understand all students’ unique challenges by working directly with them to determine which accommodations will be most effective based on their particular strengths and limitations, as well as consulting with physicians and mental health professionals when necessary.

“We don’t accommodate to a student, and we don’t accommodate to a diagnosis,” says Max Sederer, a disability specialist and employment manager at Northeastern. “We accommodate the challenges that a diagnosis creates.”

For example, he says the DRC may work with someone who has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and is having trouble concentrating on final exams. In collaboration with the student’s clinician, the center may decide to allow him or her to take exams in one of its private testing rooms but not give any more time than they would have in the classroom. “We accommodate accordingly,” says Sederer. “So it might be that we give a student with OCD a private room because it allows them to think without distraction, but it doesn’t give them extra time to ruminate on the questions.”

Northeastern’s DRC also provides training for faculty members on understanding the challenges faced by students with invisible disabilities; this includes recognizing that individuals with diabetes or Crohn’s disease may need to leave class suddenly if they start experiencing symptoms or that someone who suffers from chronic migraines or an autoimmune disease may be frequently absent, says Barrows. Similarly, students are taught how to work with faculty members to devise solutions that enable them to participate in class and complete assignments despite the challenges posed by their disability.

“If a student has a major anxiety disorder, they may have a real fear of speaking in class,” says Barrows. “So if participation is 10 percent of the course grade, we’ll help them work out an alternative way to earn that part of the grade with the professor, or we’ll work on ways to increase their confidence in participating.”

Providing accommodations, however, does not mean that Northeastern allows students with disabilities to skip assignments or be held to different academic standards than their classmates, says Sederer. “One thing our office can’t do is change an inherent component of a course,” he says. “For example, if a student is taking public speaking in the communications department and they disclose to us that they have anxiety and PTSD that prevents them from speaking in front of people, we can’t waive that requirement for them.” Instead, he says, the DRC will work on arranging an alternative way to complete the course, such as allowing students to videotape speeches rather than deliver them in front of the class.

Barrows says PTSD is a common disability encountered by Northeastern’s DRC because the university has a large veteran population. Her office works closely with the veteran student organization to assist individuals who suffer from PTSD or have traumatic brain injuries and physical disabilities acquired in combat. “Usually, for our veterans, having a disability is something new to them,” she says. “So we try to work collectively on helping them learn and adjust to that.”

Additionally, the DRC works closely with Northeastern’s cooperative education program — which enables students to work full time in their future profession while still attending school — to help students with invisible disabilities learn how to transition into the workplace. Playing a major role in this transition is knowledge of how, when, and why to disclose a disability to an employer, says Barrows, as well as how to ask for accommodations when needed.

Deb Dagit

After graduation, students who have grown accustomed to receiving support from a campus disability resource center often find it difficult to disclose their conditions and advocate for themselves once they become part of the workforce, says disability and inclusion expert Deb Dagit. “In general, people are much more willing to ask for an accommodation in a college setting than they are at work,” she says. “So in school, we need to help students with finding the self-confidence to speak up and the right words [to ask for accommodations].”

Colleges, she says, can help students by providing education around and promoting awareness of all disabilities — visible and invisible — including conditions that many people don’t necessarily understand to be disabilities, such as drug addiction, mental illness, and being HIV positive. In this way, the higher education community can be proactive in reducing the stigma associated with invisible disabilities that affect so many students and employees but are rarely discussed, says Dagit.

“We need to have people talk about disability as a normative part of the human experience, and not as an outlier,” she says. “What is needed to overcome any stigma or stereotype is to bring it into the mainstream conversation, and that can start in the classroom and on campuses.”●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.