Going back to school or enrolling in college for the first time can present various challenges ranging from lack of confidence to fear of the unknown. For students with disabilities, the challenges can become so overwhelming that finishing the week’s assignments, never mind the full semester, may seem nearly impossible. Not only is the disability presenting an issue in their ability to succeed academically, but the fear of being stigmatized as “that person,” is what keeps many from seeking help.
In an article titled, “Five Ways to Remove the Stigma Associated with Mental Health,” author Shari Harding, professor of nursing at Regis College, explains the importance of schools and workplaces adhering to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and creating an environment of inclusivity. “Skillful application of the ADA requirements and guidelines ensures that people can capitalize on their strengths rather than being excluded due to a disability. An inclusive environment can decrease stigma and move towards focusing on positive attributes and abilities,” she said.
But what is considered a “disability?”
According to the ADA, “disability,” as it refers to an individual, is someone with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.”
While individuals more closely correlate “disability” with physical impairments such as vision/hearing or mobility (person who uses a wheelchair), they may be surprised to learn that psychiatric and learning impairments also qualify. From depression to anxiety to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), these types of disabilities can make it difficult for students to successfully complete their studies.
Kelly Bushéy, professor and vice chair of applied psychology at Hodges University, explains the additional fears students face when enrolling in college, especially for those who may be first-generation college students and are surprised to have been accepted.
“There’s an imposter syndrome many students face, which is ‘I hope they don’t find out I don’t deserve to be here.’ There is so much tied emotionally to doing well because this is a personal quest. In my opinion, we can tie that fear of failure and the internal pressure of not letting others down to the added stress students have in school,” said Bushéy.
At Hodges University, Student Accommodations (formerly known as Disability Support Services) presents students with a safe, judgment-free zone to receive help and accommodations concerning their disability. Provided on a case-by-case basis and geared to the needs of the student, accommodations may include confidential counseling, academic and career advising and planning, classroom accommodations such as extended time on exams, class notes, readers, interpreters for the hearing impaired, instructor contact letters and liaison with faculty to arrange accommodations, assistance with admission, course selection and registration, and liaison with community agencies.
“It’s not a cookie-cutter program. You can have three students come in with anxiety, and all three need different things. It’s important to find out what the student needs and where they’ve been successful in order to put together a plan,” said Lourdes Araujo, former disability support manager and counselor.
When students arrive in the Student Accommodations office, they must fill out the designated form and provide appropriate documentation in order to receive accommodations. From there, professors are notified and provided the student’s ID number.
While the specific disability is not disclosed to the professor, Bushéy believes students must take responsibility for communicating with their professors regarding their needs and/or struggles.
“Once the accommodation is established, the student needs to be sure to communicate with the professor. However, if a student chooses to tell us his or her issue, it’s a fine line we have to walk as professors,” she said. “Our students are not numbers to us, so there is a personal connection; however, as professors, we have to follow the protocol, because we are responsible for their academic quest.”
While working alongside professors to provide the necessary accommodations, Araujo would also provide useful apps and short-term counseling to students struggling with time management, stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and ADHD.
Hodges student William Blair, who is currently pursuing a management degree, admits the struggles he faces with regard to school and his disabilities make it difficult to perform certain tasks in class. However, with the help of Araujo, he has been able to “access things that maybe the average student wouldn’t have such as more test time. If there’s an issue I’m having, she immediately sets up tutoring, no questions asked,” he said.
Fellow Hodges student Cora Hawes had a similar experience with Araujo, saying, “I never heard of or knew how much help and assistance was available for my schooling journey. I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders when Lourdes started to assist me towards my school success.”
For a student struggling with a disability, the idea of receiving accommodations to assist in their educational success may seem like an easy decision; however, many students stay silent because of the stigma associated with disability and mental illness.
Pride, a fear of being ‘that person’ or the uncertainty of what professors will think are just a few reasons students remain silent, and it is this silence that cause many to grow frustrated and give up.
“Every student is different, but for some, their hesitancy for getting help is cultural because they’re not used to coming to speak to anyone,” said Araujo. “However, once they sit down and begin discussing what’s going on, they’re relieved to know we can help.”
As a psychology professor, Bushéy admits, “I see students who have disabilities, but they will not get assistance, and as a result, they struggle like they are treading water wearing jeans and holding a brick in the deep end of the pool. All they have to do is ask someone for help and say, ‘Assess me.’”
“Based on the pride issue, students just don’t want to be labeled as an ADA student. Some students I’ve talked to just don’t want to disclose it,” said Blair. “I’ve got so many injuries, but all of that enabled me to take a step back, reassess the situation and come back in full force.”
As one of the many services offered to students at Hodges, it is covered under the Student Services fee, which means it comes at no additional cost should a student seek ADA assistance.
“If you have the tools you need to make you successful, it’s a win-win situation for you,” said Araujo.
To learn more about Student Accommodations or to inquire about assistance, email firstname.lastname@example.org.