College campuses are increasingly diverse, but in ways that go beyond socioeconomic or ethnic differences. Recognizing campus community members, particularly students, with a variety of disabilities is another important institutional responsibility, says Jeanne Kincaid, attorney at Drummond Woodsum in Portland, Maine.
“Sometimes people with disabilities are left behind,” Kincaid told the audience attending Franklin & Marshall’s Feb. 21 Common Hour, a community discussion held every Thursday classes are in session. Of increasing importance is an acknowledgement of the less obvious disorders that don’t have visual cues. “The face of disability is all of us because so many of us have a hidden disability,” she explained.
Kincaid, a nationally known disability lawyer and consultant who works with educational institutions on disability and special education issues, put particular focus on mental health. Mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress, can be particularly difficult to identify from the outside and, because they vary in symptoms and severity, require creating accommodations that are tailored to the individual. There is, for example, no one-size-fits-all solution for accommodating anxiety.
She said that faculty members won’t know that a particular student has a hidden disability such as a mental health condition. That is why it is important for students to speak directly to their professors about specific difficulties that they may be having in a class (not necessarily the disability itself, unless they are comfortable doing so) and to get in touch with the institution’s accessibility services and/or counseling services.
An increased focus on students’ mental health means that institutions will need to create new practices to accommodate affected students. “The changing face of disability is the changing face of accommodation,” said Kincaid.
Accommodations for mental health are as nuanced as the conditions they are serving and should be handled with extreme care. “Disability solutions should not involve just one person,” she said, asserting that while it is important for faculty members to work with the student who is making the accommodation request, it is equally important for them to also seek the guidance of other administrators, accessibility services and counseling services when needed.
Kincaid also detailed other accommodation trends on college campuses, including creating accessible institutional websites and examples of dueling disabilities (i.e. when one student is allergic to another’s support animal).
There is no easy answer when it comes to accommodating such wide varieties of disabilities; each individual is unique and so are his or her needs. Most important, said Kincaid, is that we work together to create solutions and inclusivity.