Disabilities—such as ADHD, chronic illnesses, mental health conditions, learning disabilities, and physical disabilities—are more common among students than you might think. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 16 percent of Canadian students said they’ve been diagnosed with a developmental, physical, mental health, or other type of disability. Most of these students qualify for academic accommodations, but 40 percent said they haven’t tried accessing them.
“A lot of students with learning disabilities also have mental health issues because of the anxiety and stress,” says Claudette Larocque, Executive Director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada. “Many don’t want anyone to know about it, so they hide it. Many are away from home for the first time so the support is not there. It’s a huge adjustment.”
Canadian data published by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment indicate the disabilities that are most prevalent on campuses.
Proportion of college and university students who reported any of the following:
Proportion of college and university students who felt their academics had been negatively affected by these conditions:
Source: American College Health Association. National College Health Assessment II: Canadian Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2016.
Why aren’t students accessing disability services?
Research from the National Center for Learning Disabilities in the US shows that there’s a drop-off between high school and college when it comes to accessing disability services at school. There are several potential reasons why. For example, in our survey, some students with disabilities said they arrived at college wanting to make it on their own or didn’t feel they needed accommodations. Others said they didn’t know what help was available or how to request it. Some were concerned about judgment and stigma. Others had encountered difficulties navigating the system on their campus.
These things are all understandable, but not accessing services means you might be missing out. “The more students utilize all of the tools we offer to them as an institution, the more successful the student will be,” says Amy King, Director of Student Accountability and Disability Services at the University of New Orleans.
So if you decide you’d like to access support services, how do you get started?
Experts say it’s never too late. Even if you find yourself at the end of the year and you haven’t accessed help yet, it’s still worth reaching out. “I have set up testing accommodations a day before a final,” says King. Going now can help you get any help you need for the remainder of the year and find out what’s available to you next year.
Students with disabilities explain how to get support
We asked students with disabilities what helped them the most. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Let go of the fear of being judged
“I am afraid of being stigmatized by my teachers believing that my diagnosis is not representative, [because] of how little I appear to be affected by my disorder.”
—First-year undergraduate, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology
“The hardest thing for me is people’s assumptions. Sometimes I can’t overcome them because people are so set in their beliefs and it’s hard to convince someone otherwise. It’s extremely frustrating.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick
“What helps for me is just being open about my disabilities so that people can understand why I act differently at times.”
—First-year undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario
“I was afraid that if I told anyone about my feelings, they would laugh at me. I was also afraid of asking for help. I thought that people would think I was stupid. I also thought: I’m a grownup. I can figure this out on my own.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Georgian College, Ontario
2. Get organized
“I had to actually go out to my old high school to get the relevant accommodation files from them to bring to my university.”
—First-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“Trying to obtain/complete the necessary paperwork for course withdrawals or academic accommodations can be confusing or just expensive. I was able to overcome these things. My school is quite good about making accommodations for their students.”
—Second-year graduate student, Brock University, Ontario
3. Find the right support team
Disability Services is known as Accessibility Services on some campuses.
“Make use of services available. If not sure of which service to use, ask to find out. People are around to help.”
—First-year graduate student, Lambton College, Ontario
“Going to a doctor outside of school has really helped me.”
—Third-year undergraduate, St. Thomas University, New Brunswick
“Book appointments with the disability office early. Make a friend in each class. If possible, be willing to share your notes with a peer who has missed a class; chances are they are willing to return the favour. Introduce yourself to your professors.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario
“Go to the disability office. Ask for help, and utilize all the services they have. Also, pay attention to Student Health 101 articles. They give great tips and knowledge.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Humber College, Ontario
“In my current year, I asked for a learning strategist. I enrolled in a Communications course outside of my program. My teacher and I agreed that I needed extra help for assignments, quizzes, etc.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Georgian College, Ontario
4. Be up-front with your professors
“Talk to your profs–I know it can seem intimidating but they are people too. They want you to succeed.”
—Fourth-year graduate student, Mount St. Vincent University, Nova Scotia
“I would suggest being upfront and honest in terms of your disabilities. For the most part, other people will understand if you tell them upfront. Revealing such a personal aspect of yourself can be difficult but I believe it is worth it.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“I find positive self-talk has gotten me through a lot. Tell yourself you are worth the effort, and push past the fear of speaking up. Asking for help should never be considered a weakness.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, MacEwan University, Alberta
“It is difficult because many students don’t understand a disability, especially if it is not seen visually. Not everyone who has a disability is able to show it physically. I also find that it is difficult for staff to assist at times because they don’t usually see what is happening.”
—First-year undergraduate, Lambton College, Ontario
5. Be persistent if you’re not getting the help you need
“Be proactive and aware of what’s available to you and what you can argue for. Don’t give up.”
—First-year graduate student, Wilfrid Laurier University, Ontario
“Remain focused, and stay the course! School administration will respond if you feel your needs aren’t being sufficiently met, and within reason, feel free to utilize the media to express your case if you feel that it isn’t being taken seriously.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Mount Allison University, New Brunswick
“Being honest would be the best option. Any pushback or stigma you receive can be dealt with by going to someone in a higher position or seeking out a professional to help you.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of New Brunswick
Claudette Larocque, Executive Director, Learning Disabilities Association of Canada.
Amy King, Director of Student Accountability and Disability Services, University of New Orleans.
American College Health Association. (2016). Canadian Reference group executive summary spring 2016. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II%20SPRING%202016%20CANADIAN%20REFERENCE%20GROUP%20EXECUTIVE%20SUMMARY.pdf
Higher Education Research Institute. (2011, April). College students with hidden disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/briefs/HERI_ResearchBrief_Disabilities_2011_April_25v2.pdf
Krupnick, M. (2014, February 13). Colleges respond to growing ranks of learning disabled. Hechinger Report. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/colleges-respond-to-growing-ranks-of-learning-disabled/
National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Fast facts: Students with disabilities. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60
Raue, K., & Lewis, L. (2011). Students with disabilities at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. US Department of Education. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2011018
Student Health 101 survey, November 2015.
Student Health 101 survey, June 2019.
Wolanin, T. R., & Steele, P. E. (2004). Higher education opportunities for students with disabilities. Institute for Higher Education Policy. Retrieved from https://www.ahead.org/uploads/docs/resources/ada/Opportunities%20for%20Students%20with%20Disabilities.pdf