Speaker Jeanne Kincaid discusses college campus mental health accommodations

By Amanda Leonard ||Staff Writer

In 2008, the United States Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which seeks to provide “clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination.” Jeanne Kincaid, nationally-known disability lawyer and consultant, has spent her career as a disability lawyer and consultant, applying the intricacies of this Act to educational experiences.

In the beginning of her talk titled “Disability as an Aspect of Diversity,” Kincaid addressed that she will focus on the “changing face” of the disability movement: which involves the acknowledgement of and proper treatment and accommodation for individuals with mental health issues.  “The changing face is all of us, as so many people have hidden disorders,” she said. She regarded mental health as an issue “sweeping the country:” with counseling services growing by 30-40% between 2009 and 2015.

She acknowledged that in her career, she has not met many educators who were unwilling to adjust their practices to accommodate student with disorders, and found that they are very willing to accommodate students with “obvious” conditions, such as those that require wheelchair access. Though this may be the case, she referenced a situation involving a University of Connecticut professor that used Twitter to complain about having to provide accommodations for students with “test anxiety.”

Speaking directly to students in the audience, she assured them that professors want to know about their students’ disabilities and how they will affect their access to their education. She advocated that students come forward about their conditions in a timely manner in order to produce the best possible outcomes.

However, she explained that accommodation requests are “equations” and ethical questions, stating that if there were to be one take-away from her talk, it would be: “Disability decisions are best made by more than one person.”

One of the challenges of making accommodation decisions described by Kincaid is balancing the need for educators and staff to adapt to a student’s abilities while ensuring that they are developing “technical standards” needed for the workforce: such as public speaking and efficient group work. For example, law school is notorious  for “cold calling” in class, which can pose challenges for student with social anxiety. She also considered that adjusting a student’s class schedule may be hard in smaller schools with fewer section options, loosening a student’s attendance policy could negatively impact their learning, and that granting assignment extensions can lead to cyclical anxiety: a period of calm after the extension is granted, and then the anxiety returning as the new deadline approaches.

She urged the faculty, staff and administrators in the room to remember that they are not clinicians, and that they should always seek guidance from the Student Accessibility Services office. Most importantly, they should take any information that a student shares about their mental health extremely seriously.

Kincaid wrapped up her talk by laying out some of the newer accessibility concerns, especially those concerning the digital age. Universities and educators now need to think about their website’s accessibility, access to captioning or interpreters for deaf or hard of hearing students, and accommodations for emotional support animals. She also brought up the notion of “dueling disabilities” that could create challenges, such a student being allergic to their roommate’s emotional support animal.

In short, there are no easy answers to sorting out mental health accommodations for students. Therefore, decisions must be made on an individual basis and with all options thoroughly considered, which will hopefully lead to the most optimal outcome for the student.

First-Year Amanda Leonard is a staff writer, her email is aleonard@fandm.edu

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