Invisible disabilities: Student Disabilities Commission claims students not receiving accommodations


Noah Seidel leaves his wheelchair outside a bathroom in the HUB. The bathroom is not wheelchair-accessible.


The Student Disabilities Commission (SDC) meets every Thursday. Members include students who have what are known as invisible disabilities.

“Deep down, I always had the sinking feeling that the UW had failed me in some way.”

In a push for policy change, Glory Auldon, president of the Student Disabilities Commission (SDC), collected this statement from UW students with disabilities.

The SDC claims that administrative policy on campus is making it difficult for students with less noticeable disabilities to receive accommodations.

As a major advocacy group for disabled students, SDC, a branch of ASUW, is in contention with the Disability Resources for Students (DRS), which is the UW office that manages accommodations for disabled students.

“What the accommodation is really designed to do is to target the impact of the disability, and we look at trying to take away that impact so that the disability is not interfering significantly with their learning and their demonstration of their knowledge to the professor,” said Dyane Haynes, director of DRS. “It’s really about leveling the playing field.”

The latest statistics indicate that 683 students have officially been identified as having disabilities, and 531 of these students have what are known as invisible disabilities.

Invisible disabilities are not immediately apparent to strangers. Whereas a wheelchair is a signifier of a physical disability, that same wheelchair user might also have a psychiatric or neurological disability that is not a visible impairment.

Access to accommodations for students with invisible disabilities is a major issue of contention, because students with invisible disabilities must get authorized documentation in order to receive accommodations at the UW. This means they must undergo expensive testing for the University to accept that a student has a disability and grant official aid.

“They require you to have someone who does your testing for you to be a Ph.D., and the testing is sometimes up to $2,000,” Auldon said.

Few insurance companies cover this type of testing, especially learning disability testing. Financial aid can be accessed for this testing, but Auldon said that financial aid often maxes out before students can pay for both tuition and expensive disability testing.

“Even if they know they have a disability and they’ve been accommodated throughout their whole K-12 experience, as soon as they get into college because of our policy — this isn’t just UW, this is across the nation that there’s a lot of policy that is very limiting to people — suddenly their previous documentation isn’t sufficient, and they don’t recognize it,” Auldon said.

Haynes recognizes the inhibiting cost of disability testing, but she also approaches the issue from an administrative standpoint, where legislation and bureaucratic policy must also be considered when applying testing standards.

She argues that disability accommodations at the K-12 level differ from the university level and thus new testing and documentation is not an excessive request.

“Our documentation policy … requires an adult level comprehensive assessment,” Haynes said. “That is often not covered [by] insurance. So that’s a glitch in our society health care system.”

Haynes is open to a reevaluation of the current DRS policy, and has already been working with Auldon, Eric Godfrey, the vice provost for student life, and several others to discuss policy changes. She speculated on possibly pooling funds for disability evaluation testing, or pulling together different departments to assess students at lower fees.

Any policy change, however, must go through the UW Attorney General’s office.

“We try to be as responsive as we can be to our student’s needs,” Haynes said. “That doesn’t mean we are perfect and there might not be room for growth and improvement. … I really value the student’s points, and it’s nice to have students saying positive or not so positive things in terms of the services available.”

The SDC has not condemned all aspects of the UW’s policy, and not all students with disabilities are dissatisfied with their experiences at the University.

“My experiences at the UW have been pretty good, as far as accommodations and teachers being helpful,” said Holly Siegrist, a transfer student with a hearing impairment.

Siegrist, however, said she hopes the UW campus continues to progress in terms of awareness and acceptance of the significant number of students with disabilities.

A major aspect of SDC’s mission is to change the attitude collective toward people with disabilities on campus.

While the success or failure of such a mission is not immediately as measurable as the policy changes SDC is lobbying for, Auldon believes attitudes can certainly change for the better.

The SDC is also involved with supporting disabled students and offering them a forum to discuss issues arising from disabilities.

By opening up a campus discussion about disabilities, participants in SDC have been instrumental in advocating for the policy changes.

“Oftentimes, people start thinking about someone with a disability and all they focus on is their deficit … instead of seeing them as a person and that this is an aspect of their life,” Auldon said.

[Reach reporter Andrew Doughman at features@thedaily.washington.edu.]

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