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  • 20 December 2023
  • 4 months

Supporting Students with Disabilities

Emily Fournier

Marketing and Communications Manager

As to be expected for most first-generation students, enrolling in higher education came with a lot of excitement but a lot of pressure for Eric. To invest so much money—and so much time—into pursuing a degree, his parents expected nothing less than high marks. But not only that, they also expected him to be walking away with more than just his diploma: specifically, they expected him to graduate with a solid career path, a strong network of professors to use as future references and mentors, and lifelong friendships with like-minded peers.

Unfortunately for Eric and the millions of students like him, this is easier said than done. In addition to his first-generation status, Eric is also among the growing population of students that report having at least one disability. In Eric’s case, it’s multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disorder of the central nervous system that makes it harder for him to see, hear, speak, walk, write, and type and comes with a slew of other debilitating symptoms from extreme fatigue to brain fog—all of which make the college experience a lot more challenging and a lot more isolating.

While his peers might stay after class to form tighter bonds with professors, Eric has to stay after to explain to them why he needs certain accommodations—and why they’re obligated to provide them. While most other first-year students spend their first few months on campus signing up for various extracurriculars and getting better acquainted with new friends, Eric must sift through available clubs to find the ones that both hold his interest and meet his accessibility needs; and when it comes to making friends, Eric first has to explain to many of his peers what multiple sclerosis is, and attempt to make friends with the ones who don’t visibly judge him.

Then there’s the issue of navigating environmental barriers—making sure that he’s able to easily and safely access each of his classrooms and other essential spaces including his dorm, the bathroom, and the dining hall. Though seen as a gift by many of his peers, there’s the issue of navigating his newfound independence and all the challenges that come with it, especially for someone who often relies on others’ support when meeting basic needs. And to top it all off, there’s the “traditional” stress that comes with being a postsecondary student: the stress of achieving high marks, staying on top of coursework, securing internships, networking, and preparing for life after school.

With all that in mind, it’s no wonder then why students like Eric so often struggle to adapt to the campus environment. As students with disabilities endure compounding academic, social, environmental, and personal challenges, research shows that anywhere from half to a whopping 80 percent of them will experience at least one mental health concern during their time on campus. As a result, additional findings reveal that less than a third will go on to complete their degree, as nearly a quarter will drop out by the end of the first year; 35 percent by the end of year two.

All this creates a massive crisis that institutions across the globe are tasked to resolve. As the number of students with disabilities continues to quickly outpace the rise in total enrollment—despite resistance from the majority of these students to disclose their disability status with their school—ensuring that these students have access to a positive and accessible campus experience matters now more than ever. And while this requires the integrated involvement of numerous players, including administration, faculty and staff, advisors and counselors, student affairs officers, hall directors, and more, one key driver of student wellbeing that cannot be overlooked is access to comprehensive and personalized care; and with that, the benefits of collaborating with a holistic wellbeing solutions provider cannot be understated.

How a Wellbeing Solutions Provider Can Make a Difference

While research on the lived experience of students with disabilities is notoriously scant, existing studies consistently affirm the top challenges faced by this cohort of students to include:

  • Social isolation, loneliness, and a lack of belonging
  • Stigma, ignorance, or prejudicial beliefs held by faculty, staff, and other students
  • Bullying and harassment
  • Difficulty or failure to access reasonable accommodations
  • Inaccessibility of the campus; environmental and infrastructural barriers
  • Poor coping skills and preparedness for higher education, the workforce, or adult life
  • Poor actual or perceived support
  • Low agency or poor self-efficacy

The bottom line: the biggest threat to students with disabilities’ wellbeing can best be summarized as a general lack of understanding from others. This includes a failure to understand what these students need to thrive in the classroom, on campus, and in their personal lives; a failure to uphold their dignity and their right to self-autonomy; and a failure to recognize and support them through their struggles. And while investing in a holistic wellbeing program is no fix-all, it can certainly go a long way toward fostering students’ sense of support, belonging, and their sense of feeling understood.

Services that can help students with disabilities in particular include:

  • In-the-Moment Counseling Support: With this service, students gain 24/7 access to accredited counselors who, harnessing the power of a good conversation and empathic, active listening, can validate students’ experiences, assess their needs, and help them develop a conducive action plan or a list of goals to strive toward—and all in just one session.
  • Flexible Scheduling for Counseling Support: Recognizing that many students with disabilities will likely face challenges not suitable for single-session therapy, additional services can offer access to scheduled, longer-term support with a counselor—still with the possibility of arranging a same-day appointment depending on the urgency of the situation. Over the course of the three to 12 sessions provided, each student has the opportunity to work with a designated counselor on areas like problem resolution, skills development, stress management, coping strategies, and more.
  • Self-Managed Computer-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (cCBT): As is customary in post-secondary life, most students’ schedules are doubtless already filled up with tight deadlines, heavy course loads, extracurricular and social demands, and more. For students with disabilities, their schedules are only more overloaded with healthcare appointments, and the extra time it may take them to complete assignments or meet their daily needs. This service enables students to work around this unyielding roadblock by literally taking their care into their own hands, taking advantage of various online resources and modules available to them in their own time. But despite the self-managed nature of the intervention, students don’t have to go it alone, either: a counselor is still available at every step of the way to help them improve upon their coping skills, build resilience, and practice better self-care.
  • Financial and Legal Assistance: For many students with disabilities, accessing the accommodations that they need to succeed in school, paying off healthcare bills and meeting costly health needs, obtaining assistive technology, and more can all pose as challenging, time-consuming, and overwhelming demands for them to juggle alone. With access to financial and legal assistance, students can receive support in key areas like budgeting and financial planning, debt reduction and management, government benefits, family law, civil rights, and more.
  • Mindfulness-Based Support: While many of the challenges that students with disabilities face can be resolved with the right support and solutions, others, unfortunately, are out of students’ control. With access to mindfulness-based support, a dedicated specialist can help students come to terms with what’s out of their hands and help them to focus on what they can control: their attention, their thoughts and emotions, their physical wellbeing, and their mind-body synchronization.
  • Life and Wellness Coaching: In addition to mindfulness techniques, there are many different lifestyle habits that students with disabilities can practice to improve their wellbeing in spite of the challenges they may face on campus, from healthy eating, gentle exercising, to exercising their creativity and picking up fun new hobbies that nurture their self-discovery. With access to a life and wellness coach, students can receive assistance in establishing both short- and long-term goals for themselves, coming up with an attainable action plan, and sustaining their motivation to follow through with these aims.

The challenges faced by students like Eric are complex and overwhelming, exacerbating the challenges that already come with being a student and making it that much harder for them to even stay in school, let alone succeed. From navigating social dynamics and accessibility issues to managing the additional stressors of academic expectations, familial pressures, and daunting health needs, the impact on their overall wellbeing is immeasurable.

By offering tailored support that acknowledges the unique challenges they face, these services can help to bridge the gaps in understanding that persist between students with disabilities and their institutions, promote students’ self-efficacy and wellbeing in the face of hardship, and ensure that students like Eric not only persist but thrive in their pursuit of higher education.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family, and personal needs to become healthier, happier, and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness, and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals, and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. Contact us to learn more. 

This content is intended for general information only. It does not provide specific direction, advice, or recommendations. You may wish to contact an appropriate professional for questions concerning your particular situation.

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