The ADA, Mental Health, & Schools

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Written by Jean Ashmore, Disability Director Emerita, Rice University; Past President – AHEAD (Association on Higher Education & Disability); Instructor; Consultant

What is the ADA and what does it have to do with mental health in school?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and requires employers, public and private places, and services to be accessible for people who have disabilities. Also it requires these three entities to provide reasonable accommodations for a disabled person to access and take part in offered services. Although one may assume that the ADA is only relevant to people with conditions easily noticed, such as someone who is blind or uses a wheelchair, this is not the case. Indeed, the ADA applies to a very wide range of conditions, including some mental health challenges commonly faced by teens and young adults. The ADA turned 25 this year, and it has shaped our world considerably, not only by bringing wheelchair ramps and Braille signs to public places but also by providing students with mental health challenges a supportive learning environment with reasonable accommodations based on their needs.

If you are dealing with a diagnosed mental health condition and are currently in high school, you may have had support services from special education or a 504 plan. You may wonder how you will get similar support when you go to college. There are a few really big differences between high school and college in terms of getting disability/mental health support. First off, you need to reach out to set up safety nets and any accommodations you may need – the college will not reach out to you like maybe happened in high school. It is so common for freshmen in college to not want to do this, to believe everything will be fine because it’s a different school, and to tell no one about the mental health condition they experience. Maybe they think the college health center will give them their meds and they can always go to a college counseling center when they want to. That’s not always the case. Before you go to the school find out how and where you can get medications prescribed and filled and then especially if you will have easy access to psychologists or psychiatrists.

Every person who goes to college for the first time is scared. Will I make the grade, can I manage all the reading and assignments on my own, will I make friends, will people accept me for who I am, can I get along with a roommate, on and on the list goes. Students who experience disability, mental health or any other condition, also have all that to think about too. There are organizations on campus as well as different departments that can be helpful for students with mental health conditions. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) has Campus Clubs at some schools, and Active Minds (activeminds.org) is another great student based resource. Remember, though, you made friends before and you will in a new school!

The protections under the ADA and Section 504 mean that many college students who experience mental health conditions that substantially impair them may be eligible for accommodations. Every college has a person or an office designated to work with students who experience barriers at the college due to a disabling condition. But you may be thinking, I don’t want people to know my struggles and to have to tell teachers all about what’s going on with me. That’s totally a personal choice. But, reaching out to the disability office can really reduce anxiety about telling your story over and over again since they won’t give mental health details to others on campus unless you give your permission. That office works out a system with you to alert those instructors you want notified that you are a person with a (unnamed) disability and authorizes accommodations if needed, such as extra time to complete assignments or test-taking in a more distraction-free space. Of course you will need to work with disability office staff so they understand your condition, the ways in which it may impact you in academic situations, and sometimes what recommendations your treating professional has.

The bottom line is that a campus disability office can serve as an important ally for students with mental health challenges. Remember the ADA is just as important for people with non-apparent conditions as for those with visible conditions, maybe even more so to my mind. Worry not about the stigma, go through that disability office door, nothing is lost and perhaps a great alliance will be forged enabling you to accomplish your goals.

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