When the term disability comes up, for many the first thing that comes to mind is something of a physical nature. However, the Accessibility Services department at Cal State East Bay is trying to shine a light on invisible disabilities that can cause confusion.
Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders or ADHD, brain injuries, learning disabilities, psychiatric conditions, seizure disorders and Tourette’s syndrome are just some of the disabilities that aren’t necessarily noticeable and can lead to conflict with others. CSUEB held a panel discussion on the topic Tuesday through the Office of Diversity, the first of a diversity development series that includes various workshops and presentations throughout the year.
“There is a stigma that surrounds some of these invisible disabilities,” Accessibility Services Coordinator Pamela Baird said. “Many students have encounters where they are questioned about their disability because you can’t see it. This is something we are trying to raise awareness about not just for students but for instructors as well.”
Baird said that there are over 1,000 students that utilize their services and they have had a net gain of roughly 100-150 students per year for the last few years. She also said that the office’s primary focus is to provide legally mandated accommodations to students that need them.
According to the United States Census Bureau, approximately 96 percent of people who live with an illness have an illness that is invisible. These people do not use any assistive device and may look perfectly healthy, which is why a disability cannot be determined solely on whether or not a person uses visible assistive equipment.
“We are not here to make sure students succeed,” Baird said. “We are here to make sure students have equal access.”
Equal access includes things like a sign language interpreter for deaf students to customized furniture for students with physical ailments. According to Baird, students at CSUEB have issues that range from vision to learning disabilities including dyslexia, as well as audio and visual processing disorders.
Joshua Everett went to CSUEB for two years and utilized the accessibility services for his anxiety, a disability he didn’t even know he had.
There is a stigma that surrounds some of these invisible disabilities”
“I just get really nervous around big groups of people,” Everett said. “They let me take my tests in a class with pretty much alone except the monitor. It really helped, because when I first started college I would get so anxious during tests, like everybody was looking at me, I couldn’t focus. Once I got diagnosed my doctor encouraged me to look for help at school.”
Once a student comes to accessibility services they are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and each student’s experience is specifically tailored to their needs. With over 1,000 students and just about 17 staff members to aid this could seem daunting but Baird expressed confidence in the office’s ability to handle the workload. She also said that invisible disabilities outnumber students with physical disabilities at CSUEB.
In addition to setting up physical accommodations for students, they also convert textbooks into various formats while working on various software and programs to access textbooks. Project Impact and College Link are two other programs that are funded through federal grants to provide students with disabilities services beyond what CSUEB can, like providing tutoring the school can’t offer with state money.
While many people are aware of physical disabilities and how to deal with them, Baird is hopeful that events like these will help students and staff to recognize that an invisible disability requires the same amount of information and understanding as a physical disability.
“We want to be viewed positively by everybody and bring awareness to these issues on our campus,” Baird said. “Some students don’t want the attention. They want to be like everybody else. Students have the prerogative to do so.”
Baird is hopeful that raising awareness through events like these will eliminate the misunderstandings and stigmas that surround invisible disabilities; Everett is also hopeful that one day the stigma will go away.
“Somebody asked me once how come I don’t take tests with everybody else in class,” Everett said. “I told him I had anxiety. He said I looked fine and he didn’t think I needed the help. He was wrong.”