• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author
Article

Is disability the new normal?

Students in higher education are increasingly classified as either disabled or as suffering from mental-health issues. Disability on campuses has become the new normal and there is a growing demand for providing students with extra time to take exams or with an ever-expanding variety of special institutional support.

At some elite institutions in the United States, around one in four students are now classified as disabled. At Pomona College in California, 22 per cent of students were considered disabled in 2018, compared with five per cent in 2014. A survey published in the Harvard Crimson says that among the class of 2018, 41 per cent of students have at some point sought mental-health support from Harvard’s health services, while 15 per cent have sought support off campus.

A similar pattern is evident in the UK, where the number of university undergraduates offered special dispensation, such as extra time to write exams, continues to grow. Demand for extra time in exams due to mental-health problems increased threefold at Cambridge University between 2012 and 2017.

University administrators have embraced the normalisation of disability on campuses without hesitation. Every summer, examination boards face a torrent of demands for concessions from students. These students are not disabled, but they insist that the predicaments they face are sufficiently disabling to warrant special consideration.

The medical profession is an unwitting – or in some cases active – collaborator in this performance. They appear quite happy to provide doctors’ notes to legitimise these pleas for special treatment. Often, a doctor’s note will merely state that someone came to see them complaining of a headache or dizziness. These notes can then be submitted to the concessions committee of an examination board. It is up to an examination board how much significance it attaches to medical notes. But in some instances, demands for special treatment are granted simply because the board feels it is ‘better to be safe than sorry’. No institution wants to be accused of discrimination on grounds of disability.

When I was working as chief examiner for my university department during the 2000s, I first thought that students demanding concessions were simply trying it on. They knew that this was a risk-free exercise that might help to improve their grades. At worst, their claim for special treatment would be rejected. I still believe that many students try it on. But something important has changed.

In recent times, the tendency to medicalise human experience has encouraged a growing number of young people to interpret their lives through the narrative of mental health. When a student’s ups and downs are interpreted through medical language, then experiences like disappointment, pressure and stress come to be seen as pathological. Feelings and emotions that were once considered normal seem more threatening in our medicalised culture.

Young people who have been educated and socialised to understand their experiences through the prism of mental health easily develop a disposition to interpret every problem they face through a medical diagnosis. In such circumstances, they quite naturally believe that they are entitled to some form of medical support and special treatment. Moreover, once disability is depicted as the new normal, many will embrace it as an identity.

The institutionalisation of disability does no favours to young people. It diminishes their capacity for independence. It also does no favours to those who suffer from serious disabilities. The normalisation of disability trivialises these conditions and channels resources away from those who really need them.

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