Number of students reporting disabilities soars, yet likely remains an underestimate
University sees doubling of disability registrations with SAS in three years
Zoe Berg, Photo Editor
In three short years, registrations for Yale’s Student Accessibility Services have nearly doubled. Yet this number is likely two to three times lower than the actual number of Yale students with disabilities.
According to the affinity group DiversAbility at Yale, approximately 11 percent of U.S. undergraduates register a disability with their school, but the true number is estimated to be two or three times higher, as 66 percent of students who received accommodations in high school choose not to self-disclose their disabilities in college.
Yale’s student disability leaders say stigma is the main cause of underreporting, especially with mental illness, which Yale considers a disability for which students can apply for accomodations. Their efforts to combat the stigma surrounding disability and mental illness have accompanied a shift in the number of students registered with Student Accessibility Services. In 2019, only 842 students were registered with SAS, and as of Feb. 2022, that number now stands at 1,318 students — nearly double the number registered three years ago.
“The importance of destigmatizing mental illness and all disabilities is that it allows more people to feel comfortable recognizing it in themselves, to get help and to not be embarrassed or feel alienated by the fact they have an illness disability and instead feel empowered to live more fulfilled, and engaged lives,” former Disability Empowerment for Yale, or DEFY, President Joaquín Lara Midkiff ’24 said.
“In a high-intensity, high stakes environment like Yale, your chances of developing depression or anxiety rocket,” Lara Midkiff continued, adding that if more students do not feel comfortable reaching out to register for the services they need their lives “will measurably be poorer.”
Lara Midkiff also noted the role COVID-19 has played in worsening mental illness for many Americans. The average share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression increased thirty percent between January 2019 and January 2021 — from 11 percent to 41.1 percent, with younger Americans reporting symptoms at the highest rates. Fifty-six percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 reported experiencing anxiety or depression during the pandemic, making them the only age group with a majority. That, in addition to the fact that one in five adult Americans already experience some form of mental illness and the average delay between symptom onset and treatment is 11 years, makes the need to identify and support students experiencing mental illness particularly important to disability advocates.
“Just like any physical illness, some mental illnesses can be disabling,” disability activist Alexis Sye ’25 said.
The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, defines a person with a disability as someone whose impairment substantially limits major life activities. Leaders in Yale’s disability community say more students are coming to consider themselves disabled using the ADA’s definition. Groups like the Disability Peer Mentor Program, or DPMP aim to make clear that all individuals who fit that description are a part of their community and are welcome to disability resources.
SAS offers an array of services to students with disabilities, so long as they register the disability. Services include testing accommodations, such as extended testing time or reduced distraction environments, alternate format material and assistive technology, such as text-to-speech or speech-to-text applications as well as ASL interpreters and Computer Assisted Real-Time Translation services.
But despite their work, many students in the Yale community remain unaware of the fact that mental illness can be registered with SAS for accommodations.
One such student, Xander Calicdan ’25, said throughout the summer and orientation before the school year, there was no mention of disability registration or the SAS accommodations available for students with mental illness. He cited the lack of available information for the disparity between SAS registrations and the likely actual number of disabled students on campus.
“I wish I knew that sooner. That’s information everyone should know,” Calicdan said.
Calicdan added that he hopes the University will do a better job communicating that mental illnesses can qualify as a disability, as more and more students come forward with their disabilities.
Even students who know mental illness can be registered believe the school should do a better job informing students sooner. Sophia Groff ’25 said that while she knew that mental illness could qualify as a disability, she only became aware through a friend who struggled and learned too late, after he had withdrawn from the University.
“It’s terrible what happened to him, and I miss him every day, but now I try to make sure everyone I know also knows,” Groff said.
Josie Steuer Ingall ’24, the Disability Peer Mentor Program coordinator, said that the culture that prevents students from registering with SAS persists at Yale due to “chronic underfunding and understaffing” of the SAS office, onerous registration requirements and persistent claims that accommodations are an “unfair advantage” among peers.
“Yale needs to invest in a significant expansion of SAS’s staff, space and services and build long-term infrastructure to support peer-to-peer and student-staff relationship-building,” Steuer Ingall said.
Sye agreed, saying, “Destigmatizing both mental health and accommodations themselves is necessary to bridge this gap between those who are eligible for accommodations and those who actually receive them.”
Director of SAS Kimberly McKeown said that there are many types of accommodations, and they vary depending on the needs of the individual student.
McKeown added that while “systemic change takes time, SAS is unwavering in its commitment to support students with disabilities,” and that control of what services they use in what classes are in the students’ hands. She further added that SAS’s work remains private and is not shared with faculty or staff, except in the rare case of self-harm.
In addition to the work that DEFY, DPMP and others undertake, professors also play a critical role in ensuring students in need of accommodations receive them. Senior Lecturer in Hellenic Studies Maria Kaliambou, who serves on the Provost Advisory Committee on Resources for Students and Employees with Disabilities, said she specifically looks for students in their classes that may need accommodations.
In her experience, students and instructors cannot afford to lose time in a working semester before they receive accommodations. While she understands that students may sometimes feel “disappointed” or “embarrassed” when directed to SAS, registering a learning disability can help both faculty and students to work together toward a more inclusive learning strategy, she said.
“We should accept and respect that we learn differently,” Kaliambou said. “We need to work together to create a learning environment that works for all.”
SAS plans to continue working with groups like DEFY and others across the University to engage with students to coordinate accommodations.
“We are committed to normalizing the accommodation process and removing barriers that prevent students from requesting accommodations,” McKeown said.
All Yale students can request accommodations for disabilities with SAS and are eligible for counseling through Yale Mental Health and Counseling free of charge.
Correction, April 4: A previous version of this article said the DPMP was run by SAS. It is not. This article has been updated to reflect this.