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Kennedy Aragon-Scriven rarely goes anywhere without her ergonomic cushion.

UBC students with invisible disabilities: “It’s like having a whole extra course”

The University of British Columbia is taking steps to better accommodate students with disabilities, but what happens when a disability is not readily apparent?

By Paloma Pacheco , in Feature story Health Life , on December 10, 2019

Kennedy Aragon-Scriven carries an extra bag with her to school every day.

Her backpack holds her school things; the other is for a grey seat cushion.

“I call her Britta,” jokes Aragon-Scriven. “She goes with me everywhere.”

Aragon-Scriven is cheerful and engaging, quick to crack a smile and almost frighteningly articulate. The fourth-year University of British Columbia bachelor of arts student also lives with chronic pain. After an injury in high school seven years ago, she now experiences widespread pain in her back, tailbone area, legs and feet. Her cushion helps her to sit for more than 15 minutes at a time.

“I’m constantly tired, all the time. It’s exhausting,” says the 21-year-old.

Of the impact on her life at UBC, she explains: “It’s like there’s this whole other dimension outside of school — it’s like having a whole extra course that I’m taking because it sucks up so much of my time.”

Disability at UBC

In December of 2018, UBC’s board of governors voted to amend Policy 73, a policy implemented in the late 1990s that determines academic accommodations for students with disabilities. The updated policy is part of a larger, university-wide effort to increase inclusivity and accessibility.

At an institution as large as UBC, working to include a variety of access needs is not a straightforward task. And for disabled individuals within such an institution, frustrations and challenges abound.

Students with disabilities face a host of issues that can complicate their learning: pain, fatigue, cognitive impairment, mobility challenges and more. Aside from managing physical limitations and needs, navigating the support systems and personal relationships that come with being in a university environment can present additional stressors — especially when the disability is invisible.

Though the university’s student society, the Alma Mater Society, does not currently collect data on disability among students, the most recent statistics  indicate that, in 2015, about four per cent of UBC students identified as having some form of disability. That number has likely grown since.

In the fall of 2018, the university’s graduate student society released its annual survey, which showed that one in 10 graduate students has a long-term physical-health condition. Two in 10 have a long-term mental-health condition. These numbers are higher for students who identify as trans, non-binary, queer and/or Indigenous.

The survey also revealed that this subset of students was often less satisfied with their academic experience at UBC than students without health issues. Students noted poor communication from the university and conflicts with supervisors as sources of discontent.

Invisible disabilities more common than most realize

Disability is a category that can encompass a range of impairments and access needs, but many forms of disability are not externally visible.

“I would say that about 55 per cent of the students we see present with a mental illness as one of the disabilities they would be seeking support for,” said Janet Mee, director of UBC’s Centre for Accessibility (formerly Access & Diversity), the university’s current home base for students seeking disability-related resources.

“Many of them will have other concurrent conditions like a learning disability, a chronic health issue or chronic pain, which usually comes with depression.”

Access and Diversity
Students work outside the Centre for Accessibility (formerly UBC Access & Diversity). Photo: Lauren Donnelly

In total, Mee estimates about 80 per cent of the 3,000 to 3,500 students registered with the centre in a given year present with a non-visible disability. She lists conditions like autism, ADD/ADHD, and traumatic brain injury in this category.

“Even things like vision loss can be invisible, unless there’s an outward sign, like if the person uses a cane or has a service animal. We have lots of students with hearing loss who would be invisible to the general community. Maybe they don’t use sign language interpreting or captioning or anything else that would identify them.”

Additional barriers for students with disabilities

Mee notes that there is still a limited understanding about what constitutes a disability — something that can cause issues for students and instructors alike.

“I think that people have a stereotype of disability, even today. They have a hard time understanding that someone who is smart and seems to be doing well academically and doesn’t have any outward signs of anything would need accommodations.”

Mee believes this can lead to students doubting themselves about whether their issues qualify as a disability and feeling hesitant to speak to professors or ask for help. She says the invisible nature of some conditions represents a “huge challenge” for many students, while continued stigma surrounding mental-health issues can present a barrier to seeking support and services.

Mee stresses that for students with visible and non-visible disabilities alike, accessibility issues can be crucial determinants to a person’s success at UBC.

“For many people, like people with chronic health [issues], the built environment — how it’s designed and how they’re able to manoeuvre in it — can be very important for managing issues of fatigue, or having access to washrooms, those kinds of things,” she says.

But for many others who are living with mental-health conditions or even chronic health [issues] that are very invisible, it is the human interaction — and the barriers created by people — that is probably the biggest problem.”

Read on to learn how three students with invisible disabilities navigate UBC.


Kennedy Aragon-Scriven

Read her story


Michelle Huang

Read her story


Kaurwn Bliss

Read their story