A recent study concluded that as many as one in four students at some elite colleges in the U.S. are now considered “disabled,” earning extra time on tests and other accommodations. Such a large number is largely attributed to mental-health issues, causing some to question if stress, anxiety and other mental illnesses are being abused to allow for optimal testing conditions in high school and college.
The report, published on May 25, 2018, by Douglas Belkin for “The Wall Street Journal,” found that the percentage of students considered disabled at Pomona College has drastically increased in the last five years.
“At Pomona, 22% of students were considered disabled this year, up from 5% in 2014,” Belkin said. “Other elite schools have also seen a startling jump in disabilities, according to data from the federal government and from the schools.”
Bear Creek school psychologist Jennifer Shirron says that the Lodi Unified School District has seen a significant increase in the number of children in special education and receiving extra accommodations. She attributes this increase to a variety of factors, such as knowledge about disabilities, the decreasing stigma surrounding mental health and this generation’s growing reliance on the internet.
“Life in general seems to be increasingly fast paced, with instant gratification and instant access to information, all of which can be stressful and cause our mental, social and emotional systems to be overloaded, thus making it more difficult to cope in general,” Shirron said.
Bear Creek counselor Lee Vue agrees that the increasing access to information online has contributed to the increase in children receiving extra accommodations. However, he says that this factor allows teens to educate themselves about various psychological issues that they may have.
“[Since] individuals can go online and Google anything now, it is easier to get informed and educated and advocate for themselves when needed,” Vue said.
According to Bear Creek Principal Hillary Harrell, psychological issues tend to be addressed with a doctor’s note — in which a student will typically go to home instruction — or a 504 Plan, which allows students accommodations such as extra time or testing in a quiet location.
Although some students may feel that extra accommodations are unfair and allow students to abuse mental illnesses for optimal testing conditions, Harrell says that she has not seen this occur.
“I — as an administrator who has worked closely with 504s and special education — find that I have had no student who has struggled with anxiety who is doing it to get any advantage from it,” Harrell said. “The 504 Plan or home instruction can sometimes be a life saving support for a student.”
Currently, Bear Creek has two school psychologists. Shirron says that schools generally do not employ enough psychologists to offer long-term, ongoing counseling services.
“The legal mandates and requirements related to special education consume the majority of my time and prevent me from being available to offer counseling as often as I would like,” Shirron said, adding that her role is often to “provide short-term support” for students “impaired in their school functioning,” but if Bear Creek employed more school psychologists, they could offer a wider variety of support.