More and more college students are claiming to be disabled.
Eren wrote the piece after she and her colleagues observed that more students were claiming disability and consequently were receiving accommodations, such as extra time on tests, private rather than in-class presentations, and extended deadlines. The students making these claims were not typically wheelchair-bound or otherwise physically impaired. Most claimed to suffer from psychological conditions, such as anxiety or attention-deficit disorder.
When Eren looked at the state and national data, she found that the number of students claiming disability had increased exponentially. The number of college students claiming disability in New York, for example, rose by nearly 30,000 between 2015–16 and 2021–22, even as the number of students enrolled in degree and credit-bearing-certificate programs declined. In 2016, a national study found that one in five undergraduates had been determined by their respective college or university to have a disability, nearly double the rate of disability reported among college students in 2004.
The overwhelming majority of those students were labeled as having learning disabilities, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, or depression. Sufferers of those and other potentially marginal conditions were made eligible for accommodations when Congress amended the Americans with Disabilities Act in 2008. The amendments inaugurated Section 504, which enables students to claim disability and access accommodations for an array of conditions, many of which would not have met the Court's substantial-impairment threshold in Toyota v. Williams.
It is possible, in individual cases, that a condition such as anxiety and ADHD could be so severe as to warrant an accommodation, though the circumstances in which that's true are rare. In any case, such conditions cannot be verified in the way physical disabilities like quadriplegia can, a fact that wealthier students and their families have apparently taken advantage of.
Eren reported that students from high-income families are significantly more likely to receive accommodations than are those from middle-income families. And over the past 12 years, the number of students claiming disability at the country's top eight liberal art colleges—which have some of the wealthiest student bodies in the country—increased by more than 290 percent.
Emma Camp, an editor at Reason, published a viral post about Eren's article this weekend. Her tweet included a graph illustrating the surging number of students in New York claiming disability. Camp claimed that Eren’s piece and the increasing number of New York students claiming disability were “pretty strong evidence that a ‘disabled’ label is becoming a [fashion] accessory for rich kids.”
Disability rights advocates were incensed at the suggestion that anyone in New York's higher education system would falsely claim to be disabled. No one is taking advantage of the system, they argued, because there is no “advantage” to be had.
A former Wall Street Journal reporter argued it was “unintelligent” for Camp to “think ‘these people must be faking,’” when the real explanation is increased “awareness about things that were previously shamed and hidden.’” This is a variation of the why-did-left-handedness-increase-so-much trope, which progressives use in response to revelations like one-third of college students claiming to be gay.
Another poster advanced a similar argument, claiming, “No one’s claiming to be disabled for funsies [sic]. They’re just no longer suffering in silence.”
The only possible explanations for the increasing number of New York students identifying as disabled, on this view, are either a bona fide increase in the number of disabled people in New York, or more people with disabilities feeling comfortable identifying themselves as disabled. There is no third option. To imply that even one person who claimed to be disabled was faking it, or would even consider faking it, would be to perpetuate attitudes that previously kept students with disabilities in the “closet.”
Because progressives refuse to admit that trade-offs exist—consider, for example, their claim that prosecuting non-violent criminals actually “makes us less safe”—they refuse to admit that anyone in New York, or any of the hundreds of thousands of wealthy students diagnosed with conditions like anxiety, is faking it, or could even fake it if they wanted to. They think that to admit any excess is to imperil the entire project of disability rights.
There is a way to make a plausible-sounding, if ultimately unpersuasive, argument that colleges’ permissive approach to disability accommodations is good. You could concede that students who successfully claim certain disabilities are given certain advantages to compensate, and concede students will try to game the system to obtain those advantages, but claim the benefits of a permissive accommodations regime to genuinely disabled students outweighs the costs of potentially enabling malingerers.
Disability rights advocates do not make that argument. Instead, they suggest that no one has ever pretended to have a disability, and insist that conditions like anxiety and ADHD are no more likely to be feigned than is cerebral palsy.
Their dogmatism is rooted, in part, in their belief in the so-called social model of disability. The social model, in contrast to the much-maligned but not-often-defended medical model, holds that disabilities arise from society’s failure to accommodate people with physical or mental differences. Proponents of the social model argue that the conditions we call disabilities are not themselves disabling, and are only such to the extent that the public at large refuses to accommodate them.
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The fruits of this view—wheelchair ramps, sign-language interpreters, accessible elevators—have helped millions of people with serious disabilities to participate in public life. It has also enabled some number of people, in this case college students, to claim that the trials of everyday life are themselves disabling social conditions that must be ameliorated.
Tests must be moved for the anxious test takers. Deadlines must be extended to accommodate talk-therapy appointments. The student’s inability to cope with the basic rigors of higher education becomes as an indictment of the institution, not the fortitude or fitness of the student.
It’s possible for a mental condition to be disabling. It’s also possible for a mental condition to be feigned or exaggerated. Unfortunately for many colleges and universities, they don’t have the luxury of drawing that distinction.