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For students with a diagnosed disability, deciding whether or not to tell their future university about it can feel tricky.
Students and parents sometimes worry about stigma, discrimination, and backlash – a concern counsellors like you might share, too. Despite this, universities around the world increasingly encourage disclosures, and many have extensive support systems in place to help students with disabilities thrive on campus.
When a student feels torn, counsellors can be a much needed source of advice. But how can you be sure that you’re giving students the right advice for their unique situation? And how can you help them make the decision that’s right for them?
In this article, we explore the pros, the cons, and everything in between. We’ll take a look at why universities tend to encourage disclosures, who should do it, and when. We’ll also cover some of the other considerations students with disabilities will need to consider as they prepare to go to university:
- What conditions qualify as disabilities?
- How are diagnoses recognised abroad?
- What are the advantages of disclosing a disability to a university?
- What additional support can universities offer students with disability?
- Are there any disadvantages to disclosing a disability to a university?
- Who should make the disclosure?
- When should students mention it?
- What if you suspect a student has a disability but it hasn’t been diagnosed yet?
The World Health Organization defines disability as what happens when a person experiences disadvantage because of a health condition.
Legally, however, it’s generally up to each country (or states/provinces) to iron out their own definition of the term. In the UK, for example, a disability is a “physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect”. On the other side of the Atlantic, Canada uses a broader definition (“any impairment [that] hinders a person’s full and equal participation in society”). Germany’s includes chronic conditions, whereas Australia’s differentiates between them.
With legal definitions prone to regional nuances, it’s worth checking under which umbrella a student’s condition falls in their university’s country. Doing so will also start to give you an idea of what adjustments universities have to put in place.
Tip: If you’re struggling to find this information on university or government pages, try verified legal and charitable organisations.
How are disability diagnoses recognised abroad?
Universities typically accept documentation or proof from the student’s home country, but those that do they may still have additional requirements (the University of East London, for example, specifies that evidence must be presented in English).
Tip: If you’re finding it tough to find the information you need online, try contacting the country’s embassy. They frequently field questions from travellers, jobseekers, and students, so will be able to point you in the right direction.
But regardless of whether or not a student plans to disclose their condition to the university, they’ll still need to look into local policies and procedures to ensure they can access any support they need from their healthcare provider.
This is especially true for students who require prescriptions. ADHD, for example, is often treated with stimulant medication (think Adderall or Vyvanse), which tends to be a tightly regulated substance. Asthma inhalers, painkillers, and anti-anxiety medication are other examples of frequently restricted drugs.
When a prescription drug is restricted, it simply means that it’s subject to additional regulations. In some cases, students will need to travel with a copy of the prescription, a doctor’s note, or even to apply for a specific permit (e.g. the Japanese Import of Medication Certification) prior to travelling. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, limits may be placed on how much can be brought into the country, and some countries even ban certain medications outright.
Depending on how tightly restricted a drug is, it may not be available in the country, so students may need to find a local alternative. They might even have to be reassessed in their new country in order to be issued a new prescription.
Tip: If a student realises they’ll need to be re-issued a prescription or diagnosis in their new country, it’s often recommended they gather evidence and documentation from their current doctor(s) to share with their new physician(s).
What are the advantages of disclosing a disability to a university?
Now that we’ve got some of the legal intricacies out of the way, it’s time to get to the heart of this article: should students disclose their disability at the application stage, or not?
It’s not uncommon for students to worry that disclosing a disability might somehow disadvantage them, especially when they’ve already experienced discrimination.
Furthermore, Students, especially those with invisible disabilities, may have become accustomed to masking (which means they continuously try to hide or minimise their condition). They. may also be worried about stigma if they’ve heard that students with disabilities sometimes suffer from poorer outcomes in higher education. Back in 2011, for example, a report revealed that students with disabilities were more likely to need remedial coursework. In 2014, they were significantly more likely to drop out of university, a finding also echoed in 2019. And, as recently as 2021, they reported lower sense of belonging than other students.
All of these factors serve to concern students that, if they tell a university about a disability, they may have lower chances of being accepted or offered a place. But whilst this is an understandable worry, it’s often a misplaced one.
First of all, many countries (including all of those part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) have anti-discrimination laws and inclusive education strategies in place, which universities must comply with.
Second, disclosing a disability to a university means that a student can access support designed to empower them to confidently complete their studies.
Many universities have dedicated services and teams who work with students to find suitable academic and physical accommodations (like these examples from Yonsei University, the University of Auckland, the University of Exeter, and the National University of Singapore), written up in a tailored learning plan.
Academic adjustments can range from digital accessibility aids (like an audio recorder to capture lectures) to a personalised student support worker or sign language interpreter, or even changes to exams (e.g. extra time, an alternate environment, or an adjusted coursework-to-exam ratio).
Physical adjustments include making sure that all classes and lectures take place in accessible buildings, and ensuring students are offered adapted accommodation (e.g. the Accessibility Suite at the University of London).
Wellbeing support is also often offered, including access to support groups, counselling, or even tailored careers counselling (like LSE’s Disability and Wellbeing Service).
Tip: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, universities have seen a rise in disabled students unions and societies. These not only fight to improve rights and accessibility for students, but can also be a fantastic way for students to meet friends their first few weeks on campus.
What additional support can universities offer students with disability?
Some universities also have additional student discounts, or even bursaries or additional financial aid available. There are even scholarships available from charitable organisations and governments, some of which are open to international students.
For general overviews of the university accommodations available in different countries, we’d recommend some of the following sources:
- Australia: Studying-in-Australia
- Canada: Studying-in-Canada
- European Union: Inclusive Mobility
- New Zealand: Community Law
- UK: British Council
- USA: Studying-in-US
The Independent Living Institute also provides a useful international round-up of different countries’ legislation and university-offered support, though they do state that it is no longer regularly updated.
Are there any disadvantages to disclosing a disability to a university?
When news headlines, legal advice, and research papers continue to report that students with disabilities are more likely to experience discrimination and harassment than their peers, it’s unsurprising that students may feel concerned.
Parents might also have their own reservations, and worry about implicit bias negatively impacting their child (when people accidentally discriminate against those that are different to them).
This is why it’s so important to take the time to speak to a student about their options. At the end of the day, they’re the ones with the day-in, day-out of their condition.
Even if they might be moving to a country where you think they’ll face less discrimination, or even if the benefits of disclosure seem to far outweigh the downsides, students have a better chance of success when they feel empowered. Urging a student to disclose a disability before they feel ready could have a negative impact on their performance, especially if it makes them anxious.
In the next two sections, we’ll unpack the different ways students can go about disclosing their disability – and the possible times they can choose to do it, too. As you’ll see, there’s no need to rush a decision.
As UCAS notes, most universities “welcome early notification because it helps them ensure everything can be in place” for students by the time they start their studies. It can also help them ensure they offer the necessary adjustments throughout the application process.
Personal statements and university application essays (and even interviews) can all be appropriate places to discuss a disability. The trick to doing this is by incorporating it into the narrative – notice that we said discuss, not simply disclose.
However, there are no penalties for choosing to disclose a disability later – or never at all! Students can choose to disclose at any time throughout the application process, once they’ve accepted an offer, or at any time throughout their studies (usually by contacting their disability support office or their academic department).
As a general rule of thumb, most universities recommend that the disclosure be made by the student. This is simply because it shows that the student wants to disclose this information, and because it gives them a chance to do so in their own words – and on their own terms.
Now it can be appropriate for counsellors or teachers to mention it in a reference or recommendation letter, so how can you decide?
Here are three key points to consider.
Get the green light
The first thing to do is to talk to your student – UCAS, for example, makes it explicitly clear that schools, counsellors, or teachers should only mention it if the student has asked you to, and/or consented to it.
There is no obligation to disclose any kind of disability, at any stage of the application process (nor throughout the duration of their degree). Since it’s entirely optional, it truly is each student’s decision, so it’s imperative that they’ve given you the go-ahead.
As we saw in the previous section, disclosing a disability when a student isn’t comfortable doing so could do more harm than good – even if you think they’d benefit from some of the support universities could offer them if they knew about their disability.
Skip the sob story
The second thing to do is to think carefully about how relevant it truly is to the reference or recommendation you’re writing. Reference and recommendation letters focus on a student’s personal and academic strengths, performance, and capabilities, so that the university can accurately judge their academic and professional promise.
Whilst your student has certainly overcome difficulties and is no doubt a source of inspiration, falling back on clichés and sensationalist tales can feel objectifying.
On a similar note, avoid highlighting the ways in which a student has “solved”, “fixed” or “overcome” their disability. Whilst this might be tempting, it eats into the wordcount you could be spending on the student’s skills, strengths, and interests. It’s often also considered “ableist” language – meaning that it constantly measures students against their non-disabled peers.
It could also lead to a case of implicit bias, where it sounds as though your student is somehow less capable than other potential applicants.
Unless mentioning their disability genuinely adds context and insight to an example you ‘re planning to use regardless in order to write about one of the above categories, it’s unlikely to be pertinent.
In other words, keep the emphasis on the student, their achievement, and their skills… just like you would with any other student!
Watch your words
The third and final tip is to be mindful of the words you use when writing about a student’s disability.
For instance, not everyone likes, or even identifies, with the label “disabled”. A student with dyslexia, for example, might be comfortable with the term “learning disability”, since it highlights the additional difficulties they may have dealt with at school. Another student with dyslexia, on the other hand, might prefer the term “neurodiversity” – a word that strives to recognise both the advantages and challenges of thinking differently.
Michelle Cooke, drawing from her own experience as a part-deaf professor, recommends you pay attention to the words your student uses to describe themselves – or ask them.
It might feel awkward, but you’re going to need to talk to your student anyway to obtain their consent, so it’s the perfect time!
Some students might already suspect it themselves, others might have no idea. Either way, it’s actually not that uncommon for students to be diagnosed at university.
This can be even more common for international students – either because they’ve been living in a country where a condition isn’t as commonly diagnosed, or because they’ve changed schools (or countries) frequently enough to fly under the radar.
In this case, it can be worth letting students know that they can make use of the healthcare provisions they’ll have access to in their new country of residence.
When it comes to their reference letters, you can of course mention difficulties they’ve overcome. Just avoid the armchair diagnosis: focus on how they’ve overcome certain difficulties and the traits they’ve developed and showcase, and don’t name-drop a disability.
Disclosing a disability to a university is a tricky topic. Whilst there are plenty of advantages, ones which could empower your student to thrive at university and truly get the most out of their degree, students with disabilities may still encounter discriminatory situations.
Ultimately, the best thing to do is to have an open and honest conversation with your student(s). This way, you’ll help them decide whether disclosure is the right choice for them, choose how to go about it, and together come up with the perfect plan.