Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Sharing Space: Neurodiversity in the Classrooms of Bryn Mawr College

Cat's picture

College academic life involves taking up space. We fill the silence with spoken “participation,” disrupt blank pages with written words, place our bodies into classrooms, and fill professors’ desks with blue books. At Bryn Mawr, we are, at the end of the day (no matter how much we refuse to talk about it), graded in a way that reflects the space we take up and judged by faculty, staff, and fellow enrolled students that reflects the space we take up. The methods of assessing the space students take up vary, but the tools of judgment that the administration and professors wield bear lasting impact on us. These expectations often do not seem to take into account the complex identities of students, especially erasing the intersection of our academic lives with the other aspects of our lives, like mental disability (Brooke, 141).

Mental disability at Bryn Mawr, when officially marked down as such, goes through Access Services. Accommodations can sometimes be made when everything goes right with the bureaucracy of filing what the college calls an “…impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; has a record of such an impairment; or has been regarded as having an impairment,” a definition that echoes the one found in The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but puts the stress in its definition on personal “impairment” and leads, through this definition, following explanation, and unwritten standards, to the necessitation of the medicalization of disability to validate both the “impairment” and any disability that is related to it.

We at Bryn Mawr can, once we pay upwards of $3,000 for an evaluation by an “appropriate professional,” which will also require actually subjecting ourselves to an evaluation and getting ourselves to the appointments with the “professional,” (all of which will take about six weeks if we can get in to appointments) can request to get an accommodation (Access Services).

Accommodations like these automatically exclude students on the basis of how the bureaucracy sees them (not on the reality that Mawrtyrs actually live). Accommodations take a long time to get and they are expensive. Getting an accommodation requires jumping through a lot of administrative hoops. Students with mental disabilities can only gain services geared towards helping them access Bryn Mawr’s ableist system by being “received as a valid communicator” by the psychiatrists and college administrators they have to be vetted by in order to gain this access (Price, 27). The process of requesting and (sometimes) obtaining accommodations paradoxically mandates that students searching for help in sharing the space of the classroom must take up much more space. This system assumes a good deal of “normalcy” in lives the bureaucracy paradoxically sees as “abnormal.” In order to acquire an accommodation for a disability, access to money, time, transportation, the knowledge of who to request accommodations from, and the ability to approach administrators all must be present.

I argue that these “accommodations” do not set students on the track to being the best in the class. The way functioning of Bryn Mawr’s space-sharing limits the success stories to a select few. On top of that, the system of “accommodation” does little to challenge the larger power structure of the school is geared towards students who are “neurotypical” and assumes that “normal” status until proven otherwise in a lengthy, difficult process.

To succeed at Bryn Mawr, we as students have to take up space. But, there is not enough space for everyone. The pedagogy of Bryn Mawr classes limits the ability of students to participate.  The idea of participation in class lies in the assumption that all students are rational and will participate in ways that are conducive to the professor’s goals for the course. Faculty might not have student discussion patterns mapped out in an evil lair, but there are expectations that we will stay “on topic” and have the “right attitude.” This applies from everything to test taking to talking in class. Tests must be taken in allotted times (whether extended or not) and our answers to tests must seem fresh to professors—taking up space in their minds where other student responses might have instead. If our class has discussions, we have to show up to class and speak, but not there simply is not enough time for everyone to have enough time to express their ideas, especially if we take longer than other people to get to our points or find a spot in the conversation to slip in. If there is not a set “discussion,” most classes provide some opportunity for students to ask questions, but we have to be able to speak in front of a lot of people, including our professors, to do that and be able to assert that question. (It is very likely that all classes provide some room for questions, but I have neither the time, money, nor energy to take every class offered at Bryn Mawr, and so I cannot say for certain.) To do well, we have to take up space, preferably by challenging the professor’s opinions just a bit. But, in order to do that, a lot of factors have to be in place, because there is not enough space for everybody. The system already does not allow everyone to succeed, even if there was no neurodiversity amongst Mawrtyrs and even if our lives, our privileges, our everything else, were the same.

Access Services makes exceptions to a neurotypical rule, but does not help take down the ableist system that the college runs on. Instead, the office suggests that all of us are “normal.” Mawrtyrs are not taken for their word, but have to prove through medical analysis that they are “off.” The college sometimes allots students extra test time, the option of taking tests in quieter rooms, and permission to record a lecture, in addition to other exceptions. But these are all “accommodations.” A student is considered to be in the wrong, not the system that disables them. In the “Guidelines for Providing Accommodations for Students with Disabilities,” the passage directed towards “Appropriate academic adjustments and reasonable accommodations” stipulates that “The College is not required to make a modification that it can demonstrate would substantially alter an essential element of a College standard, requirement or program” (Guidelines for Providing Accommodations for Students with Disabilities). This narrative is one of bringing students up to a set standard of academic discourse, wherein they can be a part of academia in spite of mental disability. This particular system of accommodation does not reflect the idea that Mawrtyrs can participate in academic life with and through mental disability, nor does it show any movement to change the spaces of Bryn Mawr include of all students, opting to change the Mawrtyrs instead.

Accommodations made within a disabling, dysfunctional system will not provide all of us with the opportunity to pursue “…knowledge as preparation for life and work” (Bryn Mawr). If Bryn Mawr truly “…teaches and values critical, creative and independent habits of thought and expression in an undergraduate liberal arts curriculum…” then it should take a look around at its students and the differences in thought and expression that we already have (Bryn Mawr). Maybe then it will make true “accommodations” by changing the larger system, not just test times.


Alder, Deb. Personal interview. 6 Nov. 2013.

 “Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as Amended.” Information and Technical Assistance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.

Brooke, Robert. “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” College Composition and Communication 38.2 (1987): 141.

"Bryn Mawr College Mission Statement." Bryn Mawr College. Bryn Mawr College, 1998. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.

"Guidelines for Providing Accommodations." Access Services. Bryn Mawr College, 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2013.

Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.


sschurtz's picture


How would you want to change the way accommodations are handled? Would you restructure the school in some way? My paper dealt with the same issue that you wrote about and I feel that you had a very successful paper. The thing that stuck out to me the most was your point about documentation regarding disability. I also talked about that in my essay and we had a lot of similar points (and sources). I liked what you said about the monetary cost of documentation though because it is creating this unfair balance of people who can get accommodations if they can afford it. It creates a system where people struggle in their classes because they can not afford the testing to ensure they would get it. Essentially if you are wealthy or have great insurance than you are more likely to get accommodations, which is an unfair advantage. There is an aspect of having to prove that you have a disability that I have always found off-putting about the process of getting documentation. If I were to rewrite my essay based more from an economic point of view I would focus on the aspect of documentation. 

MargaretRachelRose's picture

Your paper cities the ways

Your paper cities the ways Bryn Mawr’s isn’t using its authority in the access services to fully accommodate student who are not neurotypical.  You begin your analysis by describing how college academic life involves taking up space, which contextualizes the exclusion of those with mental disability. You highlight the daunting, often overwhelming expensive and defeating process of going through Access Services for an accommodation. There system in place now is too ableist, trying to suggest all students into a bureaucratic definition of “normal,” and this system is dysfunctional. It proves to be only more disabling for those with mental disabilities.  

Anne Dalke's picture

"there is not enough space for everyone...."

Your last project was about queer signaling; this one calls for BMC to do some queer signaling of a very different sort, by recognizing the “’intersectionality ‘of our academic lives with other aspects, like mental disability”--and altering our structures to better enable the flourishing of us all.

Your analysis includes a number of very nice moments—your noticing that BMC’s description of its access policies is focused on “personal ‘impairment,’” not structural inequity. Your insisting that “the system of ‘accommodation’ does little to challenge the larger power structure of the school—which is geared towards students who are ‘neurotypical.’” Your saying that “making exceptions to the neurotypical rule” “does not help take down the ableist system that the college runs on.”

…and your particularly charming, and compelling, argument that “’accommodations’ do not set students on the track to being the best in the class”—because they are based on the notion of scarce space: “to succeed at Bryn Mawr, we have to take up space…. by challenging the professor’s opinions just a bit….our answers must seem fresh…taking up space in their minds…But there is not enough space for everyone…. ““Accommodations made within a disabling, dysfunctional system will not provide all of us with the opportunity to pursue ‘knowledge as preparation for life and work’”; the only way we can “make true ‘accommodations’ is by changing the larger system”; “Mawrtyrs can participate in academic life with and through mental disability.”

I repeat below all the things I just wrote to sschurtz; you should read each other’s papers, and talk, since you are both looking @ the difficulty that a place, which so prides itself on mental accomplishment, has in accommodating mental diversity and difference.

As you know from the piece that Clare Mullaney and I wrote about Disabling Achievement, the issues you raise here are a particular concern of mine: I do believe that the structure of the sort of rigorous education we offer here is disabling for all of us, and I am very drawn to your suggestion that—rather than simply seek “accommodations,” we “examine the structure of academic life at Bryn Mawr itself”—and work to alter it.  In doing so, we would be directly challenging the (rather startling) statement you (and sschurtz both) report from the Access Services’ page, that the “College is not obligated to make a modification that substantially alters an essential element of a course, program, or service.”

Clare and I argue in our essay that intellectual work and mental disability are actually dialectical, each constituting and negating the other. Margaret Price goes so far as to claim that “academic discourse,” in its appreciation of rationality and reason, “operates not just to omit, but to abhor mental disability—to reject it, to stifle and expel it.” Bryn Mawr does discriminate based on disability: we do not accept many students because we think they cannot do the work; we require some of those we accept to supply documentation for accommodation; and place others on medical leave, because they cannot keep up with the work once they are here.

Of course one common concern, whenever such issues are raised, is with "falling standards”: the need to maintain Bryn Mawr’s ideals of academic achievement. But ”protecting standards” predicates achievement on the existence of a population who cannot meet those goals; advocating for the “disabled” sets that distinct identity against those who are “enabled.” And both acts of “exclusion” are caught within what Lennard Davis identifies as the “larger system of regulation and signification” which disables us all.

Your writing group of course include sschurtz, since you are both addressing the same problematics of accommodation; Maggie’s paper is less obviously related to your project, but please read it as well so that you all can talk, in class, about reshaping the college more largely.