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Disability in the Admissions Process and Ensuing Academic life at Bryn Mawr - Web Event 2

sschurtz's picture

You need to change your topic. That’s what I heard when I tried to write my essay on overcoming ADHD for my college application. I questioned that I was supposed to write about a struggle that I’ve encountered in my life and that I felt that this was what I wanted to write about. But everyone from my college counselor to my parents felt that I should pick a different topic.  Even though colleges are accepting and have services for students with disabilities there is still the worry that showcasing disability will hurt your chances in the academic realm. How can we change this in college admissions, in general and at Bryn Mawr? In order to change the admission process do we first need to change the academic structure of the college and classroom to be more accepting of people with disabilities of all types? And are we discriminating against people with disabilities by the arduous process of documentation and the normative time placed on a person’s individual ability to work?  

            In order to look at the way the admissions process works at Bryn Mawr we need to see how they treat disability regarding current students. Bryn Mawr does not discriminate based on disability. According to their webpage on access services it states that “Bryn Mawr College is committed to providing equal access for all qualified students with disabilities”(access services) and a woman in admission reiterated the fact that Bryn Mawr College does not discriminate. A student tour guide I had talked to about the issue of disability in admissions stated that she was never told of a policy on disability and she had never seen an application turned down due to disability. But because there is no definitive policy regarding disability and the admissions process at Bryn Mawr I’m going to extrapolate what they mean from qualified based on what they mention on the access services page. “Bryn Mawr College welcomes qualified students with disabilities to the campus community, providing support and reasonable accommodations through its Access Services office”(access services) Essentially the disabilities that they are prepared to provide services for and can deal with are on the website.  The information pertains mostly to learning disabilities, which in turn implies that those are those ones that they are the most equipped to deal with. A large part of the website is devoted to how to provide documentation to the college regarding your disability to get extra time. This is not an entirely negative thing because Bryn Mawr is an academic institution so it makes sense that the disabilities they focus on the most are the ones that will affect how a student performs academically. It doesn’t take into consideration as much the disabilities that are hard to document, that are varied and complex or the other types of disabilities that lead students to not be able to function on normative time.

The admissions process is a complicated one but for a school like Bryn Mawr it is meant to make sure the perspective student will be able to fit in and function at the college. A big aspect is making sure that students can handle the course load. So instead of focusing on the admissions process in regards to how they are handling disability we need to examine the structure of academic life at Bryn Mawr College itself. Then propose to restructure it to enable more students with disability who would not be qualified otherwise to have the option to come to college. Essentially the students who are not qualified are the ones who cannot function on the normative schedule of the college. There are disabilities that would cause students in high school to be hard workers and intelligent but unable to get high grades due to a learning impediment, a mental disability or a psychological issue. If you suffer from depression and could not go to class for a month it is unlikely that your G.P.A. would be high enough for a school like Bryn Mawr. I think that if we can set forward a policy and a new environment that embraces disabilities then we can become more diverse and stronger as a community. On an application the school could include an optional essay on disability and how it has impacted academic life in High School and how they work and thrive with their disability so that Bryn Mawr could be better prepared.

            Bryn Mawr has been making strides in recent years to become more accommodating for students with physical disabilities. The school moved the Dean’s office from the second floor of Taylor Hall, which was not wheelchair accessible, to Guild which is accessible. They are repaving and focusing on the upkeep of paths around campus. An issue that Bryn Mawr must encounter in terms of making classrooms and dorms accessible to students with physical disabilities is that many buildings on campus are over 100 years old. For some buildings it would be very difficult to put an elevator in so essentially there are some places where you cannot live or go on campus. There are some places that are very accessible though, such as Erdman which has handicap accessible rooms on the first floor and an automatic door. If there is a class that you want to take and the location is not accessible to you due to a disability then the professor may move the classroom but “The College is not obligated to make a modification that substantially alters an essential element of a course, program, or service”(access services).

            I think we need to change the way we handle documentation on disabilities and adopt a system closer to queer time. “Think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules” (Halberstam 1) a system that would function outside of the norm. That is an inclusive way to handle the needs of disabled people.  A small liberal arts college is the place to adopt this kind of system. As someone who has gone through the process with a disability the amount of documentation needed is substantial and expensive. It is also subjective. The same report that a different institution or standardized test may say enables me to extra time and a quiet environment; another institution may say that they don’t think I require accommodations due to the report. It also creates an unfair environment if only people who can afford the tests to get documentation can get accommodations. Students tend to know how they work the best and to have a school dictate how they should study and learn can be detrimental to their success. If the goal is education than the school should focus on how to enable all students to succeed and advance in their knowledge. Essentially, this is why we need to adopt queer time. Get away from the normative rigid system and try a more inclusive form of academic life. If Bryn Mawr were to adopt queer time and allow students to have a larger role in the structure of their academic career then there would not be a need to have documented disabilities because the student could figure out and plan for themselves how they function the best. It would take away the unfair nature of expensive documentation and the subjectivity of it as well as help students whose disabilities are not documented or who are not comfortable disclosing their disabilities.

As a Woman’s college Bryn Mawr is a safe environment for women to learn and grow. So it should be that we give the same credence to women with disabilities because “classical thought has long defined women and disabled people as being the same” (Garland –Thomas 7). If we are not encouraging people with disability and embracing disability at women’s college then we are turning our backs on similarly marginalized people. The practice of “equating femaleness with disability is common”(7). It is important for an institution focused on the higher education of women to recognize the similarities between women and disability and react to it.  Encourage disabled women and give them the resources to thrive in this environment.

            In “Mad at School” Price says that a student is expected to participate in class but what about the student who “experience such severe anxiety, or obsession, that he can barely leave his dorm room or house”(Price 5) or “who is undergoing a deep depression and cannot get out of bed?”(6). Essentially for a school like Bryn Mawr it is not that you cannot get into the college it is that once you are here you “flunk and drop out”(6). The way Bryn Mawr runs now for students with these kinds of disability is that there are resources in terms of counseling but regarding academic structure it is very rigid. If we can adopt a system closer to queer time where the student who cannot leave her bed could participate online from his room at any time of the semester rather than the rigid structure of going to class than perhaps they could succeed in this environment. If you allow students the opportunity to work how they believe they work best and take away the normative structure of the classroom it allows more options for students with disabilities. Instead of flunking out they can set up a structure that allows them to work at their own pace and handle their disability at the same time. It is also important in the sense that there are accommodations for learning disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD in the classroom but not always for psychosocial disabilities “Psychosocial disability announces that it is deeply intertwined with social context, rather than buried in an individual’s brain”( 18). Even a school with excellent accommodation would have a hard time reconciling a disability like depression into a classroom accommodation. Extra time or a quiet room would not be the accommodation needed for that. You would need to restructure the way the classrooms are set up and organized.

            Bryn Mawr and most colleges run on normative time. We have strict deadlines, set class times and a traditional classroom structure in most classes. We do not have online classes and students are expected to attend classes on a regular basis. It can be hard to get extensions depending on the class. The professor has the option and so does your dean. But for students who take longer to take a test or can’t write quickly enough to finish a paper in time how are they supposed to reconcile that in the academic environment. There is Access Services which is a great resource and their goal is to help students with accommodations but “current relevant documentation of a disability from a qualified professional is required to verify eligibility and to help determine appropriate accommodations”(access services) so if you are unable to afford or get documentation on disability there are fewer options available to you.

            Essentially the admissions process needs to reflect how school will be like for the student here. It is unfair to the student to let them into a school where they are not given the opportunities to thrive and learn. This is where we need to change. We need to change some of how the academics function to allow people of disability to function on queer time. “Academic discourse needs to measure up to us”(Price, 9) . Once we have that then we can expand the admissions process currently in place to allow students who were not qualified before the ability to study at an institution like Bryn Mawr.        

Works Cited

Access Services. Bryn Mawr College." N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013

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

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "Re-shaping, Re-thinking, Re-defining: Feminist Disability Studies.

Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York UP, 2005.


MargaretRachelRose's picture

Your paper largely addresses

Your paper largely addresses the issue that Bryn Mawr needs to be more accepting of people with disabilities whether they are mental, physical, or emotional. Naming the daunting Admissions progress and restrictive normative time as the key factors against those with disabilities, you explain the pitfalls of each and suggestion a resolution. You propose a deviation from running on normative time, because queer time would provide time crucial for a differing mental capacities for learning. This would create a more inclusive environment for learning. Bryn Mawr’s ideals for academic achievement cannot be reached if the institution does not provide a time-queered, inclusive, supportive space for those who have disabilities.  

Anne Dalke's picture


A month ago you were wrestling with the “contradictions” of being a feminist Christian; now you’ve taken on an entirely different (and perhaps even more ambitious?) project, one also addressing contradictions—though this time it’s 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 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.

How might your own suggestions of queered class time and in-room accommodations for psychosocial disabilities meet such concerns?

I’ve put you in a writing group w/ Cat (who addresses the same issues you do) and Maggie (who’s writing more largely about reshaping the college), so I think  you three will find some common interests to discuss together in class.