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In an ideal world, graduate programs would never discriminate against an applicant for disclosing their disability status—or, better yet, programs would be designed with disabled people in mind so that disclosure is not required for access. Existing scholarship, however, notes that disability discrimination is often an issue in academe that prospective and current graduate students must face. As those of us with disabilities navigate a graduate school environment where we are conditionally accepted, understanding whether and when to disclose a disability becomes paramount to ensuring our success.
The vast majority of disabilities are considered “invisible” or nonapparent, meaning that they initially necessitate disclosure to identify. But if you disclose your disability too early, you may not be accepted. If you never disclose, you may be forced to conceal an important part of who you are. Although students with invisible disabilities are certainly capable of succeeding in graduate school, disability-related factors may become apparent during a graduate program. Students may find that aspects of their disabilities are exacerbated during graduate school or may become disabled for the first time during their program. These types of events can become barriers to students’ success when not handled with care among institutions and programs.
Applicants and students may benefit from disability-related accommodations or from understanding the specific institutional resources available to support their success. In addition to traditional types of support (e.g., extra time on tests), graduate students may want to know any additional disability-related information before matriculating to a program. Yet if you ask about or gain access to this information, you may need to disclose your disabilities to the program or other people at the institution, like an adviser or someone else in university administration.
Disabled students are eligible to receive accommodations from their institution once they have self-identified as having disabilities and those disabilities have been substantiated or proven through medical documentation. Following a conversation with disability service staff, accommodations are put in place and enacted to facilitate access to college. Common accommodations include accessible parking for students with physical disabilities or a reduced-distraction testing environment to help students maximize their focus.
Recently, we conducted a study that explored the barriers and facilitators of disability disclosure based on a series of 173 user posts on the social media website Twitter. We sought to understand the factors that contribute to disability disclosure among current and prospective graduate students. For the purposes of our study, we mostly considered research-based, doctoral graduate programs, primarily those for Ph.D.s and Ed.D.s, where students work closely with small departments—though a few users also weighed in on how these considerations can be applicable to other types of programs, like those for master’s or medical students. (To maintain anonymity and confidentiality, we have hyperlinked our recent study rather than the actual Twitter thread throughout this piece.)
Based on what we learned from our study, we’d like to share three popular options for determining when and whether to disclose an invisible disability during the graduate school process.
Disclose on an as-needed basis once you are attending the program. Several Twitter users reported some fields tend to be more amenable to supporting people with disabilities than others. In the other options we present, we will discuss considerations that involve “weeding out” potentially ableist programs in favor of more supportive options. However, we recognize that some applicants may not have the option of identifying more supportive programs, depending on their specific field and niche interests.
If you find yourself in this situation and want to go to a certain graduate school, even recognizing your program may not particularly support people with disabilities, your disability status should not prevent you from having the option to attend. In another recent op-ed, one of us discusses the need for more disabled professors in academe, a position where many graduate students may eventually find themselves.
Once you have your degree and become a professor, you may indeed be part of cultural changes within your field for future students. That said, it is also important to be cognizant of your mental health, and we recommend considering how happy you might be in a program where you feel pressured to hide your disability.
Disclose during the application process. Several users in our study chose to disclose during the application process, usually during the interview or through the statement of purpose. For many users, having disability on the table was an important aspect of users’ knowing that they were fully being accepted to a program for who they are, disability included.
Several users in our study reported that this option is the riskiest, as people face inadvertent discrimination that might lead to them not being accepted to a program or not receiving adequate funding to attend, despite being otherwise qualified. That said, while this option presents risks, it also may be the most seamless for determining if a program will avidly support students once admitted. With this option, programs are fully aware of what they are signing on for by accepting a disabled student, and you can rest assured that you are truly wanted when you get your acceptance letter. If you are able and willing to risk rejection and forgo the opportunity to apply to graduate school for another year, this may be the best option.
Disclose after gaining admission but before accepting an offer. Another large contingent of users in our study preferred to wait until after they had been admitted to a program before disclosing. Proponents of this option argued that, by waiting until acceptance, individuals can rest assured that they are not compromising their prospects for admission. By disclosing after securing an acceptance letter, but before accepting an offer, you have the power to reject a program if it raises ableist red flags.
While this option may sound superior to the second option, it is also important to consider the fact that program rankings often depend on the percentage of accepted applicants who matriculate. While this window may provide an opportunity to identify red flags before committing, what happens if program administrators, faculty members and others involved in the program are skilled at hiding those flags? Once you’re in, users argued, there’s a good chance the admissions committee will want you to attend and thus conceal aspects of program culture that could deter you from doing so.
The appropriateness of each option listed here depends on several other factors, some of which may include the number of programs you are planning to apply to and your assessments of how likely, absent disability considerations, you are to be admitted. The type of graduate program also matters significantly.
Navigating disability in graduate school can be tough, and until systemic changes create more opportunities for people with disabilities to be fully transparent, these decisions will likely continue to be complicated and difficult. We hope that the options we’ve outlined can serve as a starting point if you are currently considering whether and when to disclose your disabilities in graduate school. No matter what you choose, know that you are not alone and, most important, that you have a rightful place in higher education.