Is disability the new normal?

On some elite US campuses, as many as one in four students are classified as ‘disabled’.

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics UK USA

Students in higher education are increasingly classified as either disabled or as suffering from mental-health issues. Disability on campuses has become the new normal and there is a growing demand for providing students with extra time to take exams or with an ever-expanding variety of special institutional support.

At some elite institutions in the United States, around one in four students are now classified as disabled. At Pomona College in California, 22 per cent of students were considered disabled in 2018, compared with five per cent in 2014. A survey published in the Harvard Crimson says that among the class of 2018, 41 per cent of students have at some point sought mental-health support from Harvard’s health services, while 15 per cent have sought support off campus.

A similar pattern is evident in the UK, where the number of university undergraduates offered special dispensation, such as extra time to write exams, continues to grow. Demand for extra time in exams due to mental-health problems increased threefold at Cambridge University between 2012 and 2017.

University administrators have embraced the normalisation of disability on campuses without hesitation. Every summer, examination boards face a torrent of demands for concessions from students. These students are not disabled, but they insist that the predicaments they face are sufficiently disabling to warrant special consideration.

The medical profession is an unwitting – or in some cases active – collaborator in this performance. They appear quite happy to provide doctors’ notes to legitimise these pleas for special treatment. Often, a doctor’s note will merely state that someone came to see them complaining of a headache or dizziness. These notes can then be submitted to the concessions committee of an examination board. It is up to an examination board how much significance it attaches to medical notes. But in some instances, demands for special treatment are granted simply because the board feels it is ‘better to be safe than sorry’. No institution wants to be accused of discrimination on grounds of disability.

When I was working as chief examiner for my university department during the 2000s, I first thought that students demanding concessions were simply trying it on. They knew that this was a risk-free exercise that might help to improve their grades. At worst, their claim for special treatment would be rejected. I still believe that many students try it on. But something important has changed.

In recent times, the tendency to medicalise human experience has encouraged a growing number of young people to interpret their lives through the narrative of mental health. When a student’s ups and downs are interpreted through medical language, then experiences like disappointment, pressure and stress come to be seen as pathological. Feelings and emotions that were once considered normal seem more threatening in our medicalised culture.

Young people who have been educated and socialised to understand their experiences through the prism of mental health easily develop a disposition to interpret every problem they face through a medical diagnosis. In such circumstances, they quite naturally believe that they are entitled to some form of medical support and special treatment. Moreover, once disability is depicted as the new normal, many will embrace it as an identity.

The institutionalisation of disability does no favours to young people. It diminishes their capacity for independence. It also does no favours to those who suffer from serious disabilities. The normalisation of disability trivialises these conditions and channels resources away from those who really need them.

Frank Furedi’s How Fear Works: the Culture of Fear in the 21st Century is published by Bloomsbury Press.

Picture by: Getty.

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Beth Kimber-Bradshaw

8th August 2019 at 4:56 pm

This argument and language choices are questionable. You call academic accommodations “special treatment” – then go on to say that it’s other students who are trivializing those who “suffer from serious disabilities”. Are you not, yourself, trivializing the accommodations some student’s require by calling them “special treatment”? Secondly, not all people with disabilities are suffering. You also say “once disability is accepted as the new normal”- is disability not normal? Around 20% of adults are disabled… And as previously commented, people with disabilities are now going to university more than previously and more students choose to disclose now that there are accommodations.

Jonathan Yonge

29th July 2019 at 10:06 am

Soon everbody will be disabled in one sense or another.
Gene research will find all weaknesses brought about by genes, bad cartilege which tears easily for example. IQ, muscle mass, memory loss, blood disorders….

In what sense is any disadvantage not also a disability ?

frances Hutchinson

25th July 2019 at 5:12 pm

Maybe it is just easier for disabled people to go to university these days than it used to be, and they see it as a way out of the disability loop. To have people question our disabilities and then say it is a way to get more exam time and extra help as if it is a rubbish excuse is frankly unhelpful. No one I know chooses to be ladled as disabled, it frankly sucks to have that label. Also getting yourself into student disability services and getting help seemed far from easy to me. MY equipment I needed to help with my studies on my disabled grant took well into my second year to even arrive!

tony noculak

24th July 2019 at 8:38 pm

As fast as the medical profession can invent new mental ‘illnesses’ so people will continue to see the benefits of being mentally ill and use it for their advantage. Don’t fancy the tedious business of working? Get a mental illness. Want unlimited attention and sympathy? Get a mental illness. Want free money? Get a mental illness. Seriously, what are you waiting for?

James Lock

24th July 2019 at 5:37 pm

So here’s a question, what does Frank Furedi define as a serious disability, and does he not? My guess is he wouldn’t even be brave enough to attempt to answer the this question. As he simply wouldn’t be able to answer it.

Linda Payne

24th July 2019 at 12:07 pm

I grew up with a mother with severe mental illness; I have suffered myself with the same thing that has worsened with age; it has cost me a career in nursing; many friends, my blood family and financially. Nothing winds me up more that people who claim to have mental illness when they so obviously don’t; just so they can have an advantage themselves; beleive me a real disability is life ruining, it is not some fad or trend to have as some badge of honour to get concessions, WAKE UP young people, you don’t need to do this, you have your youth , your health your whole life in front of you, LIVE IT!

Jane 70

24th July 2019 at 10:36 am

I’m awaiting a diatribe from the ever reliable AC-PC , aka A Cantor, to insist that all students should be awarded degrees on demand,without the need to sit oppressive hierarchical exams, these being an unacceptable reflection of white privilege and bigotry.

A truly woke institution would have no need to enforce unfair selection based on ability, commitment and hard work.

christopher barnard

24th July 2019 at 9:21 am

When I was a teacher in the 80s ‘special needs’ teaching was just coming in. The progressive head teacher gave us a talk on it. Drawing a 6 by 5 grid on the whiteboard to represent a class of 30 he identified special needs for 28 out of 30 children in a typical group. We were sceptical, but time has proved him right. Many more children are assessed as having such needs and many people make good livings catering for them, real or imaginary. It’s a money making racket.

Jerry Owen

24th July 2019 at 8:53 am

I wonder how many of those one in four students considers themselves disabled because the are in the wrong body .. ie they have a penis.. or not, as the case may be !

Jane 70

24th July 2019 at 10:11 am

Will they expect trans-formative exam results?

Bertram Wooster

24th July 2019 at 8:29 am

Simple, make the exams longer for all. Everyone has issues, so everyone gets the extra time. You’ll still be able to spot the duffers and the fakers because the extra time doesn’t really help them, and the genuinely good students won’t mind having more time to add some polish to their work, or they can leave early if they’re finished.

Albert Richardson

24th July 2019 at 9:04 am

Spot on. The English (British? I’m not familiar with Scotland) exam system places a pointless emphasis on speed, obliging the candidate to rush answer three to four questions in two to three hours, in contrast with some other systems. In France, for example, a typical exam consists of a single question to be answered in three to four hours. Candidates are expected to plan and draft their answers before writing out and submitting the final version,
and most candidates complete the task and leave before the allotted time has expired. To me this is a better test of real understanding than one which places greatest emphasis on speed of handwriting.

Jane 70

24th July 2019 at 7:06 am

Academic achievement is being undermined surely; university staff and students seemingly colluding in playing yet another variant of the identity card game, with dispensations as the outcome.

There are real challenges and growing pressures for undergraduates: in my final year as a mature student I had to deal with indebtedness, serious bouts of depression and anxiety, a disastrous love affair, sharing a house with the tenant from hell, the euthanising of my much loved cat ,holiday work to make ends meet, and an enormous work load, which included a research project, preparation for finals and vocational placements.

The degree course was demanding ,with extended terms and exam schedules, designed to lead to a joint professional qualification and B.Sc, but it was well worth the effort.

Yes many students undoubtedly do need the help and support which wasn’t available in my day, but surely the growing demands for dispensations and extensions will lead to grade inflation- already under scrutiny- and poor future employment prospects.

Tim Hare

24th July 2019 at 2:45 am

Avoiding pressure, disappointment and stress is ultimately self-defeating for these students. These feelings and emotions are nature’s way of stretching our ability to solve problems. Without them we become insipid and mediocre and never really achieve our potential.

Those institutions who cooperate with this dumbing down of human emotion are failing in their duty of real care and also failing in their responsibilities to taxpayers who fund their education budget.

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