This SPSPotlight feature aims to highlight strategies for students who may be encountering ableist academic experiences with inspiring expert advice from advocates for disability equity in psychology and academia. My personal research interests include studies on underrepresented groups, health disparity groups, and students with disabilities. This research journey led me to find the Disability Advocacy and Research Network (DARN) Community through the SPSP Open Forum channels. I highly recommend joining the newly launched SPSP Community's Student Channel and staying up to date on Open Forum.


The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that one in four adults living in the United States has "some type of disability," or 27% of the population. The University of Michigan's School of Public Health report conducted an online study of 96,000 U.S. college students from over 130+ campuses during the 2021–2022 school year that suggested "44% of students reported symptoms of depression," 37% anxiety, and "15% reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year" making it "the highest recorded rates in the history of the 15-year-old survey." With these increases in public health demand for individuals with disabilities and health disparities, it is important to learn and research on the topic as much as possible from the leading organizations promoting anti-ableist protocols and teaching styles, as well as hear inspirational stories from students just like us. 

I quickly became a DARN student ally and member. I discovered the work of Dr. Kathleen Bogart from Oregon State University, Dr. Lisa Aspinwall from the University of Utah, and Clinical Research Coordinator Afrooz Hadimi from the University of British Columbia, all three founders of the DARN Community. I scoured Dr. Bogart's publications and the DARN website for resources.  I watched DARN webinars or attended when possible, and I joined the DARN Community's Google Group and Slack channel. I recommend watching Dr. Bogart's TedX Talk on The Psychology of Ableism, a keynote from DARN Teaching and Learning Conference: Dr. Michelle Nario-Redmond, the APA's Session 9: Guidance for Students with Disabilities, and several other recorded videos from the recent DARN Conference on Teaching about Disability in Psychology.

What is Ableism?

Dr. Bogart defines ableism comprehensively as a form of "stereotyping, prejudice, or discrimination" directed towards individuals with disabilities. It is an attitude that can manifest both implicitly and explicitly, ranging from "subtle to overt" expressions. In the context of social psychology, ableism is understood through the framework of the ABCs of attitudes, which include affect (emotion), behavior, and cognition (thoughts and beliefs). Specifically, stereotyping is linked to cognition and involves the concept that certain characteristics are typical of people within a particular group. Prejudice is rooted in "affect" and is characterized by negative emotions towards group members. Discrimination is behavioral, where actions are taken based on stereotypes or prejudice. Bogart discusses that people with disabilities often face stereotypes that paint them as warm but incompetent, leading to microaggressions, patronizing behaviors, or neglect. This discriminatory attitude not only affects the social interactions of individuals with disabilities but can also have broader implications for their opportunities and well-being.

Expert Advice on Ableist Attitudes

Members from the Disability Advocacy and Research Network (DARN) Community were recently asked to share resources and expert advice for students with disabilities intersecting with topics on ableism. I asked several DARN Community experts, including Kelly Deragon, PsyD of the Cleveland Clinic, Taryn Eudaly, MDiv from the Oregon Public Health Association, Noriko Katsuya, PhD from The University of Tokyo,  Virginia S. Wood, PsyD from Kennesaw State University, and fourth-year psychology doctoral student Ryan Armer, several questions to help students with disabilities navigate ableist attitudes with positive strategies for change and cultural ethos understanding.

Expert Highlights

The contributing experts from the Disability Advocacy and Research Network (DARN) Community discuss several key themes regarding ableism and accommodations for students with disabilities in academia. One prominent theme is the importance of self-advocacy and understanding one's rights. Students are encouraged to be proactive and assertive when disclosing disabilities and requesting accommodations, emphasizing the assets they bring to their field and the necessity of their accommodations for success. Another theme is the significance of documentation and communication. Students are advised to keep detailed records of all interactions, accommodations, and any instances of ableism they encounter. This includes sending reminder emails to maintain a written record of discussions and reporting any noncompliance with accommodations to the appropriate university offices or even external authorities if necessary. The surveyed experts also highlight the need for early and clear communication with faculty and advisors. Students should approach faculty early with their approved accommodations and assume a positive, cooperative stance, expecting the faculty's willingness to make necessary adjustments. Additionally, there is a focus on leveraging institutional support and resources. Students are advised to consult with university departments dedicated to assisting students with disabilities and to utilize student services for direct intervention with faculty when facing ableist attitudes. Lastly, the experts emphasize the importance of maintaining professionalism and emotional composure in the face of ableism. They suggest building a support network, including peers, mentors, and family, to provide emotional support and advice. Students are also encouraged to educate themselves on their rights and their professor's obligations and document all interactions meticulously.

Questions and Answers

What is your expert advice for students currently experiencing ableist mentalities or obstacles from faculty?

Dr. Kelly Deragon: Recognize that ableist views are a reflection of their bias and not a reflection on you.  Seek out a counselor, mentor, or member of the disability community who validates your experience and empowers you to move forward in the face of adversity. 

Taryn Eudaly: Keep records—every comment, every microaggression, every time they don't follow the accommodations agreement. Every. Single. One. And report at the end of each week to the Disability Services Office. If nothing happens, you absolutely have the right to report their noncompliance to the Department of Justice. But the first time - just remind them.

Dr. Noriko Katsuya: Instead of confronting that teacher on your own, I would suggest that you consult with an institute within the university that assists students with disabilities, such as the Center for Students with Disabilities. I think it is better to have as many allies as possible.

Dr. Virginia Wood:  Go straight to student services. They should handle this directly with your professor or instruct you what to do. They're old hands at this, and have likely even dealt with your department or even this specific professor before. Plus, the playing field is leveled that way. Get support from the disability community: Have a safe place to vent and seek advice off campus. Have a cheering squad of friends and family on speed dial (I called my husband every day on my lunch break from The Internship From H*).

P.S. There's little you can do yourself, directly, about somebody else's mentality. You can educate occasionally, but you are not in a position of equal power here so that can at times just be a waste of breath. It is best to direct your efforts to leveraging institutional power to change behavior. Attitudes will follow or at least, blessedly, go underground.

Ryan Armer: Be strong and explore your rights, if you are being discriminated against, complain until you make someone listen. You are as important as anyone else but it's important to advocate for yourself, even if that's just to get an advocate to support you.

What is your best advice for students when disclosing disabilities and submitting approved accommodations to faculty advisors or professors?

Dr. Deragon: Make sure that you recognize the assets you bring to the field. It's important to emphasize that you can be successful with the appropriate accommodations and understanding of supervisors!

Eudaly: Begin with the assumption that you deserve the accommodation you need. And begin as early as possible—a lot of professors get frustrated when something new pops up on their radar that adjusts their mental image of how the class will go. Approach them early on with your approvals and assume they will be pleased to adjust so you can learn what they have to teach.

Dr. Katsuya: I think it is best if the student can be specific, clear, and persuasive about the reasons why the accommodation is needed. I would suggest that they include specific stories to help a faculty advisor or professor understand that it is absolutely necessary and not excessive in compensating for a mental or physical disability.

Dr. Wood: Say and do absolutely no more than is required by your school. Do not act entitled, and do not be apologetic. "Here is my letter - thank you." Better still if student services handles delivery for you, as our school does these days, and directs all professor's questions to their office. All my students ever hear from me is an email acknowledging "I have your letter. Please let me know if you experience any difficulties with the accommodations as I have set them up," and that is as it should be.

Armer: I generally initiate first contact through the Diversity and Inclusion department to get them to share my learning and assessment plan and the accommodations I would need, that way a third party with knowledge about discrimination has made first contact. Following that, I've found many of the lecturers quite open to speaking with me about my needs. If I come across any further issues while dealing with the lecturer I make contact with the Equity department again to advise them of what is going on. Even if I speak to someone face-to-face, I send a reminder email regarding our talk that way there is always a written record of what has been discussed.

Please share any additional expert advice on ableism that would be helpful for graduate students with disabilities.

Dr. Deragon: Many people don't recognize their ableist views. Like other biases, it's important that we address misconceptions about differently-abled individuals. It is not always easy, but your efforts will help to promote increased diversity in the professional field.

Eudaly: Most professors have been doing this for a long time. They either have a story of a previous student who did just fine with different or no accommodations, or they have somehow never had to accommodate a student. Humans aren't very good at navigating change, but how you respond to them (with strength and calm) will affect how they see everyone who comes after you. It's a heavy burden to bear, to be a waymaker, but it's a noble role.

Dr. Katsuya: I think it is very important to have a network of peers in the same situation, and DARN is one such network. I thought this paper was interesting, although not a study for graduate students: Lindsay, S., & Fuentes, K. (2022). It is time to address ableism in academia: a systematic review of the experiences and impact of ableism among faculty and staff.

Dr. Wood: Do not ever let anything your professor says or does visibly rattle you. That's the old game of See What I Made You Do—never let them win a round because it weakens your position. Remain professional at all times. Do not feel you have to respond to anything immediately: keep a poker (professional!) face and have a mental card file of polite (did I mention professional?) deflections that will just roll off your tongue no matter how mad/scared/hurt/humiliated you feel inside and buy you time. Document, document, document, and get witnesses. (It goes without saying that you store your documentation off-site and have backups). If you think your professor is gunning for you or might retaliate in the future, then be sure your own behavior is absolutely impeccable. Don't give them the tiniest thing that they can use against you. The best thing you can do is compile a list of your own that fits your situation: besides the obvious (ADA), any organization that advocates specifically for people with your disability, all relevant university web pages (know your rights, complaint, and appeal procedures, etc.), and a copy of the faculty handbook. What are your professors' obligations? The handbook is a gold mine. And, of course, your professional code of ethics. APA has a whole section on ethical behavior for academics!

Many THANKS to all of our panelists from the DARN Community for your contributions!

Top Themes

In my research for this article, I targeted the top themes shared by the experts surveyed, the videos and webinars watched, and synergetic materials from experts in the field. Dr. Michelle Nario-Redmund's keynote from the recent DARN Teaching and Learning Conference included top themes revolving around recognizing and responding to ableism, the diversity and rights of people with disabilities, and the importance of inclusive practices in society and media representations. In this lecture, ableism is identified as a pervasive issue that affects a significant portion of the population, with one in four people experiencing some form of disability during their lives. Addressing ableism is, therefore, a responsibility for everyone.

News and Trends

The health disparity classification for individuals with disabilities was just recently enacted. On September 26, 2023, the NIH designated individuals with disabilities as a "population with health disparities," with new updates and changes to follow. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has recently recognized people with disabilities as a population with health disparities and is actively supporting research to improve understanding of these disparities. The NIH has also issued a notice of funding opportunity for research on the impact of disability, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status on healthcare access and outcomes.

DARN Member Dr. Hari Srinivasan was recently published in a Time article addressing several key themes related to autism and societal perceptions of independence and connection. One of the central themes is the pervasive loneliness experienced by individuals with autism, which is often exacerbated by the societal push for independence. Srinivasan discusses how this pursuit of self-sufficiency can lead to social marginalization and economic disenfranchisement for those with disabilities, particularly for individuals with autism who may struggle with social interactions and establishing relationships.

Researchers have created a new rating scale database if you are interested in ableism and disability research. The new rating scale database compiles an open repository of ableism scales or the Ableism Scale Database. Check out all the links and resources for further research on ableism topics below!

Additional Resources

  1. Join the DARN Community: X/Twitter | Google Group | Community Directory
  2. DARN Resources & Links
  3. Related Resources for APA Session 9, Guidance for Students with Disabilities
  4. Dr. Kathleen Bogart's Psychology Today Disability is Diversity Blog
  5. CDC: Disability Impacts All of Us
  6. Podcast: Included: The Disability Equity Podcast
  7. Journal of Social Issues Special Issue on Ableism
  8. Disability-related Manuscripts
  9. NIH designates people with disabilities as a population with health disparities

Be well and thrive!