Hidden City Assignment: You get the special treatment

   Image #1 Description: A picture of a persons face that is all black and what appears to be his brain, but is made of puzzle pieces with a barrier in the middle, symbolizing the negative attitudes that can exists in society that can create barriers

   Image #2 Description: There is text written in green and blue with arrows pointing to a person using a wheelchair and a person who is standing, demonstrating that not all disabilities are visible.

We have learned that the medical model of disability places the burden of disability on the individual and the physical body rather the on the systems or institutions that work to oppress people with disabilities. It is easy to see the many examples of how physical barriers exist that exclude people with disabilities, such as inaccessible buildings, sidewalks and other physical structures. But many invisible barriers exist as well; in particular, social and attitudinal barriers towards people with mental or invisible disabilities. From a social model perspective, we see then that “the problem of disability is relocated from the individual, to the barriers and attitudes that disable her… it is society to blame (Shakespear, 2010).

The picture that I am sharing has to do with the barriers that students might face in higher education institutions in terms of being accommodated for their individual learning or mental needs. Students can face attitudinal barriers when disclosing their disabilities to professors, teaching assistants or campus employers. Working in equity and human rights in higher education we often see issues where students who have experienced discrimination based on their disabilities, even after they have gone through all the often complex and difficult processes to get accommodations to begin with. I have seen students who have been confronted with attitudes by faculty who refuse to give them accommodations, while commenting things such as “you get special treatment” or “your accident happened last year, you should be over it by now”, or “I don’t want to rock the boat by speaking to your professor so you should try to be less sensitive”.

When these types of attitudes exists, it creates unsafe spaces for students, and makes them afraid to ask for accommodations out of a fear of backlash or embarrassment, or because of the difficulty getting individual accommodations that fit their needs, or feelings of being alone and having no one to advocate for them, as well as negative attitudes or stereotypes, etc. As a result, they often do not attend class, or do not ask for the accommodation’s they need in the first place, or their health may deteriorate due to stress, and so their grades can suffer leading them to loose funding and so on. It is also important to recognize the power differences between faculty and students and how this too can have impacts for a student with mental or invisible disabilities. Furthermore, these experiences can be made more traumatic when we think about intersectionality and how multiple intersecting identities in addition to one’s disability can be impacted.

Issues of attitudinal and social barriers should be critically examined from a social justice model when thinking about barriers to students with mental/invisible disabilities. According to Mingus’s (2011), society does not always have a full understanding of what disability looks like, but rather have developed negative assumptions about people with disabilities such as them of having shortcomings, etc. This in turn is how ableism and other systems of oppression are perpetuated and impact people with disabilities.

When we are able to shift the idea that the individual is to blame for their disability, and move to a place that acknowledges and identifies the systemic barriers as well as negative attitudes by society, and further look at disability through a social justice lens, we can see how hidden barriers exist. It allows us to move towards a more equitable and just society for people with disabilities. I believe that one way to do this, in terms of higher education, is to incorporate critical education into practices and procedures for faculty and teaching staff so that they have an awareness and understanding of how their attitudes and beliefs can impact a student’s experience of inclusion and feelings of belonging.


Mingus. M, (2011). Changing the Framework: Disability Justice. Retrieved from:https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/changing-the-framework-disability-justice/

Shakespeare, T. (2010). The social model of disability. In L. Davis, (Ed.), The Disability Studies Reader (214- ). New York: Routledge. (course text)


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