Image: A young woman (Navi) with black/brown hair that falls just below her shoulders, standing outside on a sidewalk, wearing a black jacket. She is looking directly at the camera.
Recently, a young women named Navi Dhanota (Phd student) got York University to change its policy around academic accommodations for students with a mental illness diagnosis. Presently, many Ontario universities and colleges require a letter from a psychiatrist stating that the student has a mental illness, the SPECIFIC illness(es) and that because of this they require academic accommodations. Navi did not want to provide a specific mental illness diagnosis and when the University demanded one she filed a human rights complaint against the school with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Her hard work paid off! York University has changed their policy and now,
“…students seeking supports at York won’t have to label their illness to get help. The school still requires an assessment from a licensed doctor to confirm the student has a legitimate condition that may require faculty flexibility or other supports, but the focus is now on determining how the disability affects their learning. For example, some students may need to take tests at a particular time of day because medication makes them drowsy.” ( Diana Zlomislic, Toronto Star, Jan 12 2016)
As with anything, there are critics. Heather Mallick (columnist, author and lecturer) is very much against this policy change stating:
“The legal requirement that a stigmatizing diagnosis be a secret from helpful universities smells of mould and asylums.” (Heather Mallick, Toronto Star, Jan 15 2016)
Mallick may have a point if her article wasn’t written from a place of what I can only interpret as ignorance and privilege (she lectures on human rights so that’s a little scary). Why keep mental disability a secret she asks? There are many reasons, all of them valid and worthy of respect.
In an open letter to Mallick, Rosalind Robertson makes many great points that I support such as the stigma people face when they disclose their diagnosis, that it is not being our job to educate everyone by being “out”, and a person’s right to privacy.
Those who support and oppose are separated by a line etched in stone. Some that I know stand behind Mallick and others stand behind Navi. I personally, if you haven’t already guessed, stand behind Navi. Many of us with mental health concerns and have gone on to post-secondary education probably have experience with their academic accommodations department. Please read about my experience with academic accommodations here.
I strongly support York’s policy change because the specific diagnosis shouldn’t matter. What matters is that a doctors identifies there is a need, a “mental disability”, and that support will be needed in certain areas. There is stigma when people find out your diagnosis. Keeping that information to yourself is NOT stigmatizing or taking a step backwards. It is respecting yourself. It is respecting where your story is told and who knows your story. IT IS A PRIVILEGE TO KNOW MY STORY! A specific diagnosis doesn’t tell a person about your learning needs. I gave my specific diagnosis, as required, and they still did not meet my learning needs. Our privacy needs to be respect and our exact learning needs have to become a priority.
Image: a hand partially covering the word “privacy”.
Some are arguing that by keeping the diagnosis a “secret” that they are stigmatizing themselves and contributing to stigma. No. I can see how that can be an argument and I truly do not accept it as a decent argument. People should NEVER be forced to disclose. People should NEVER ben shamed for not disclosing. My health is none of your business unless I chose to let you in. If you can provide a service without specific knowledge then provide me with that service. My borderline personality isn’t the important part. The important part is that I have trouble with my memory, especially when under stress, so I would like to write essays instead of tests. Writing essays allows me time to sit down and go through my knowledge and write it all down so it makes sense. A test makes me think on the spot and tests me on what I can remember, not what I know or how I can apply what I have learned (this is also a critique of testing in general). Knowing I am borderline will not tell you that.
Some may argue that many people are blogging about their mental health issues so why should it matter if they have to disclose to their school. It’s about choice. Blogging about my mental health is something I chose to do. I control what I put out, I get to speak for myself. I don’t need or want to disclose to everyone. If I don’t disclose to someone and they find my blog it goes back to knowing that I have control over how I represent myself. I should be given that same control when seeking academic accommodations.
I am big on choice. I believe we should have more choices in treatment, more choices in ways of being and more choice in who we disclose too. If a student wants to tell accommodations faculty their exact diagnosis then that is fantastic. Schools should not force students to share something about themselves that they may not wish to share. Forcing someone to disclose should not be the only way to receive support! You don’t need to know I am borderline. You need to know what I need.