Case example: Psychological disability

(Used with permission from DO IT:Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking & Technology University of Washington)

Sally and College Studies


My name is Sally and I'm a 22-year-old student with Major Depression and Anorexia Nervosa. I attend college full-time and need disability accommodations to help compensate for low mood, fatigue, bouts of anxiety ranging from mild to severe, and very low energy and motivation. I want to excel in my classes but my illnesses interfere.

Access Issues

I am stabilized on my psychiatric medications, which help my mood and eliminate thoughts of self-harm, but I experience morning fatigue as a side effect so early morning classes are difficult for me. Depression and eating disorders also affect my cognition by decreasing concentration, short-term memory, and problem-solving skills. I am very critical of myself and often don't have enough confidence to talk in class. If I do speak in class, I always feel I'm being judged so I withdraw.

I don't have an obvious disability like some people, and maybe it would be easier to see I need help if I did. Teachers don't usually know how to help people with mental illnesses because they don't understand them. Sometimes I even feel that getting special accommodations is cheating in some way. I get frustrated because I really want to succeed in college and I know I'm not stupid.


The staff at the Disabilities Services Office helped me to see that getting accommodations is not cheating-that I need them to compensate for my mental illness disability. I usually do as well as other students when I am in a positive, encouraging environment and receive the accommodations of extended time on tests, and notetaking assistance (to make sure I don't space out and miss anything), as well as Support Services such as communication opportunities via e-mail and class electronic discussion lists, and tutoring-especially for math and science work.


This case study illustrates that:

  • Mental illness is a disability and students with mental illness can benefit from a range of accommodations.
  • The disabled student services office can help students with mental illness determine specific accommodations that are appropriate for them.
  • It is sometimes important that the student effectively communicate the functional limitations of a psychological disorder in order for the instructor to understand access issues.