Simpson College classroom in April 2015. Credit: Megan Quick/For IowaWatch

When Donna Musel started work as Buena Vista University’s disabilities coordinator 14 years ago only two students with illnesses requested classroom accommodations to help them do their college studies.

“Now I have quite a few more than that,” Musel said this spring.

Musel works with 64 students at Buena Vista’s main campus in Storm Lake and 26 students registered across the university’s 16 satellite campuses who receive some sort of accommodation for a physical or hidden disability. Accommodations for students with disabilities can include auxiliary aids such as note takers, interpreters and assistive listening devices.

Michelle Laughlin, student disabilities service coordinator for 10 years at Drake University in Des Moines, said she has seen the same trend of more students reporting disabilities. Moreover, a majority of the students Musel and Laughlin said they work with have what are called hidden disabilities.

A hidden disability is classified as a disability that cannot be physically seen or is not apparent to others but can hinder a person’s work, education or social life. Hidden disabilities can include chronic illnesses, learning disabilities, depression and anxiety.

Joy Brandt, disability coordinator, Grand View University

Joy Brandt, disability coordinator at Grand View University in Des Moines, said about 80 students report some sort of hidden disability to her each year.

Brandt said she has seen the largest increase in her seven years as coordinator in the number of students reporting mental health disabilities. The American Psychological Association reported in 2014 that one third of college students suffered from depression, while more than half said they had experienced anxiety.

Counselors interviewed for an IowaWatch/Simpson College journalism project on disabilities on Iowa college campuses said the increased number of students reporting hidden disabilities is the result of the decline in negative attitudes toward those with the disabilities.

That includes among students who have accepted their disabilities. “The stigma isn’t as prevalent as it used to be, so students are asking for help more,” Laughlin said.

Moreover, Musel said, classrooms have become better equipped to handle accommodations. “I think technology has helped as well, because there are different ways we can incorporate technology and make it easier,” she said.

A 2011 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics reported one in six children were diagnosed from 2006 to 2008 with a developmental disability that could be called a hidden disability and which requires increased health and education-based services.

Dr. Nathan Noble, who focuses on developmental disabilities at Blank Children’s Hospital of Des Moines, said a rise in diagnoses stems from doctors’ abilities to better detect hidden disorders. Hidden disabilities Noble works with include learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety and depression.

Noble said a diagnosis involves several professionals.

Dr. Nathan Noble, Blank Children’s Hospital, Des Moines
Dr. Nathan Noble, Blank Children’s Hospital, Des Moines

“Everyone can be involved from social workers, therapists, to doctors,” Noble said. “The reason that diagnoses have become bigger is because we change the criteria of how we diagnose (hidden disabilities).”

The criteria change has created challenges. Noble said that, while it helped with hidden disabilities diagnoses it has also lead to some over-diagnosis. “The diagnostic criteria broadened to the point where we were not very sensitive, and so then we were diagnosing a lot more kids than we were needing,” he said.

Some college students are diagnosed with a hidden disability in adolescence, but interviews for the IowaWatch/Simpson College journalism project revealed that many students often are not diagnoses until they are in college.

Noble said many of the patients he diagnoses come forward as they go through a time of transition and that college is one of those times. “That’s when it manifests,” he said. “When you go to the next level and crumble because you can’t put all your skills on the table at the same time.”


Still, some students do not report having hidden disabilities, interviews revealed. The students fly under the radar. Tracking how many is difficult.

Musel attributed part of that at Buena Vista to individuals’ experiences with accommodations in high school, which were negative. And while reduced stigmas have helped some students become more transparent about their disabilities, Grand View’s Brandt said they still deter some from requesting school accommodations.

“It’s a matter of pride. They don’t want to be treated differently,” Brandt said.

Michelle Laughlin, student disabilities service coordinator, Drake University.

Laughlin said another factor that inhibits students from reporting a disability can be a desire to be more independent. Some students who received accommodations in high school enter college feeling that they can function in a classroom or other college setting without them.

“They see how far they can go without any help, which is always their prerogative,” Laughlin said.

“I think sometimes (students) receive accommodations in high school without having to ask, because that’s just been given to them. So when some students get into college, maybe they don’t understand the process or don’t understand that there is a different process to go through.”

Some simply do not know what is available at their university or college, Laughlin said, although many eventually find out and seek accommodations after struggling in their academic environment.


Students needing accommodations are required to report their own disabilities, although many professors assist students who need help connecting to disability services, counselors said in interviews.

“I often talk to professors who will say they are concerned about a student and refer them to my office,” Laughlin said. “And then I see: perhaps they need counseling, perhaps they need tested, or they just haven’t disclosed that information yet.”

Laughlin also said that coming to terms with a disability and finally requesting accommodations is a learning process.

“Up to this point (college), your teachers, your parents, the administrators have all educated on your behalf,” Laughlin said. “Once you get into college and do that on your own, it’s a learning curve.”

Simpson College classroom in April 2015. Credit: Megan Quick/For IowaWatch
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