Am I Disabled?

disability word

Application forms are a nuisance, no matter who you are. But, for me, there is one question in particular that I dread each time I fill one out:

“Do you have a disability?”

I have never once answered ‘yes’ to this question. But should I? Is my mental health condition a disability?

Am I disabled?

Before I continue, a brief aside: today’s post will be rather more informal than those previous. I want to share my thoughts on this question, but I am woefully short of answers. As always, I have cast about for other material on the subject, but have found precious little. However, while this week’s piece is little more than a collection of musings, I hope it will still resonate with some of you, and perhaps inspire more conversation on the topic.

To Declare or Not To Declare…

disability declaration application question form

I find myself in a difficult situation where this question is concerned. My mental illness is not so serious that I am unable to work; indeed, I am fortunate that it has hitherto not disrupted my work. And yet, it is serious enough that it can at times be a very real challenge requiring professional attention. This middle ground in which I find myself makes answering the question above complicated at best.

There are two different reasons why declaring my mental illness gives me pause.

Equal Treatment

First, I loathe the thought of receiving special treatment on account of my mental health. Does my application really deserve special attention because of my condition? In my case, I am convinced that it doesn’t. After all, my condition hasn’t compromised my work. It seems unfair to plead special circumstance when those circumstances were not so challenging as to adversely affect my results. And what is more, I should like to think that my place at university or my offers of funding were granted on the merit of my academic excellence alone. Indeed, it is for this same reason that I also never declare myself to be a member of a visible minority; but of course, the two questions are not quite analogous. And so-called “positive discrimination” is a topic for another day.

Who am I?

My second concern, however, I find far more compelling than the first. To me, the more challenging question is this: Am I prepared to adopt the label ‘disabled’? More than a question about legal definitions, it is a question about my identity. Do I see myself as a person that is disabled?

On the word itself, the OED offers the following:

adj; …2. Of a person: having a physical or mental condition which limits activity, movement, sensation, etc….

But I do not feel less able than my colleagues; my scholarly activities aren’t limited. I attend talks, teach classes, write papers. In all the relevant ways—that is, all the ways relevant to being an academic—I am equally able as my peers.

And yet, there are nevertheless days when emerging from my room is an ordeal, and days when my anxiety erupts into full-blown panic.

So am I disabled…?

I suppose my activities are indeed limited on the days described. But there are equally days on which I experience no such distress. Unlike many other disabilities that pose a constant challenge, my mental health difficulties are intermittent. And it is unclear to me what degree of limitation constitutes a disability.

Finally, I am particularly fearful of the label because I am an academic. Qua academic, I am my mental capacities. So, to say of myself that I have a disability on account of my mental illness feels like a threat to that identity. But this, I recognise, is an oversimplification.

And perhaps so too are many of my concerns. After all, we are none of us reducible to the conditions that we suffer. But knowing this, I find, does not make answering the question any easier.


Do you declare your mental health condition when completing applications? Do you have concerns about the label ‘disability’? How has declaring/not declaring affected you? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.


6 thoughts on “Am I Disabled?

  1. Could I recommend Alice Dreger’s /One of Us: Conjoined Twins and the Future of Normal/? She’s writing about bodies, not minds, but some of her framing about bodies and ability have been helpful for me in thinking about mental disability.

  2. I would never declare it on a job application or a funding application, purely because as much as it shouldn’t (and legally they’re not supposed to) it could potentially stand in the way of me getting the job. This is largely because people do not understand what depression is, and how it affects the day to day. Many of my supposed friends expect me to fall apart the second I tell them I have a mental illness.

    • Yes, this is a big issue too. There’s just such a lack of understanding of the illness. I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had friends react that way, though; I’ve been fortunate in that regard.

      Many thanks for reading and for your comment!

  3. I have bipolar disorder. Currently, I’m handling the fallout of my first mixed state episode of graduate school. The episode kept me from completing a paper on time for a professor who does not easily forgive. I made a decision not to register with the disabilities office because I did not want special treatment, did not want to be labelled as “disability girl,” and did not think I disabled enough. However, as I face the consequences of a missed deadline, I wonder if I should have sought accommodations. I wonder if I should go to the professor and tell the truth in the hope that he’ll be merciful. And I wonder if such an action would ultimately do more harm than good. What are your thoughts? Is there stigma surrounding mental illness in academia?

    • I’m sorry to hear about the challenges you’re facing, Mary. I can certainly relate to your desire not to be labelled and/or differently treated. However, I would definitely recommend that you now seek out accommodation. I cannot speak to the relevant procedure at your institution, of course, but in general, I think it would be a good idea to speak with your school’s counselling services and/or a medical professional at your school who will not only be able to offer you support, but also be able to tell you the steps that it would now be in your interest to take vis-a-vis your academic work. I can also understand your trepidation about speaking to your professor–the worry is that it might seem like excuse-making! But, since it is possible for you to acquire proof of your health condition (i.e. in the form of a letter from a counsellor or doctor) I think it might be a good idea to speak to your professor as soon as possible to apprise him of the situation. Unfortunately, I cannot say that stigma doesn’t exist in academia–I wish that I could(!) and hope that it will soon be the case. BUT, I can say that I have, in my experience, been surprised by how supportive some academic professionals can be. Hopefully, your professor will surprise you in the same way.

      Wishing you the very best,

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