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Reframing Mental Health: Universal Design and Accommodations

by Cynthia Briseño, Samantha Quach and Lily Hibbard

A promising solution designed to address the disconnect between students and faculty regarding academic accommodations as The Claremont Colleges prepare to welcome everyone back to campus.


A glimpse into our work in progress: Zine cover art for both faculty and students

We three Scripps College students set out on a journey to redesign mental health support in the classroom. First, we sent out a survey to the 5C community. We wondered about student mental health now relative to last March, when we abruptly left campus, as well as students’ feelings about the transition from online to in-person learning. Our feedback confirmed what we knew firsthand: an overwhelming portion of respondents noted that their mental health had worsened. As for the transition, students generally felt neutral to excited, with approximately 21% expressing apprehension.




Partial initial survey responses

Furthermore, in analyzing open-ended responses to our survey, we identified six common threads:

  1. Underrepresentation of BIPOC in resource allocation
  2. The power of community healing and the ineffectiveness of many administrative intervention efforts in mental health
  3. Fears that some professors will act as though we’re living in a post-pandemic world and a general concern over the accessibility of accommodations
  4. Mental disorders created, illuminated, and exacerbated by the pandemic
  5. The prioritization of timely and accessible mental health support funded by the  colleges
  6. Dread over having to re-adapt to a college environment



Student testimonials taken from our initial survey


After three rounds of interviews and extensive ideation, it came time to close in on one recurring theme. We decided on a prototype informed by our research and one testimony. Our extreme user is a returning student whose ADHD, depression, and anxiety have consistently made it difficult for them to thrive in academia. In response to being asked what they need, they expressed wanting compassion and a mutual understanding in terms of academic accommodations from professors. With this point-of-view in mind, we began designing two accommodation zines: one for students, intended to guide them on self-advocacy in the classroom, and another for faculty, providing insight into the student perspective that is often missing.


A snippet of our ideation process

What we’ve learned, and what some faculty don’t always fully grasp, is that students genuinely want to succeed. Students feel shut down, however, by the bureaucratic hedge-maze that is navigating academic accommodations.

Our solution is a guide to help students and faculty remove barriers to learning from the classroom, incorporating Universal Design into syllabi. The suggestion to shift our focus from strictly accommodations to Universal Design came to us during a meeting with The Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning.

Universal Design is a concept that emphasizes the need to eliminate learning barriers from a course, rendering most accommodations moot. For instance, we may ask ourselves: What is the purpose of timed exams? Are there other ways to assess learning that aren’t anxiety-inducing and, we suggest, outdated and ineffective?

Our faculty zine encourages this line of thought. Each page contains information students need faculty to know such as: the basics of academic accommodations, structural barriers that make obtaining them inaccessible, signs that students are struggling and why they may be hesitant to reach out for support, and advice on integrating Universal Design.

Taken from the student zine; page six

Faculty want their students to thrive, but they’re not always well-versed in maximizing classroom accessibility. Similarly, students want to succeed but aren’t sure how or are unable to advocate for themselves.

By inviting faculty to build accessibility into their courses rather than retrofitting it in, we’re showing them that the burden of meeting individual requests, a common grievance among some professors, need not be. Moreover, in letting students know that they don’t have to suffer in silence and providing them with invaluable resources, we’re pushing for a destigmatized environment that doesn’t favor privileged students who tend to be able to self-advocate more easily.

To establish this teaching framework would be to challenge what we deem to be “fair,” “professional,” and “preparing students for the real world” in an academic environment, which is essentially a microcosm of our current society that often promotes productivity to a point that some find toxic. A complete culture change would require a collective push, which doesn’t seem to be beyond our reaches. We hope that, at the very least, our zines will empower students and faculty at The Claremont Colleges to foster receptive and empathetic relationships with one another. Universal Design and open dialogue regarding accommodations take the weight off everyone’s shoulders and have the potential to improve student mental health.

We want to thank everyone at the Hive for giving us the opportunity to explore an issue that hits so close to home for us. We’d also like to thank our collaborators at The Center for Teaching and Learning for providing us with critical insight.