Based on this question: Is it unethical to accept extra time on exams when I still do well?

To my knowledge, I don't think my university or home department has a policy on extended time exams or a "disability office". In my entire stay in the university, I have heard of only three people with mental illnesses. Two graduated. One is still in the university, but I have not yet asked her. It seems like she is entitled to have extra time on exams or homework or something that evens the playing field.

Are there any legitimate reasons a university may have for not allowing extra time or something for mentally ill students, assuming of course that the student can prove mental illness? It seems that they ought to give extra time or something to be fair to students.

Relevant links: this comment, this answer, this answer.

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    This seems to be comments, not a question. Vote to close as "Unclear what you're asking".
    – Nobody
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 13:45
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    Do you really mean students with learning disabilities like dyslexia or those with mental illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder etc? It's unclear. Also, where is your university? A lot of what's required and what resources are going to be available depend on where you are.
    – DLS3141
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 13:59
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    @scaaahu: The title is a question and I found a few question marks in the body. Nevertheless, I agree with "unclear what you're asking". For instance, how do the three numbered things at the end fit in? (Also what DLS3141 said: really mental illness, or learning disabilities?) Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 14:35
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    A legitimate reason would be if the infirmity was not one that was properly addressed by allowing additional time, or if it is episodic and the student is not impaired at the time in question. This is simply not an area where one size fits all, or even one size fits most; cases and situations need to be considered individually. In other words, I can be a depressive and turn in homework late, but the latter may or may not be related to a bad period of the former, and I certainly don't expect special treatment while I'm stable.
    – keshlam
    Commented Aug 25, 2015 at 18:07
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    "I have heard of only three people with mental illnesses" But actually about 30% of students have invisible disabilities. There is an unfortunate stigma, so people do not talk about it. Also, FERPA in the USA. Commented Aug 26, 2015 at 3:51

3 Answers 3


In answering this question, I think that it is important to consider the distinction between mental illness and learning disabilities. While there is a spectrum of different and complex effects, for the purposes of making policies it may be useful to consider these two "prototypical" classes of challenge:

  • Many specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or speech impairment, have a rather focused affect on perception and action, rather than more generally impairing cognition. In many cases, relatively simple interventions (such as giving a dyslexic student more time) can have a big impact on educational success by mitigating the impact of the disability. I think of this as little different than the intervention of glasses in mitigating the impact of my poor eyesight.
  • Mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder, on the other hand, is much more subtle and difficult to deal with, since it strikes at "core" aspects of an individual such as motivation, interpretation of the world, and outlook on life. Even when an intervention is plausible, the ethical boundaries are much less clear, particularly given the difficulty in balancing the need for consent against the likely harms from a possibly distorted mental state.

For an educational institution, then, the approaches to supporting students with mental illness and specific learning disabilities are likely to want to be very different, and the type of support that is needed is likely to be different for different types of challenges. Giving a dyslexic student more time on an exam makes a lot of sense; it's like letting a student who is hard of hearing sit up in the front of the lecture hall. Giving a highly depressed individual extra time on an exam is not likely to be a meaningful intervention; letting them take time off without penalty and return in another semester with a clean slate is more likely to be effective.

A good institution should then try to figure out the needs of each student, and how far they can reasonably go to satisfy them given the institution's resource constraints.

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    A conversation on this answer has been moved to chat. Participants are welcome to continue the conversation in the dedicated chat room :)
    – ff524
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 2:37

Are there any legitimate reasons a university may have for NOT providing needed accommodations for students with documented mental illness?

Legitimate reasons, no, absolutely not.

Should universities give extra time or related accommodations for students with mental illnesses?

Yes, absolutely.

A student with a handicapping condition should look at lists of possible accommodations, and do plenty of experimenting, to find out what's helpful. The university has a moral obligation, and in many places, a legal obligation, to provide needed accommodations. Not to do so constitutes discrimination. In the United States, a refusal to provide needed accommodations is a violation of the student's civil rights. An educational institution that refuses, risks losing all federal funding.

The nature of the handicapping condition is only relevant to the choice of accommodations, not to the initial decision of whether to provide accommodations.

Here is one list of possible accommodations -- there are a number of them on the web. Reading them is a great way to brainstorm what might fit best for a particular handicapping condition and for a particular student.

I will provide one small example. My son sometimes, but not always, writes and erases each letter, or word, or sentence, sometimes multiple times for each such unit. At first, this symptom occurred only with handwritten work, but then it crept into typewritten work as well. The solution: a scribe. He dictates, the teacher types; she reads it back and shows it to him, and he can edit the text himself, or dictate edits. This accommodation is very helpful for him.

  • aparente001, thanks, but is your list or example even relevant? we are talking about adults not children. also could you please provide a source or something for "Not to do so constitutes discrimination. In the United States, a refusal to provide needed accommodations is a violation of the student's civil rights. An educational institution that refuses, risks losing all federal funding." ? I really hope that is true. I would like to look up if something like that exists in my country
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 2:22
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    @JackBauer - "Violations of Section 504 can result in a loss of the federal funding" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_504_of_the_Rehabilitation_Act). / There are many, many lists of possible accommodations on the web. Here's one focused specifically on psychiatric conditions: washington.edu/doit/…. The TS catalog was only intended as a sample, to encourage you to find your own favorite list, and to show that accommodations are much more than extended time. / Would you be comfortable identifying the country? Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 3:10
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    Suggestion: Students with other types of special needs than psychiatric can be helpful allies. When everyone is struggling on their own, in an isolated way, it's hard to accomplish much. But when people with a variety of special needs coordinate their efforts, you can end up with an Americans with Disabilities Act (which has profoundly transformed our society in the U.S.). Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 3:16
  • Thanks aparente001! I unfortunately reached my voting limit. I will be sure to tell my friend.
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 28, 2015 at 3:25

In the US, a student with a disability (learning or otherwise) has the right to accommodations under Federal Law (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). In most cases when a hidden disability such as a learning disability is diagnosed, a plan, typically referred to as a 504 Plan, is developed with the school for what accommodations are to made. This can mean someone in class to take notes for the student, extra time for assignments and exams. A good discussion of how the ADA applies to post-secondary education is here

The point is that the ADA doesn't differentiate between learning and physical disabilities and that providing appropriate accommodations for either isn't something the schools "should" do, it's something they are required to do.

Section 504 defines a disability as "individuals with disabilities are defined as persons with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities" The HHS Factsheet for Section 504 (pdf warning) specifically includes mental illness as a disability.

  • I really mean mental illnesses not learning disabilities. Thanks anyway
    – BCLC
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 13:57
  • That really wasn't clear in your OP.
    – DLS3141
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 14:25
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    In any case, under Section 504 mental illnesses also qualify as disabilities so the same requirements apply.
    – DLS3141
    Commented Aug 27, 2015 at 14:42

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