Last week, a U.K. court awarded damages amounting to £50,000 to the parents of a 20-year-old student who tragically took her own life after her university was adjudged to have discriminated against her disability by failing to make reasonable accommodations to the way it undertook academic assessments.
Chronically shy and suffering from debilitating anxiety, Natasha Abrahart, a physics student at the University of Bristol, was found dead in her flat in April 2018.
The next day, the young woman who was petrified of public speaking and so shy that, on rare nights out, she would often rely on friends to order food and drinks for her, had been due to participate in a group presentation to staff and students in a 329-seat lecture hall.
In his ruling, Judge Alex Ralton criticized the university for failing to provide Natasha with an alternative means of relaying the results of her experiments stating that it was “obvious that such a process does not automatically require face-to-face oral interaction and there are other ways of achieving the same.”
The 46-page written judgment also noted, “it was accepted by the medical experts that the primary stressor and cause of Natasha’s depressive illness was oral assessment.”
It was certainly not the case that the university had been unaware of Natasha’s deteriorating mental health in the lead up to her death either. Earlier in the winter term, she had attempted to take her own life and had reported this to staff at the university in an email.
Judge Ralton also drew attention to the fact that Natasha had been, over time, slowly accruing extremely low scores on other oral assessments for her course on account of being unable to perform due to her paralyzing anxiety, sometimes electing not to turn up at all.
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Though this may have significantly contributed to Natasha’s declining mental health, the judge stopped short of finding the university guilty of negligence, or suggesting that it bore any direct responsibility for the young physicist’s untimely death.
Most frustratingly, the investigation revealed that several ideas for how Natasha might be enabled to present her laboratory findings to academic staff via alternative means had been bandied about by course administrators but none of these were followed through.
Out of sight, out of mind
Attempting to dissect the precise pathology of prejudice from a distance, and after the event, is a fraught exercise indeed.
However, it may reasonably be speculated that Natasha had been somewhat caught up in the crosswinds of problematic social attitudes and biases that intersect both the experiences of being young and possessing an invisible disability.
Concerning the latter, it remains unfortunate that still, in 2022, mental health disorders remain poorly understood and underappreciated by the public at large – particularly when contrasted to physical disabilities that can be more comprehensively signaled with clear visual markers like being in a wheelchair.
This is, even more, the case for mental health disorders that exist on the borders of what is simply understood to be part of the “normal” day-to-day reality of the human experience.
Social anxiety arising from something like giving oral presentations is a classic example of this. As presentations are such a common aspect of work and education nowadays and so many individuals, especially those who don’t undertake them regularly, do tend to get a little nervous ahead of time – it becomes infinitely easy for blasé, dismissive attitudes to creep in.
“Oh, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. We’ve all been there.” Unfortunately, these are typical platitudes often thrown about that demonstrate little understanding of someone who possesses a genuine anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are not about getting a “little nervous.” They can be as crippling and debilitating as any physical illness but because they are not always perceptible to the casual observer – they often fly under the radar.
In effect, telling someone with chronic social anxiety and shyness that they will be fine making an oral presentation in front of hundreds of people because “we all get a little nervous” is as absurd as telling somebody with a motor impairment requiring a cane or crutches to walk not to worry because “everyone’s feet get a little sore sometimes.”
The fragility of youth
Natasha’s sad story also gives pause for reflection on how, as a society, we frame experiences of what it means to be young and how young people are treated.
From an early age and right up into the higher echelons of academia, education is equated with a sense of rite of passage.
With mostly honorable intentions, growing up, young people are exposed to the broadest possible variety of experiences in order to maximize opportunities and ensure hidden talents don’t go unnoticed and untapped.
The downside is, of course, that pushing fragile minds, in which genuine confidence and self-assurance may yet to have established a secure foothold, into activities that are profoundly unsuited to that individual’s personality and ability – be they participating in sports, public speaking or just conforming socially – can be brutalizing.
Most young people ride the wave and come out on the other side. They may even find it character-building. For others, it can be shattering.
Commenting after the ruling against the University of Bristol, Natasha’s father, a retired university lecturer, said, “The University of Bristol broke the law and exposed our daughter to months of wholly unnecessary psychological trauma, as she watched her grades plummet, and her hopes for the future crumble before her eyes.”
Her mother further added that the university should “finally take its head out of the sand and recognize that now is the time for change.”
What that change should look like is for the university to determine based on the existing practices and policies it has in place.
It would be hoped that this would be underpinned by an ethos that dictates that young people, whether they are visibly or invisibly disabled, or indeed, not disabled at all, may not yet recognize when or how to ask for help or what rights they are entitled to.
That’s why, perhaps, they need the institutional support systems that sit behind them to be prepared to be extra vigilant and proactive. That way, more young folk like Natasha can ride the wave and safely swim over to the other side.