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Students/Faculty News Dr. Caro Wolfner July 28, 2022

Editor’s note: Dr. Caro Wolfner, on July 6, 2022, successfully defended her dissertation on the effects of the pandemic on students with disabilities to earn her Ph.D. in lifespan developmental psychology in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. Her dissertation was conducted under her chair and mentor Dr. Robin Lanzi, the NCHPAD national director of community engagement and translational sciences and professor of Health Behavior. The research is a part of Dr. Lanzi’s study: “COVID-19, Race, and Student and Postdoctoral Fellow Mental Health Study” along with MPIs Dr. Angela Stowe and Dr. Lisa Schwiebert. Their study is ongoing and are currently looking for students and postdoctoral fellows to participate.

Dr. Caro Wolfner in a pink shirt and black floral jacket, the Washington Monument in the background. Dr. Caro WolfnerThis phenomenological dissertation explored how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted college students and postdoctoral fellows who have a disability or chronic health condition, specifically the mental health impacts (aim 1), the academic impacts (aims 2), and the coping strategies they utilized to cope with these impacts (aim 3).

To address these aims, thematic analysis was conducted of semi-structured in-depth interviews (fall of 2020 and spring of 2021) that were part of the UAB COVID-19, Race, and Student and Postdoctoral Fellow Mental Health Study (PIs: Drs. Robin Lanzi, Angela Stowe, and Lisa Schwiebert) which is a mixed methods longitudinal study of university students (undergraduate, graduate, and professional) and postdoctoral fellows. Qualitative data from university students and postdoctoral fellows who self-identified as having a disability and/or chronic health condition were examined (n=36 in the Fall and n=28 in the Spring).

Findings reveal that college students/postdocs with disabilities or pre-existing conditions report experiencing compounding stressors (i.e., academic, isolation, uncertainty) that negatively impacted their mental health and education. Additionally, findings shed light on the intersectionality of disability and other identities which produce differing and unique experiences. Although college students/postdocs with disabilities or pre-existing conditions coped in a variety of ways; such as behavioral, relational, and mental; many shared stigmatizing barriers that kept them from seeking help and obtaining resources when needed.

Overarching Findings

  1. Students with disabilities expressed feelings of frustration and guilt as they were not able to maintain pre-pandemic levels of productivity and motivation, negatively impacting their academic success and mental health. These findings are suggestive of the ableist assumptions and use of the medical model of disability reflected in higher education, as students blamed themselves and their functional limitations as the sole reason for not being able to meet certain deadlines or complete various tasks (Beckwith, 2019; Brisenden, 1986; Gin et al., 2022). Additionally, although students with disabilities coped using multiple strategies (i.e., behavioral, relational, mental), stigmatizing barriers kept these students from obtaining resources or help when needed. This is of concern given the current climate and speaks to the prominent influence that academics has on self-view.
  2. Students with disabilities shared that their mental health was most impacted by 1) their experiences with online learning and 2) the academic and research setbacks (e.g., thesis/dissertation timelines, graduation) resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. From an emerging adulthood perspective, delays in important milestones and lack of in-person socialization coupled with exacerbated feelings of instability raises concerns that the pandemic has hindered or impaired these students’ developmental progression.
  3. As students with disabilities utilized helpful and adaptive coping strategies (i.e., counseling, setting a routine, staying connected to others), they became more optimistic about their future and felt more confident in their abilities to cope.


  1. For these reasons, it is imperative that the public institutions take measures to mitigate these stressors and develop initiatives aimed at reducing various forms of stigma (e.g., self, public, etc.), addressing implicit bias, and closing the exacerbated and chronic inequitable gaps highlighted during the pandemic. Special focus should be given to those belonging to multiple marginalized identities, whom, as shown in this study, bring rich insight into the intersectionality of disability. Listening to concerns and prioritizing their needs and voices can shape a more inclusive future. A broader look at the intersectionality of gender, race, and disability would better inform higher education instructions on the complexity of barriers experienced by students with disabilities in higher education. Findings support Brown and Leigh (2020) recommendations to develop a clear strategic plan (5–10-year plan) with the aim of creating an inclusive, diverse, and accessible university, one that is built for policy development with quantifiable commitments and an ambassador within each department to make sure protocols are being met.
  2. As more students than ever are likely navigating life with a disability, it is crucial that higher education recognizes and addresses the inherent ableism present throughout its ivory tower. As COVID-19 has been declared a mental health crisis (UN Policy Brief, 2020), it is not only vital to provide inclusive resources but to actively work to dismantle the attitudinal and societal barriers that prevent individuals from seeking out resources when needed. Taking steps to reframe how disability is viewed within higher education is essential, eschewing an outdated, ableist, deficit-oriented, and self-stigmatizing view of disability in favor of one that fosters identity development and encourages others to embrace their strengths and values.
  3. Collectively, these findings recommend that universities develop curriculum for disability-specific studies to properly educate students on disability history, prompting a more comprehensive understanding of disability and use of appropriate inclusive language with the hope of further reducing the stigma associated with disabilities.
  4. Future research on students with disabilities needs to involve students with disabilities as active members in the research instead of primarily and solely being just the research. Community-based participatory research (CBPR) and qualitative research are inclusive research approaches that have been shown to promote a sense of empowerment for individuals with disabilities (Walmsley et al., 2018).
  5. Universities should strive to bolster factors that promote resiliency (i.e., social support, positive thinking, self-advocacy) and hold the potential to mitigate COVID-19 impacts.


Collectively, these findings emphasize the need for the conversation to change. There can be copious amounts of resources provided and offered to students, but if society does not address: (1) the way that disability is perceived and taught and (2) the deep-rooted ableism that plagues this country, disability, and mental health resources will continue to not be sought out, and inequitable gaps are likely to continue widening.

We can provide a multitude of resources and supports to address students’ needs, but if we live in a society where we feel too ashamed or embarrassed to ask for support and accept that support, such efforts will go wasted. Whether in research, policy, or other public health domains, the voices of historically marginalized communities are critical to be heard and to produce real positive change. In addition, we must forgo ableist assumptions that have long guided the dialogue of higher education. Looking to a future post-COVID, we have a responsibility to protect, empower, and involve students with disabilities in hopes of creating a more just and equitable space for all.

  • QR Code for Wolfner Dissertation Findings. If you are interested in listening to Dr. Caro Wolfner’s full dissertation presentation, you can check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cqi876TVFR0
  • If you are a UAB student (undergraduate, graduate, or professional) or UAB postdoctoral fellow, please click this link to be part of the UAB COVID-19, Race, and Student/Postdoc Mental Health Study Summer 2020 Survey (just takes about 10 minutes to complete and UAB Mental Health Resources are provided at the end).
  • Scan the QR Code for Wolfner Dissertation Findings: COVID-19 and Mental Health Impacts, Educational Impacts, and Coping Strategies Themes for University Students/Postdoctoral Fellows with Disabilities and/or Chronic Health Conditions

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