A U.K court awarded damages of PS50,000 to parents of a 20 year-old student who took her own life following a university’s adjudgement that it had discriminated against her disability. The university failed to make reasonable accommodations for the manner in which it conducted academic assessments.
Natasha Abrahart was a University of Bristol physics student who was shy and debilitatingly anxious. She was found murdered in her apartment in April 2018.
The young woman, who was terrified of public speaking and was so shy that she relied on her friends to order drinks on rare nights out with her, was due to take part in a group presentation to students and staff in a 329-seat lecture room.
Judge Alex Ralton criticised the university for not providing Natasha an alternative method of reporting the results of her experiments. He stated that it was obvious that such a process doesn’t automatically require face to face oral interaction, and that there are other methods of doing the same.
The 46-page judgment noted that “it was accepted” by medical experts as the primary stressor and reason for Natasha’s depression.
The university was not aware of Natasha’s declining mental health prior to her death. She had earlier attempted suicide and reported it to university staff via email.
Judge Ralton also pointed out that Natasha was slowly accumulating very low scores in other oral assessments for her course due to paralyzing anxiety. Sometimes, she even chose not to show up at all.
Although this may have contributed to Natasha’s declining mental health, Judge did not find the university guilty or suggest that it was directly responsible for Natasha’s death.
Despite course administrators suggesting various ways that Natasha could present her lab findings to academic staff through alternative methods, none of them were implemented.
Out Of sight, out of memory
It is difficult to understand the pathology of prejudice at a distance and after an event.
It is possible to speculate that Natasha was caught up in problematic social attitudes and biases, which intersect with both her experiences as a young person and an invisible disability.
Concerning the former, it is regrettable that mental health disorders are still poorly understood and underappreciated in 2022. This contrasts with physical disabilities which can be clearly identified by visual indicators such as being in a wheelchair.
Even more so for mental disorders that are not considered part of “normal” daily life.
This is an example of social anxiety that can result from giving oral presentations. Presentations are a very common part of education and work. Many people, especially those who do not have to give them often, tend to be nervous. It is easy to slip into blase or dismissive attitudes.
“Oh, don’t worry. It will all be alright. You’ll be fine.
Anxiety disorders are more than just getting “a little nervous.”
Telling someone with social anxiety and shyness that it is okay to give an oral presentation in front hundreds of people because “we all get nervous sometimes” is absurd.
The fragility and youth
Natasha’s tragic story gives us pause to reflect on how we, as a society frame our experiences of being young and how young people treated.
Education is synonymous with rites of passage, both at an early age as well as in higher education.
Young people grow up with mostly good intentions. They are exposed to a wide range of experiences to maximize their potential and discover hidden talents.
Unfortunately, pushing fragile minds into activities that are not suited to their personality or abilities – whether they’re participating in sports, public speaking, or conforming socially – can be very brutal.
Young people often ride the waves and end up on the other side. It may even be character-building for them. It can also be a stumbling block for others.
Natasha’s father was a retired university lecturer who commented on the University of Bristol’s ruling. He said, “The University of Bristol violated the law and exposed our child to months of unnecessary psychological trauma as she saw her grades plummet and her hopes for her future disappear before her eyes.”
Her mother added that the university should finally get its head out the sand, and realize that it is time to change.
The university will need to decide what that change should look like based on its existing policies and practices.
This would mean that young people may not be aware of their rights or when they can ask for help.
They may need to have the support systems of institutions to help them be more proactive and vigilant. Natasha, a young woman from Georgia, can now ride the wave and swim to the other side.