If you spend enough time in Toulouse, you’ll inevitably come across a space equipped with accommodations for people who are disabled, or “en situation de handicap,” whether it’s a designated space for a wheelchair in the bus or guide dog being trained in the train station. Toulouse’s universities are no exception—while walking around the University of Toulouse 2 Jean Jaurès you will see people using tactile guides, in wheelchairs, and with assistive walking devices. In observing these accommodations at our university, we were curious to know how the French perceive disability in a university context. And knowing that 80% of people who identify as disabled in France qualify their disability as invisible—meaning mental, cognitive, or sensory conditions—we were particularly curious to know if there is also a network of accommodations for invisible disabilities.

Before diving into the question of disability, let us look at the French university system. In contrast with the American system which is characterized by its high admission fees and selectivity, the French system values an education for all, in keeping with the French principle of equality. Thus, it’s education for the majority that counts and not that of the individual. Hence why the famous “cours magistral” or grand lecture where the professor speaks for four hours in an amphitheater of a hundred students is so common—it facilitates the diffusion of information. But when one student has a specific need, how does the university take care of these individuals?

Although today the evidence of accommodations on university campuses for students who are disabled is visible, this wasn’t always the case. In 2005, France enacted a law ensuring equal access to and participation in governmental services and programs for all disabled people. Since that year, the number of students who are disabled in universities has significantly grown. However, even though the numbers have increased, they are not distributed evenly across all academic disciplines. For example, while students with physical disabilities are distributed evenly across the disciplines, students with invisible disabilities are more represented in technological universities and departments of arts, languages, and literatures. Thus, it is clear that services for students with invisible disabilities are less developed than those for students with physical disabilities.

Since 2023, the University of Toulouse 2 Jean Jaurès has offered its students three free 45-minute sessions with a psychologist. In comparison with our American universities, the university does not promote this service as loudly. In our universities, there are both institutional and student-run organizations that provide for students’ well-being, offer meditation sessions, or facilitate conversations about mental health. From our conversations with our hosts, we’ve learned that these subjects are avoided in France, even though the need to discuss them is recognized. We believe that talking about mental health is the first step in recognizing invisible disability.


One can observe a small microcosm in the treatment of people with disabilities in France universities. During our first months in France, we became familiar with the several accommodations that are visible in the infrastructure of the University of Toulouse Jean Jaures. There are tactile strips on the sidewalks to help the visually impaired, as well as elevators and ramps for those who use wheelchairs. Where I am from, tactile bands are fairly uncommon and it is rare to see them extend for the entirety of a path, but at UTDJ (University of Toulouse Jean Jaures) they traverse from one side of campus to the other.

Nevertheless, we should question the accessibility to accommodations for people who have invisible disabilities, especially in an educational setting. In the United States, the debate surrounding reasonable accommodations for invisible disabilities is fierce. The “Varsity Blues” scandal that broke in 2019 was a criminal conspiracy to cheat the college admission system. One major part of the crime was the falsification of invisible disabilities like ADHD and dyslexia that qualify students for accommodations during testing (Vox). It seems to me that the conversation in France is more about enlarging access to accommodations and is not yet about who should qualify.

Coincidentally, the three authors of this article are in the same class at UTDJ, and we had an experience pertinent to the question of accommodation and invisible disability in the classroom. In the first month of class, a student became overstimulated because of noises outside and inside the classroom. She asked if the professor could address the noise, especially the feedback from his microphone. In response, the professor intentionally made more noise, as a joke. The student was very much overwhelmed and left the classroom for several minutes to gather herself.  The professor was concerned that she had left, but before she had it seemed to me that he didn’t understand why she would have asked for this change. The student had issues with overstimulation, but the professor was not familiar with the concept or didn’t recognize the importance of what she was asking. It is easy to understand the necessary differences in how to teach the blind or the deaf. Still, differences in attention or mentality are more difficult to understand for those who are inexperienced with them.

            It is not the case that France doesn’t have accommodations within its education system, in comparison to the US it is different. The idea that mental or invisible disabilities are controversial and potentially unaccommodatable is uniquely American. The case in France seems to be more about a lack of total comprehension of the subject.


What constitutes a handicap? Or an infirmity? Or an incapacity? These words are in French with a cultural connotation that French people understand in a way that I never will because French is not my maternal language. Even if I spend the rest of my life studying French, there will always be things I don’t understand because of this language barrier. So, I have no interest in judging the French language or the French for how they use their language that I don’t fully understand. However, the words “handicap”, “Infirmity”, and “incapacity” make me uncomfortable as a person who doctors and psychiatrists would label as disabled.

It has been two months since I received a diagnosis saying I have dyslexia and generalized anxiety. I was eight years old when I learned to read, and the books that I read were for babies like the “Bob Books”. At the same time that I was reading baby books, my classmates were reading “Harry Potter” and “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”. I failed all of my spelling tests and my teachers used to keep me in from recess to practice my spelling, but I was never tested for dyslexia. I have always struggled with spelling and testing, so I decided to only take classes at Grinnell (my University in the U.S.) where I could write my papers on my laptop with the wonderful gift of spell check. Unfortunately, that was not a possibility here in Toulouse, so I asked for testing accommodations, which I received easily and have in place now.

My whole life I have never had a disability. I have done classes and research in disability studies. My friends and sisters have disabilities, but I never thought that I had one. In the past few weeks, I have been applying to summer jobs and internships at publishing houses, and each application has a question that asks if you are disabled. I don’t have to respond and even if I did, the employer couldn’t use the information against me, but I couldn’t say yes because I didn’t believe that I was disabled. I have difficulty with spelling, math, and sometimes reading, all of which are connected to my dyslexia, but I have to do everything that other students do. I have two literature majors, one in French and one in English. I have done all the calculus that my college offers. And I read recreationally more than any of my friends or family. I don’t consider myself disabled, but that is a title I have now.

In English, we use the word “disabled” instead of “handicapped” because the word “handicapped” was used as an insult and it now has a negative connotation. The word “disabled” does not have the same history or negative connotation so many disabled people use the term “disabled” in place of “handicapped”. The words “handicap”, “infirmité”, et  “incapacité “ remind me of the words we no longer use in English and I was curious if they too had negative associations. I looked online and found the site “Handicap.Fr” which had information, programs, news, and resources for disabled people. It was really interesting to read because the author, E. Dal’Secco, shared a brief history of the terminology, the political implications, the debates around the best ways to discuss disabilities and disabled people, and the implications in France that come with the label of disability. He said that the word “Handicapé” was a replacement for other words like “invalides, aliénés, anormaux, déficients, paralytiques” (Dal’Secco). When he wrote the article in 2013 there were people who wanted to use the term “personne en situation de handicap”. We have the same discussion in the United States with the phrase “person with a disability” being used instead of “disabled” and there are a lot of disabled people in the U.S. who prefer the phrase “disabled person” or “disabled” and terms that highlight the humanity of people over their condition. Dal’Secco shared a similar sentiment in his piece when he asked why disability is the only title that society feels the need to use “personne en situation de…”. It seems weird to beat around the bush and use a phrase to describe what can be said with one word; it sends the message that disability is something bad or strange. Like the idea that someone can’t say disabled because being disabled is terrible, so it’s necessary for everyone to use a person with a disability in order to avoid the subject and put distance between the speaker and the capacity to be disabled. Disability isn’t an insult. Dal’Secco also shared how difficult it is to choose a word or label that everyone in a community will agree with and want. There is disagreement within the disability community in France over what word would be best.

I believe that I don’t have the right to judge the situation or debates in France around disability because I am not a part of that community. I am however happy to know that there are people who are discussing the subject and who want to find a respectful word. I think that with time I will become more comfortable with acknowledging my disability, but it won’t ever become the entirety of who I am. E. Dal Secco touched on this in his article when he wrote “It isn’t a detail; words have considerable importance. I have been blind for fifteen years but disabled isn’t my identity” (Dal’Secco–Translated from French to English). In French or English, we need to use respectful words when we discuss people––regardless of the topic. Everyone deserves respect, and the words we use are a good first step to achieving this.

La Bibliographie

Dal’Secco, E. “Infirme à Personne En Situation de Handicap : Combat De Mots.” Handicap.Fr, le 9 janviér, 2013, informations.handicap.fr/a-choix-des-mots-5633.php.

Juneja, Aditi. “The Most Reprehensible Part of the Admissions Scandal: Faking Disability Accommodations.” Vox, Vox, 14 Mar. 2019, www.vox.com/first-person/2019/3/14/18265874/college-admissions-fraud-fbi-disability-accommodations.