Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Are We Serving Students with Disabilities the Way We Should?

Hello Dearest Readers!
Just a word of warning - this blog will not only cover my graduate school experiences but will also include miscellaneous thoughts pertaining to higher education

And gifs. Claro.

Lately I've been thinking about the services we offer students with disabilities at institutions of higher education. This is a topic that is of personal interest to me and one that I don’t think is addressed often enough.

I'll preface this piece with the statement that I am just beginning my studies in higher education so I have yet to learn about how colleges support students with disabilities, outside of my lived experiences. But it is something that I have questions about.

I do question the commitment that universities may have to students with disabilities....but before we get into that, let's go over the basics:

That's right, get comfy. I'm bout to drop some knowledge on y'all

American with Disabilities Act
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 provides federal guidelines for increasing accessibility with people with disabilities

What is a Disability (as defined by the ADA)?
  1. A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of the individual;
  2. A record of such an impairment; or
  3. Being regarded as having such an impairment

What Types of Disabilities Are There?
According to Southern New Hampshire University, the following is a brief list of people affected by the ADA:

All conditions which entitled a student to receive special education while attending grade school (e.g., mental retardation, learning disabilities, serious emotional disturbances), AIDS, cancer, alcohol or drug addiction (so long as the student is not a current user of unlawful drugs), environmental illness, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, asthma, physical disabilities, behavior disorders, etc., so long as the condition substantially limits a major life activity.

How Does the ADA Affect Higher Ed?
Section 504 states:

No otherwise qualified individual with disabilities in the United States...shall, solely by reason of his/her disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance...

In essence, an institution of higher education must provide reasonable accommodations. These could include: class notes, extended test taking time, tutoring, books in braile or audio, and other accommodations. And believe me, I know that there are many professionals in higher education that are working to make sure students feel comfortable in their new academic environment.

But I question the lack of critical thinking about how and where we are providing those services.

A Brief Critique (because I do not have time for an in-depth analysis - I got papers and reading and grad work, oh my!)

I know two universities that place their Office of Disability Services on the 3rd or 4th floor of a building. Bowling Green State University, my alma mater, has its office on the 4th floor of South Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus with an elevator that has seen better days (about two decades ago). My current institution, Indiana University, hosts its office on the 4th floor of the H B Wells library.

Why yes, there are elevators in each of these buildings, but...really? That just feels rather insensitive to me. It is an additional stress to students with physical disabilities and increases difficulty in the case of exiting for an emergency.

Not completely accurate, granted. But in case of a fire…I mean, really?

It seems surprising that these universities would not consider our students with physical disabilities when it comes to designating their space on campus. Especially when it seems that the term "disability" is immediately equated to a physical disability, in the minds of many people - which isn't fair to students at all. Which leads me to the idea that I feel like many people - students, faculty, staff, etc - forget that there are other impairing disabilities.
Conditions that I am especially aware of, due to personal experiences with family/friends, include learning disabilities/cognitive disorders and psychiatric disorders.

Anecdotal evidence points to the fact that many staff and faculty members do not understand the full extent of limitations and possibilities associated with these conditions. This is understandable - there are a plethora of conditions under these two main headings (autism spectrum disorder, attention deficient disorder, depression, schizophrenia, etc). But we're doing a disservice to our students by not attaining a full grasp of these issues. After all, how can we properly counsel or teach students if we’re unaware of the connection between their disability and completing college? 

There is still a stigma in society concerning these conditions and I wonder at the acceptance level that exists - mind you, I'm not saying that faculty and staff do not care about these issues, but I do think there are cases where they do not "get it". These "invisible disabilities" are sometimes met with skepticism and I know personally of cases where professors don't really think that the student has a 'disability' and are less than accommodating.

Of course, the response to these critiques is to a)move disability services to a ground floor office and b)make sure more training is provided for understanding the various conditions that affect students. I understand that the former issue may require funds for renovations or the political pieces of 'taking' a different department's office. The latter would result from more funds (to invest in training) and time (spent training instead of daily tasks - because great training on disabilities requires more than just a 2 hour seminar). Additionally the trainings become very expensive when you begin adding up all the administrative staff and faculty members on a campus. But I challenge my peers in higher education to review these issues and take action on their campuses.  Show your commitment to diversity and accessibility through action, not words.

If we are truly focused, as a community, on helping students succeed, we need to make sure we are helping all students succeed.

Quick Facts:
  • In 1988, 16% of students reported having a learning disability. In 2001 this number more than doubled to 40.1%. (Southern New Hampshire University
  • The proportion of full-time freshmen who reported having one or more disabilities increased from 2.6% in 1978 to a high of 8.2% in 1994, and most recently, 6.0% in 2000 (Henderson, 2001
  • At postsecondary educational institutions, enrollment of students with a psychiatric disability has grown from an estimated 2.6% in 1978 to more than 9.0% in 1998 (Collins, 2000).
  • While services at postsecondary institutions are in place to effectively meet the educational needs of students with physical disabilities, the educational needs of students with mental disabilities have met with limited success (Collins & Mowbray, 2005b; Loewen, 1993; Mowbray et al., 2006). 
  • Approximately 86% of students who have a psychological disorder withdraw from college prior to completing their degree (Collins & Mowbray, 2005a)

What Do You Think?
Are we doing enough in higher education to meet the needs of our students with disabilities? What more could be done? What universities out there are doing a great job of addressing these diverse and intricate needs?

And finally, what are you doing to help address these needs?

Want to learn more?
Northern Illinois University has a great basic breakdown of the different types of disabilities as well as some statistical data: . Also, be sure to check out the references – I found some great articles.

Collins, K. D. (2000). Coordination of rehabilitation services in higher education for students with psychiatric disabilities. Journal of Applied Rehabilitation Counseling, 31(4), 36-39.

Collins, M. E., & Mowbray, C. T. (2005a). Higher education and psychiatric disabilities: National survey of campus disability services. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 75, 304-315.

Collins, M. E., & Mowbray, C. T. (2005b). Understanding the policy context for supporting students with psychiatric disabilities in higher education. Community Mental Health Journal, 41, 431-450.

Henderson, C. (2001) College freshmen with disabilities: a biennial statistical profile. Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education.

Kiuhara, S., & Huefner, D. (2008). Students with psychiatric disabilities in higher education settings: the Americans With Disabilities Act and beyond. Journal Of Disability Policy Studies, 19(2), 103-113.

Northern Illinois University. Enhancing Success for Students with Disabilities. Retrieved on October 3, 2012 from

Southern New Hampshire University. Rights and Responsibilities of Students in Higher Education (ADA). Retrieved on October 3, 2012 from

Wilhelm, S. (2003). Accommodating Mental Disabilities in Higher Education: A Practical Guide to ADA Requirements. Journal Of Law & Education, 32(2), 217-237.

No comments:

Post a Comment