Diversity and Democracy

Evolving Institutional Diversity by Incorporating Disability

In 2007, the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder), a large public research university, relocated Disability Services within its newly minted Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement. This reorganization has led to a heightened understanding of diversity and inclusion across the university community, enhancements in student services, and an evolving holistic vision for serving students with disabilities. Shifts in CU Boulder’s institutional culture have occurred in step with larger changes unfolding in the disability services field, including trends toward serving students with invisible disabilities—such as learning disabilities, Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD), and psychological issues—alongside those with visible or physical disabilities (Madaus 2011). The field’s movement from a medical model that prioritizes treating students’ physical or mental impairments to a social model that emphasizes reducing institutional and environmental barriers has also bolstered these cultural shifts. At CU Boulder, careful, continuous attention to cultural change over an extended period is improving the learning environment for the entire student body.


Like many institutions of higher education, for many decades, CU Boulder located Disability Services within its Division of Student Affairs. Disability Services grew from a small operation providing personalized services to students in the 1980s and 1990s to a medium-sized department serving a growing population in the early 2000s. But by the mid-2000s, the department found itself in a quandary. The number of students requesting accommodations was rising precipitously (see fig. 1), exceeding the department’s capacity to keep pace.

Figure 1. Disability Services Student Registration at CU Boulder


As it struggled to meet rising demand, Disability Services adopted a compliance approach strictly limiting services to the delivery of classroom accommodations (e.g., testing accommodations, note-taking services, and sign language interpreting). Mirroring trends in the field more broadly, this approach aligned with the subculture of the Division of Student Affairs, which then housed other clinically oriented departments such as counseling and psychiatric services, a victim assistance office, and an office addressing issues related to student conduct.

In 2007, an opportunity to reposition Disability Services arose when the university decided to elevate an existing office of diversity and appoint a vice chancellor to represent diversity and inclusion efforts on the chancellor’s cabinet. Three student support services departments—Disability Services, an office for precollegiate outreach, and a multicultural student services department—moved into the new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement (ODECE), which was located in the Division of Academic Affairs under the administrative leadership of the provost. While the university’s most recent accreditation report was the primary driver of this change, a separate external review conducted nearly simultaneously had also advised rebalancing the departments.

Disability as Diversity

At the time of restructuring, university leaders embraced the idea of elevating diversity and inclusion as priorities within the institution. They also realized that incorporating Disability Services into a revamped institutional diversity division could catalyze the development of a more complex understanding of diversity and inclusion across the university community. One important goal was to influence perceptions within the university, moving from a limited deficit-based framework toward a new asset-based understanding of students as differently abled learners whose intellectual capabilities are taken as a given and fostered. At its core, disability is about variation among learners, which manifests across all social identity groups (McKee 2017). Disability can affect anyone at any stage of life, becoming a defining aspect of one’s identity whatever social groups one otherwise claims. As Myers, Lindburg, and Nied have written, “Disability is a human condition. As such, it logically is a part of diversity” (2013, 107).

University leaders hoped that incorporating disability into institutional diversity efforts would allow CU Boulder to serve its students better while also deepening the community’s perceptions of diversity and inclusion as a whole. But achieving a shift in culture takes time. In the early years, the campus community, including those staff most directly affected, did not fully understand or support the structural changes. Nonetheless, the act of moving Disability Services and other departments into ODECE made a statement, framing diversity as including multiple factors, including disability, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, and sexual orientation. In addition, moving these departments from student affairs to academic affairs suggested new opportunities to prioritize student learning and intellectual development.

In time, the departments that had been relocated in ODECE would begin to see the strategic advantage to their placement in the Division of Academic Affairs. Aligning their work with the university’s core mission of teaching and learning empowered them to focus on the key aspects of program delivery that they had in common: the academic and student development components of their work. In recent years, the door has opened wide for innovation and collaboration within and outside of the new division.

Enhanced Services

Multiple factors had contributed, and continue to contribute, to the accelerated growth in student demand for accommodations. As social awareness of disabilities has grown, so too has the number of students requesting support for learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, psychological issues, and other invisible disabilities. Today, more than 75 percent of students served by the division have invisible disabilities (see fig. 2). Additionally, in 2010, Disability Services moved from the third floor of an outmoded residence hall to the main level of a newly constructed, state-of-the-art, accessible student services building. This move to a more prominent location had symbolic as well as practical significance for students’ engagement with Disability Services.

Figure 2. CU Boulder Registered Students by Disability Category (Spring 2017)


From 2012 to 2014, the vice chancellor of ODECE provided leadership that solidified Disability Services’ resource model and stability in significant ways. In 2012, the department received funding in the budget to cover escalating costs that had caused recurring deficits in the past. Additionally, in 2014, when a dedicated longtime leader retired, a new director and two new assistant directors received promotions. Subsequently, numerous part-time staff positions throughout the department were expanded to full-time status.

Just as the new leadership team was forming, the US Department of Justice initiated an investigation into the accessibility of CU Boulder’s digital environment. Disability Services and the Office of Information Technology formed a working group to address the issues at hand. This group developed processes that have now begun to transform digital accessibility practices for all students, staff, faculty, and community members.

With new leadership, Disability Services reorganized its staff structure, expanding the job duties of the director and assistant directors and formalizing teams focused on operations and services, access, and programming. New programming for students signaled a shift from a focus on compliance toward a new philosophy. Early academic and community-building activities included expanded institutional and K–12 outreach, scholarship awards, recognition events, study skills mentoring, a national student chapter dedicated to ADHD and learning disabilities, and a diverse learners’ awareness week.

Vision and Inclusive Excellence

A campus-wide Making Excellence Inclusive strategic planning process initiated by the chancellor and provost in 2014 has reinforced the efforts of Disability Services to contribute proactively to the university’s learning environment. Guided by the overarching goal of enhancing quality in the educational experience for all students, faculty, and staff, this process has focused on the idea that the presence of diverse perspectives results in richer learning for all involved. Mounting evidence regarding the benefits associated with “neurodiverse talent” in professional settings points to “productivity gains, quality improvement, boosts in innovative capabilities, and broad increases in engagement” (Austin and Pisano 2017).

In the learning environment, Disability Services has begun exploring the broad benefits of universal design, or “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for specialized design” (RL Mace Universal Design Institute 2017). One outcome of the Department of Justice investigation on digital accessibility, which concluded in 2015, was the implementation of services through the Office of Information Technology to provide assistance in implementing universal design principles. Faculty are beginning to recognize that when their teaching materials are fully accessible, all students have a better learning experience.

In 2016, after careful consideration, Disability Services made a conscious and deliberate decision to move away from the medical model toward the social model of disability. A recent departmental white paper underscores the new vision for our work (Griffin, Meister, and Mora 2017):

Disability Services envisions a fully accessible, integrated, and universally designed campus community at CU Boulder. The social model emphasizes students as the authority about their experience and how they engage with their academic pursuits. . . . The department will continue to advocate for universal access in CU’s learning environment while doing its part to promote inclusive excellence in the campus community.

As the department moves toward a holistic approach (see fig. 3), it envisions working in close collaboration with university leaders to further resolve barriers to students’ learning. The staff plans to partner with faculty to address the needs of individual students and to establish a fully functional testing center to meet the continuously increasing demand for accommodations.

Figure 3. CU Boulder’s Approach to Disability Services over Time



The reframing of disability as an element of institutional diversity at the University of Colorado Boulder has signified an important step toward creating inclusive learning environments. At CU Boulder, the components of effective organizational change leading toward a cultural shift have consisted of a classic mix: leadership influence in the face of external forces (Burke and Litwin 1992). Continuous and proactive attention from campus and department leaders have converged with greater societal awareness and acceptance of disabilities, including invisible disabilities. Just as Madaus (2011) foresaw, new learning technologies combined with increasingly diverse student enrollments are opening doors for disability services professionals to play a broader role in ensuring inclusive practices that benefit all members of the academic community.


Austin, Robert D., and Gary P. Pisano. 2017. “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage.” Harvard Business Review, May–June. https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage.

Burke, W. Warner, and George H. Litwin. 1992. “A Causal Model of Organizational Performance and Change.” Journal of Management 18 (3): 523–45.

Griffin, Jordan, John Meister, and Marissa Mora. 2017. “The Social Model of Disability at CU Boulder.” Internal Report.

Madaus, Joseph W. 2011. “The History of Disability Services in Higher Education.” New Directions for Higher Education 2011 (154): 5–15.

McKee, Sallye. 2017. Interview with Founding Vice-Chancellor, Office of Diversity, Equity, and Community Engagement (2007–2010), University of Colorado Boulder.

Myers, Karen A., Jaci Jenkins Lindburg, and Danielle M. Nied. 2014. Allies for Inclusion: Disability and Equity in Higher Education. Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) Report 39 (5).

RL Mace Universal Design Institute. 2017. “What Is Universal Design?” http://udinstitute.org/whatisud.php.

David J. Aragon is Assistant Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Learning, and Student Success at the University of Colorado Boulder and Carla L. Hoskins is Assistant Director for Disability Services at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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