Disabled Students Need Equity, Not Just Access
We must challenge our biases and create inclusive experiences for all students
In higher education, we are reckoning with the ramifications of our exclusive history but do not seem to know how to include disability in these efforts. Like other systems, higher education is built upon institutionalized ableism. Ableism is a system that advantages nondisabled people and centers their experiences. For example, campuses often have limited accessibility. Perhaps wheelchair users need to enter around the back of a building to avoid stairs or are limited to just one accessible seat in a classroom. Captioning—though required by law on websites or media for places of public accommodation (including colleges and universities)—is still inconsistent, rendering that information inaccessible to current or prospective Deaf students. Few campuses have cultural resources to help disabled students or faculty build community. To begin to understand institutionalized ableism, we might ask ourselves how these common experiences of disabled students and employees compare with the experiences of nondisabled people.
As a disabled disability resources professional and university faculty member, I believe that our work to create more equitable experiences for disabled students must begin with the awareness and humility to commit to challenging our personal and professional ableist biases and practices. Then we must reframe how we think about disability in higher education, and we must work not just for access but for equity and inclusion for disabled students.
A key distinction in reframing disability is appreciating the difference between impairment and disability. Disability studies scholars would have us understand impairment as naturally occurring on the spectrum of human diversity, a physiological difference in the body or brain. Impairment is neutral, not the cause of or justification for exclusion or oppression. Disability, however, is the result of exclusive or oppressive systems, attitudes, policies, or environments that, in effect, disadvantage or disable people with impairments. According to the social model of disability, individuals are not disabled by their impairments but by the ableist environments and attitudes that exclude and disadvantage them. For example, I use a wheelchair, and I am disabled not by my body but by barriers in the physical environment; I am disabled by the system.
As a mentor of mine would say, we must “relocate the problem.” Per the social model, we would redirect our professional intervention toward the environment, system, or structure, not the individual. We would identify and remove barriers systemically to cultivate equitable and inclusive experiences for all.
In addition, college communities need to understand that creating such equitable experiences goes beyond just addressing physical barriers. We must create ways to explore and celebrate disability culture, community, identity, and scholarship, such as by teaching the works of disability studies scholars, supporting disability cultural centers, and celebrating disability history and pride months on campus. It took me until my late twenties to start to appreciate the richness of the disability community and its culture of sport, activism, and art. I continue to check my internalized ableism and suspect that most disabled people grapple with their identity development. As a society, we tend to view disability as a medical diagnosis to be fixed or a personal tragedy to be pitied. Disability is more than a deficit or a set of “special needs.” To begin to challenge these antiquated ideas and stigmas, we must say the word “disability” and avoid euphemisms. Though I prefer to identify as disabled, saying “person with a disability” also names disability.
Three decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal civil rights law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, higher education still struggles to leverage the ADA to shift campus culture from one of implementing individual accommodations to one of creating true equity.
Although access is an institutional responsibility, disability-related access is consistently framed as the responsibility of disabled individuals. Though admitted or hired by the same competitive processes and held to the same high standards, disabled students, faculty, and staff frequently have a very different experience from their nondisabled peers with respect to basic access on campus. To ensure that they have accessible course materials, dorm rooms, or workspaces, disabled folks must often request accommodations, while their nondisabled peers do not need to do so. This sends a message about mattering, value, and inclusion to both disabled and nondisabled people. Disabled students and employees are often regarded as a burden—needy, pitiful, and expensive—by faculty, university staff, and even their peers.
When we narrowly interpret the ADA and attend only to the individual, rather than the environment, we stay focused on the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law. We miss the opportunity to think about how to evolve and redesign our systems, structures, and policies to be universally accessible and inclusive. Take universal design (UD)—a term coined by architect and product designer Ron Mace to describe “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” UD presents promising strategies to advance the spirit of the ADA by addressing campus inclusion systemically. While individual accommodations perpetuate a differential experience for disabled people, universally designed solutions are seamless, equitable, and often more sustainable. They help give disabled students a similar, if not identical, experience to that of their nondisabled peers.
For example, a classroom with flexible furniture, as shown on this page, is both ADA compliant and equitable. Such a classroom is accessible not only to wheelchair users but to anyone, regardless of body size, and gives all students the chance to choose where in the room they want to sit. In another example, rather than accommodating individual students with extended time for exams or private testing locations, faculty could offer take-home exams. Without compromising rigor, a take-home exam would enable students to take as much time or as many breaks as needed and situate themselves in an accessible, comfortable, and/or minimally distracting environment. This design would not necessitate individual accommodations and might ultimately benefit all students.
In spring 2020, colleges and universities transitioned to remote teaching, learning, and working in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, many practices that had previously been reserved for disability-related accommodations—such as working remotely, flexible schedules and attendance policies, captioned class lectures, and readily available online course materials—became the norm. We are all learning through direct experience that UD and flexible curricular and workplace practices are, in fact, effective and may even be preferred by many people, disabled or nondisabled. While the pandemic has been devastating on many levels, the opportunity to put UD into practice—something disability resources professionals have been championing for decades—is a silver lining. With continued commitment, we can leverage UD to promote a campus experience that is not just accessible but welcoming and equitable to disabled community members.
→ Creating accessible materials and experiences.
The University of Arizona’s Information Technology Accessibility Group: itaccessibility.arizona.edu
→ Using universal design in event planning.
The University of Arizona’s site for Planning Accessible Events and Activities: drc.arizona.edu/planning-events
→ Accessing information and research.
The National Center for College Students with Disabilities: nccsdonline.org
→ Understanding captioning.
Automatic captions are increasingly available and accurate, but they are not ADA compliant. Using them is a best practice to maximize inclusion, but it does not substitute for an accommodation:
Practical Suggestions to Support Disability Equity in the Classroom
Check your biases. One important way to cultivate an equitable learning environment is to hold all students to the same standards. If you notice that you have higher (or lower) expectations for some students regarding their performance, engagement, or general capability, pause and reflect on why that might be. This is most likely your unconscious bias at play. We have been socialized to think about disability as something negative to be cured or pitied or as a liability and a burden. We have also been conditioned to view disabled people as inspirational or deserving of a little extra help or attention. These biases undermine the capabilities and successes of disabled students.
You do not need to do anything more or less to support disabled students’ success. Please do not excuse or modify aspects of your course only for disabled students, for example by exempting them from participating in a group project or field trip or by allowing a more generous deadline because you think it will be helpful. Your responsibility is to create a course in which all students have equitable access.
Representation matters. It is not uncommon for the only mention or representation of disability in a given course to be in a statement on the syllabus about how to request accommodations. You can represent disability and celebrate disability identity and culture in many meaningful ways across your course. For example, you can assign readings by disabled authors and scholars, reference disability history or the disability community when exploring certain topics, and include images of diverse disabled people in course materials.
Say “disability.” Language reflects our values, so it is important to be intentional about how we reference identities and lived experiences. In curricula and professional trainings, many of us have been taught to be politically correct and have been expressly advised against saying “disability” for fear of offending or making someone uncomfortable. So, we developed euphemisms for disability such as “mentally challenged,” “handi-capable,” and “special needs.” While I reject the idea of a checklist on how to talk to disabled people or engage with any historically marginalized community, I do believe it is important to say “disability.” When we avoid it, we promote the dangerous idea that disability is so bad we dare not utter the word. Consider using person-first language (person with a disability) or identity-first language (disabled person). Please do not reference accommodations as “special” but as disability-related access or disability-related accommodations. Disabled people have the same needs as their nondisabled peers—to park their cars, use the restroom, sit in a classroom or office space, read scholarly materials, or take an exam. These experiences have been designed for the nondisabled student or professional, rendering the basic needs of disabled people as “special.”
Maximize inclusion. Consider students who, for example, may not be able to see the screen well in a large classroom or who may be encountering outside noise while remotely accessing a course. The following simple strategies can help create a more equitable experience for all students, disabled or not.
• Caption all videos and provide transcripts.
• Ensure your slides have sufficient color contrast and large, clear font.
• Describe any images or charts as you teach or present.
Top image: The University of Arizona’s Disability Cultural Center. Image credit: University of Arizona