Post-secondary impediments for students with disabilities
What makes you think that institutions of higher education would be on top of barriers to education?
As many SETters know, disability does not end when a student graduates from high school or ages out of her IEP. Regular readers will remember Larua McKenna’s The Great Leap, the chronicle of her efforts to help her son continue his education in the post-secondary world.
Those of us who have worked at institutions of higher education know, students who have disabilities may not be plentiful on campuses, but they constitute a known subpopulation of the student body.
Students with disabilities in post-secondary schools need access to facilities and deserve accommodations in classes. Too often, they don’t find access and accommodations available. A valuable assignment for an introductory class in special education or disability studies is to have teams of students devote a couple of hours visiting sites around campus and identifying impediments to access for fellow students who have one or more disability.
Usually, when the teams report their findings, there is a substantial representation of facilities that impede physical access (e.g., stairs, bumpy thresholds, parking locations, accessible restrooms, missing curb cuts, etc.). Sometimes, a team will identify a problem for individuals with sensory disabilities (e.g., not those that require wheelchair access). There may be the occasional recognition that blind individuals may need audible signals about when the pedestrian crossing signal is lit. Other concerns that sometimes surface are closed captioning on video materials and simultaneous sign-language translation.
As valuable as these accommodations may be for individuals with physical or sensory disabilities, and I support their employment, they overlook the needs of many other students with disabilities. Individuals with learning disability, autism, emotional or behavior disorder, and other impediments may require accommodations, too. What do those accomodations need to look like? Beyond connections with a good note-taker, what should institutions of higher education do to support their students with disabilities?
Those accommodations that are provided may or may not address other problems students may encounter. There is stigma, doubt about the need for accommodations, simple misunderstanding of the nature of disability, and more.
In this context, it is encouraging to see that students on some campuses are banding together to support each other and advocate for improving treatment of individuals with disabilities. In the Chronicle of Higher Education for 15 July 2022, Adrienne Lu reported about the growth of “disability cultural centers.” Here is Ms. Lu’s lede:
When Katie Sullivan arrived as a first-year student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison last fall, she encountered one barrier after another to her college education: classrooms with limited accessibility for students in wheelchairs; an elevator that was broken for months, forcing some disabled students to take a freight elevator; buses with only two spots for students in wheelchairs; a professor who she said refused to accommodate her academic needs.
In addition to clearing those hurdles, Sullivan longed for a community that could relate to her struggles. She soon connected with another student, Emmett Lockwood, who had already been working on a proposal for a disability cultural center, where disabled students could build a sense of community and culture.
Thanks to student advocates, including Sullivan and Lockwood, the university recently became the latest in a growing number with disability cultural centers, which aim to shine light on the perspectives and experiences of disabled people, foster a sense of community, and promote activism and disability justice. Altogether, at least 12 disability cultural centers now exist nationwide; in addition, students are working to create new centers on about a dozen other campuses.
The catalog of universities that Ms. Lu mentions in her article include many with prestigious reputations. However, concern about access and accommodations should not only be evident there. There are other institutions of higher education where students with disabilities might be enrolled. And don’t stop with institutions that grant baccalaureate and graduate degrees. Community colleges are important locations for individuals with disabilities. People who want an associate’s degree, or to earn a certificate in cosmetology, medical billing, electrical technology, welding, and many more subjects deserve accommodations—and respect.
I hope that such centers are inclusive enough to welcome participation by individuals who represent the broad array of students with disabilities. I hope that they adopt policies and procedures that promote evidence-based accommodations. I hope that they help build campus environments that are welcoming for individuals with disabilities.
I encourage readers who are interested in this topic to
Read Ms. Lu’s article, “In Fight Against Ableism, Disabled Students Build Centers of Their Own”;
Peruse the work of the Association for Higher Education and Disability; AHEAD provides information, promotes action, and advocates for institutions of higher education as they work to ensure social justice for individuals with disabilities; good peeps;
Follow Laura McKinna and her son, Ian, as they navigate life after high school at The Great Leap; Laura drops new posts on Wednesdays.
Study (for those academics among us) the paper by Sally Lindsay and colleagues (2018) called, “A Systematic Review of Barriers and Facilitators of Disability Disclosure and Accommodations for Youth in Post-Secondary Education” from International Journal of Disability, Development, and Education.
Sometimes, a guide is helpful. Maybe college groups that sponsor fund-raising foot races should offer to provide guides for students with visual impairments. Guides and runners might have to practice a bit before a race, but running with someone else is a good way to get to know each other!
SETters who know more about post-secondary transition than I do, and I know there are quite a few of you (knowing more than I do is a low bar!), please add resources (corrections, amplifications, modifications) in the comments.