Advocates urge higher ed to recognize disability as an identity group

Conversations about college students with disabilities often focus on individual academic accommodations or biomedical conditions, rather than their contributions as an identity group or their representation in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Disability advocates, however, are urging institutions to see disability as a vital facet of student and faculty diversity—and to consider how their campuses are addressing access and representation, Inside Higher Ed reports.

Approximately one in four people nationwide have a disability, including mobility impairments, learning disabilities, and emotional conditions. A growing number of colleges and universities, including Georgetown, are establishing disability studies programs, recognizing that people with disabilities make up the country’s largest minority population. Fewer institutions have created cultural centers and affinity groups for students with disabilities, and just 3.6 percent of tenured faculty consider themselves disabled. 

Related: Georgetown student receives Truman Scholarship to continue disability rights advocacy >

Advocates hope that diversity, equity, and inclusion programming can evolve to incorporate disability in a way that supports students and staff who identify as disabled. “What I find is with diversity in higher ed, it’s all very selectively inclusive,” Syreeta Nolan, a senior at the University of California, San Diego, told Inside Higher Ed. “The Black resource center is inclusive for Black people, the women’s center is inclusive for women, the LGBTQ resource is inclusive for those who are LGBTQ themselves. But I don’t see that intersectionality and I feel really weird and off when I try to talk about disability in those spaces.” Nolan is also the co-founder of Disabled in Higher Ed

Related: A truer picture of today’s college students >

Thinking beyond classroom accommodations 

Disability advocates are encouraging colleges to think holistically about students’ experiences, including the campus climate and their ability to meet basic needs outside the classroom. “Being a disabled student, I’m not just a disabled student in the classroom,” Nolan explained. 

Harry Paul, an M.D.-Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University and communications director for the Alliance of Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses in Medicine, suggests that schools looking to make students with disabilities feel welcome can focus on programming that elevates the voices of disabled students, invites their feedback, and brings disability scholars to campus.

Educational accommodations remain crucial, too, especially during the upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic as colleges and universities had to pivot courses online and find new ways to engage students. Many schools fielded increased requests for educational accommodations during the spring semester, according to EdSurge

Related: How can colleges accommodate students with disabilities in the switch to online education? >

Asked to redesign their courses for a virtual environment, many faculty also took the opportunity to factor in accessibility from the outset. In one survey of 212 colleges that switched to remote instruction during the pandemic, more than three quarters of accessibility offices said they were collaborating with university stakeholders more thoroughly than ever. 

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