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Disability And (Dis)Accessibility On College Campuses

Ariana Aboulafia |
April 5, 2015 | 6:14 p.m. PDT



For most college students, coming to campus for the first time is an exciting, memorable experience. It may even be overwhelming for some to see just how many new options are available to them at their new campus home: new places to eat, to live, to work and to socialize, and new people to hang out with.

However, for many students with disabilities, college campuses - and the college experience itself - can be overwhelming for exactly the opposite reason. Lack of options - for physical places to go, resources and advocates to help them on their journey and for ways to manage their academics alongside their disabilities - is a huge issue for many students across the United States, an issue that affects not only the quality of their college experiences, but their ability to graduate and achieve success after graduation, as well.  

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 3.5 percent, or about 707,000, of all undergraduate students in the United States have a disability, defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, including seeing, hearing, sleeping, learning, concentrating, caring for oneself or thinking. 

This means that throughout the country, there are over 700,000 people that are attempting to navigate college life – a confusing, potentially overwhelming time for any student – with the added burden of a physical or mental disability (or both). Considering the difficulties that are an inherent part of the life of a student with a disability, one might think that schools would do everything that they can to make the lives of these students easier. But, all too often, that is not the case. 

Before even beginning college, many students with disabilities attempt to register for disability verification or academic accommodations (like note takers, extra time on exams or non-consecutive exams) through a university’s “disability services” office. At the University of Southern California, that office is known as “DSP,” or Disability Services and Personnel. Registering with these offices and receiving accommodations can be an easy process or it can be a difficult one, depending on the university. In any case, the process typically requires obtaining paperwork from medical professionals and subsequently submitting that paperwork for “evaluation” by the university’s staff, who then determine which accommodations a student can receive. 

There is evidence that some students, discouraged by this evaluation process and perhaps viewing it as what college-prep provider Princeton Review calls “another series of hurdles to clear,” do not contact their school’s disability services office – or learn about accommodations, verification or other resources – until after they have had a negative experience. 

For example, an article in the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability tells the story of a student named Erin who learned about a modified section of a Spanish course for students with learning disabilities only after she had failed a different version of the course as a freshman. Situations like this occur fairly often for various reasons, one of which is the huge difference between how high schools and colleges treat accommodations for students with disabilities. Most students are minors during high school, and as such the majority of the choice to disclose their disability and the subsequent arrangement of suitable accommodations for those disabilities are handled by their parents or legal guardians and high school administrators. This makes life in high school much easier for students, and may have contributed to slightly higher high school graduation rates for students with disabilities in recent years.

These practices are good news for high school students, but for those that choose to continue on to college, disclosure of disabilities and receiving accommodations becomes mostly - or wholly - the student's responsibility, often causing some students to fall through the cracks during the transition. Furthermore, even those students who are able to navigate through the process of applying for accommodations do not necessarily receive the accommodations - or the support, or the overall experience - that they deserve. 

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires only that “reasonable accommodations” be made for students with disabilities, and colleges and universities will often take a minimalist approach to meeting this obligation, providing only what is legally necessary and not what would make life easier and more productive for the student.

(USC Undergraduate Student Government)
(USC Undergraduate Student Government)

For example, at USC, there are several buildings that are not wheelchair accessible – however, there are also several buildings that are wheelchair accessible. To accommodate students with disabilities that require wheelchairs, the University bases these students’ housing assignments or class locations on where they are physically able to go, a legally necessary accommodation.

However, this approach obviously limits where students in wheelchairs are able to live, work and even socialize. This attitude is not limited to accommodations related to physical spaces, nor is it limited to USC.

At Dawson College, a school located in Westmount, Quebec, administrators and students created a guide for professors on teaching college students with disabilities. The guide noted that even students who receive technical accommodations often have issues with having those accommodations respected where they matter most: in the classroom. The guide notes that many students with disabilities are hesitant to discuss their need for accommodations with professors, because they are afraid that their professors will not “believe” that they are disabled, think that they are using their “disability as an excuse,” or even perceive them simply as “lazy and stupid.” In the same guide, professors admitted to feeling “concerned and uncomfortable” whenever they had a student with disabilities in their class – and, it's likely that this very concern and discomfort contributes to students' unwillingness to speak to their professors about their disabilities in the first place. In the long run, this can have incredibly negative impacts on a student's overall sense of self, as well as academic performance.

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Laura is an "invisibly" disabled college student in Portland, Oregon. The phrase "invisible disability" refers to an ongoing physical or mental challenge that limits daily activities, but is often not visible to the average onlooker. Some examples of invisible disabilities include chronic pain disorders, anxiety disorders or chronic fatigue disorders. Throughout her college experience, perhaps because her disability is unable to be "proven" with the naked eye, she has had “more than one incident where a professor refused to honor [her] accommodations,” leading to significant academic difficulty. As she stated in an article for Alternet.org:

“My experience as a disabled person in college has been pretty difficult. If I’d had adequate support for my disability, I might not have had to withdraw from two courses and postpone my graduation date”.

It may seem pretty extreme that the institutionalized resistance to giving Laura the accommodations that she needs has caused her to push back her graduation date - but, for the more than 700,000 undergraduate students with disabilities that are currently attending colleges and universities across the country, postponing graduation - or never getting to graduate at all - is not only a possibility; it's a statistical likelihood.  

It is estimated that approximately 60 percent of young adults with disabilities make it to college after high school – a huge increase from previous decades – but, nearly two thirds of these people are unable to complete their degree after six years. How many of these students are like Erin and Laura, having to postpone their graduations, goals and futures not because of their disabilities but because of their institutions’ reactions to those disabilities? 

Students at some universities, like USC, are taking steps to combat some of the difficulties faced by students with disabilities by proposing that administrators take more than a minimalist approach to disability accommodations. A recent proposal, created by delegates from members of the Undergraduate Student Government's Executive Cabinet, members of the Undergraduate Student Government's Diversity Affairs Committee (including myself) and a faculty adviser, recommends that the University increase the accessibility of several physical spaces (like residence halls, sidewalks and classrooms), increase the presence of counselors and other supportive resources for students with disabilities and put new policies into place to clarify how professors should go about applying accommodations in a classroom environment.

The proposal has at this time been delivered to and received by University President Max Nikias. Although there has been broad support for the proposal throughout the student government and DSP staff, no university representative has officially responded to the proposal, nor made any actual commitment to increasing accommodations or revising current policies to increase the quality of life for students with disabilities.

Proposals like this are a step in the right direction - but, of course, they can only bring about real change if they are acted upon by university administrators. The fact is that despite the presence of advocates and proposed policy changes in campuses across the country, conditions for students with disabilities are not getting better because the majority of universities simply do not care - or else, they do not care nearly enough. For most administrators, it is easier to turn a blind eye to the suffering of a vulnerable population - to the detriment of their own graduation rates - than take the time to change the things that are going wrong at these schools.

When reading stories like those of Laura and Erin - and when hearing similar stories from my friends and peers at colleges and universities across the country - I wonder when things will start to change. I wonder at what point students with disabilities will stop being forced to face a ridiculously steep uphill battle, made all the more difficult by the very people that are supposed to care about them, just to receive their college diplomas. I wonder, but I know this: until students of all abilities join together and pressure administrations to take more than a minimalist approach to accommodations, the answer to these questions will unfortunately be one single, unbelievably discouraging word: never.


Get more “Reaction Time”: common sense reactions to every-day craziness. Contact Columnist Ariana Aboulafia here; or follow her on Twitter

If you are interested in learning more about students with disabilities or advocacy at the University of Southern California, contact the Disability Student Association at [email protected].



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