Colleges and universities in the United States do not discriminate against people with disabilities; that would be illegal. The vast majority of institutions of higher education accommodate disabled people, but do they truly welcome them? The answer to this question can be found in the subtle and not-so-subtle barriers students, faculty, and staff still face.
A brief sampling of stories from disabled folks across the country illustrates the problem: a faculty event is held at a building inaccessible to wheelchair users; although he has an accommodation letter, a blind student is routinely given paper handouts in class, and he is unable to access the library database his professor requests that students use; a job candidate in a wheelchair is directed to a building where the handicapped ramp is blocked by a dumpster; an alumna whose parents are deaf laments that her graduation ceremony was not captioned. Advocates refer to these experiences as evidence of what they call “attitudinal barriers,” or practices and attitudes that fail to address the needs of people with disabilities and to offer disabled people the options available to their more able-bodied peers.
October is National Diversity Awareness Month and National Disability and Employment Awareness Month, so it is a good time to reflect on what universities do well, and on how they can improve. It’s paramount to reflect not just on how we can help students and our communities in 2014, but on how we can prepare for our collective future. Nearly 20 percent of Americans have a disability, and this percentage is sure to increase as baby boomers age and as it becomes easier to diagnose disabilities. The average number of people with developmental disabilities in the United States has increased from 350,000 in 1970 to approximately 4.5 million in 2011. Although 9 percent of college students report having a disability, the number is likely much higher since many disabled do not report. About 40 percent of disabled students nationwide, a plurality, have a learning disability. Thus, it behooves colleges and universities to address the needs of their community members with disabilities now and to prepare students for an increasingly disabled world.
BU has a distinguished history of assisting students with disabilities. Our Office of Disability Services is especially adept at providing students with the accommodations they require, and our Dean of Students Office is sensitive to, and very respectful of, the needs of disabled folks. Like all colleges and universities, however, BU also has an opportunity to do more to educate us all about people with disabilities, to welcome disabled faculty and staff as well as students, to ensure continued accessibility in an increasingly digital learning environment, and to become a leader in foregrounding how and what disability teaches all of us.
How can colleges and universities better prepare and welcome all students, faculty, and staff? The following suggestions are far from exhaustive, but they are a start:
- Don’t hold events or meetings in inaccessible or inappropriate locations. The law requires higher education programs to be physically accessible, so disabled faculty and staff usually have appropriate classroom and office space. Yet colleges and universities regularly hold meetings and events in inaccessible or inappropriate locations even when there are alternatives. Doing so sidelines the student who uses a wheelchair and wants to be a member of student government; it disenfranchises the faculty member with a hearing impairment who has learned that committee meetings are often held in rooms with poor acoustics; it discourages the visually impaired staff member who wants to participate in evening events, but worries about dimly lit spaces.
- Consider that much of a student’s college experience takes place outside of the classroom. Students learn during performances, from university guest speakers, in dining halls, and at campus and club-sponsored community events. Acknowledging that disabled students deserve the range of learning opportunities available to their nondisabled peers might mean captioning important performances, lectures, and ceremonies and scheduling off-campus events in wheelchair-accessible locations (where appropriate transportation is available). It might mean encouraging RAs to hold meetings in dormitory spaces that recognize the range of students’ needs or urging campus festival leaders to set aside a quiet place for people who wish to decompress.
- Offer comprehensive training to faculty. A 2004 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy states that “faculty attitudes and the academic culture are the major barriers to the successful implementation of accommodations for students with disabilities.” Many faculty members work hard to accommodate students, but others do not know what they are required to do or how to do it. Still others remain uneducated about how accommodating diverse needs might enhance their pedagogy. More and better training would help.
- Finally, value diversity. As a result of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and affirmative action, colleges and universities began to recognize the value offered by a diverse student body, as well as a diverse staff and faculty. More recently, these institutions have begun to acknowledge what we can all learn from gay, lesbian, and transgendered people. People have been disabled since the beginning of time, but as a culture we still do not fully acknowledge disability as a form of diversity or welcome it for how it can enrich all of our learning experiences. It’s time we did so.
Megan Sullivan is a College of General Studies associate professor of rhetoric and associate dean for faculty research and development; she is also director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Teaching & Learning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at email@example.com. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.