BU Today


POV: How Can Universities Welcome People with Disabilities?

With attitudinal barriers still existing, improvement is needed


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 msullivan@bu.edu.

“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 barlowr@bu.edu. 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.


7 Comments on POV: How Can Universities Welcome People with Disabilities?

  • DB on 10.28.2014 at 9:01 am

    I remember when I started as a staff member at BU, and I noticed that the Office of Disability Services was all the way at the very end of campus in Kenmore Square…on the SECOND floor.

    Talk about clueless and callous.

    • KC on 10.28.2014 at 4:00 pm

      When Disability Services was created, it was located at 19 Deerfield, which at that time also housed the Dean of Students, Residence Life, and Personnel (now HR). Co-locating this office with those departments, in a building that had a ramp and an elevator, was hardly clueless or callous. As the campus expanded and other facilities were renovated, most of those other offices moved elsewhere, and Disabilities Services was able to expand into vacated space at 19 Deerfield and grow over the years. Its first director, Al DeGraaf, was quadriplegic and a very aggressive, effective and fair-minded advocate for those who needed the services of his office. Perhaps at a superficial glance, having Disabilities Services at 19 Deerfield might seem “clueless and callous”; it was anything but that.

  • Edi Ablavsky on 10.28.2014 at 10:18 am

    I’m wondering how accessible this web page, and others on the BU site, is to users with visual and motor disabilities. I have tried to find BU resources that would help me learn how to make the website I maintain more accessible and have not found much. If this is an issue for some students, there should be standards in place to make BU websites more accessible–I have not seen any.

    • Megan Sullivan on 10.28.2014 at 11:33 am


      Thanks so much for your comment. Feel free to email me (there is no I in my last name in my email address), and I can see what I can find out. You could also email the Office of Disability Services.

      Best, Megan Sullivan

    • Christian Cho on 10.28.2014 at 11:36 am

      Edi, check out http://www.w3.org/WAI/intro/accessibility.php for information about website accessibility. I would also reach out to UX designers and ask for their feedback.

  • Milissa on 11.07.2014 at 3:11 pm

    As a parent of a prospective student with ADD and a below average processing speed diagnosed in 5th grade, but who will graduate from a rigorous independent school with a B-/B average and a respectable ACT score, would you recommend that prospective students self-disclose their disabilities in their application?

  • david on 12.06.2014 at 7:58 pm

    Interesting article. When I was in High School I was given a list of Colleges which didn’t have much prestige or recognition. Coming out of a top HS in MA, a poorly rated College was not an option when my friends going to Duke, Dartmouth etc. The was one major obstacle, I had a Learning Disability. Poor grades, a low SAT scores was doomed for a quality education. My dream of following my mother, cousins and Uncle’s foot steps to go to BU was shattered. My guidance counselor said I would never get in or survive. It was a low point in my life. That year,1990, I did some research and found Hofstra University had a special program (PALS) The program for academic learning skills. I had my mother tell my guidance counselor to send in my application and recommendation even though the chance to get in was slim to none. With our 400 applicants and only 35 students interviewed and accepted, I was amazingly picked. It was a struggle my first few years, but with a great program, professors passion, and family love I graduated in 4 years. I have always been in special classes, programs, tutors, stayed after school and had been teased. But at the end of the day, with determination, goals, people support and never giving up, I believe disabled can achieve the same goals as anyone else. I did and became successful in my real estate career.

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