Disability in Higher Education

Harvard University’s commencement is tomorrow, and the full-time (and some part-time!) members of the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s (HGSE) Higher Education Ed.M. cohort will graduate. Hooray! I shall add a new degree to my lair (or apartment, but who doesn’t want to sound like a super villain every now and then?).

This past semester has been bonkers. In a complete reversal of the last time I applied for a PhD in History, I got accepted to multiple PhD programs. I visited Columbia and Princeton (Columbia, I take everything back, you’ve upped your accessibility game and I will dedicate a future blog post to your improvements), and went with Princeton. Princeton is renovating a dormitory for me and is installing a wheelchair lift in the history building so that I can get to every floor (there are other reasons I chose Princeton, but I just thought I’d point out what accessibility accommodations they’re doing). Time will tell if the lift is effective, but I trust that the Princetonians know what they’re doing. I plan to study marginalization and social/legal history in the early middle ages, and am really excited to start in the fall.

Since my last post, my NYT essay has been featured on Sheryl Sandberg’s OptionB.org site under the “Build Your Resilience” tab (scroll down to the “Inspiration” section). While I’ve always found the label “inspiration” problematic (because people who use it tend to set the bar ridiculously low for people with disabilities), I am honored to have my essay on a site that wants to inspire people to become more resilient. I’ve also been featured on the HGSE website, have spoken on the social model of disability in higher education, and have had my Establishment essay on applying to school as a wheelchair user republished on Inside Higher Ed. And these are multiple excuses to say that I’ve been rather busy and have neglected my blog as a result.

But summer is just beginning, which should leave me some time to blog and ramble as I procrastinate preparing for language exams. Today, I’m going to talk about something that should’ve been discussed in September. Yes, that’s right, that is how long overdue my post is.

I went to HGSE to study disability in higher education. More specifically, I wanted to study access to higher education for students with disabilities. I also wanted to promote disability as part of the diversity conversation. Shortly after I matriculated, The Chronicle of Higher Education (one of the main news sites for the goings-on of higher education, which is read by administrators and professors alike) published an issue that focused solely on disability in academe. At first, I thought, “Yay! Disability as a legit diversity issue!” Then I read the articles.


The articles are only accessible if you have a subscription, so I’ll post the headlines and the summaries of three of them from the site (and the links, in case you have a subscription):

If this is the state of disability in higher education, then we have a problem.

First off, “accommodation to inclusivity” sounds like a great idea, but this article essentially lauds the University of Virginia for making its campus more physically accessible. This is fabulous for students with mobility impairments, however students like me, who use wheelchairs, comprise 3% of 11% of students with disabilities. It’s important (well, it’s a legal requirement) to have a campus that students with mobility impairments can navigate realistically, however when one throws the word “inclusivity” around in the context of disability, the campus (and all of its services) had better be inclusive of all students with disabilities (i.e., please include the other 97%). Otherwise, you’re using a buzzword, which is annoying and helps no one.

But The Chronicle does have some discussion of invisible disabilities. They mention Landmark College, a private institution in Vermont that offers two-year and four-year degrees, several times in their disability issue. Landmark has a summer program that enables students with learning disabilities to learn strategies (e.g. time management, note-taking tools) before matriculating to other institutions. Their summer program is $7,500, but financial aid is available.

Landmark College appeared in at least three articles in this particular issue whenever learning disabilities came up. Some students attended the summer program, or enrolled for a year or two and then transferred to another four-year institution. It’s great that this institution exists, and it seems to help a lot of students with learning disabilities.

But this cannot be the solution for all students with learning disabilities. For starters, what happens to students with learning disabilities who don’t get financial aid? Do they just not learn strategies to succeed in higher education? Furthermore, if all students with learning disabilities were sent to Landmark, the school would become overcrowded quickly. This institution seems like a copout, and colleges and universities may see Landmark as a place to send its students with learning disabilities, rather than as an example of how they can improve their own disability services offerings to students.

At the moment, students with learning disabilities aren’t receiving the supports they need at most institutions. As of 2014, only 27% of students with learning disabilities completed a college degree within six years (compared with the national average of 59%). There are ways that disability services (DS) offices at most colleges and universities can enable students with disabilities to learn strategies to help them succeed (for instance, HGSE offers coaching). It should not be expected for students with learning disabilities to just go to Landmark, especially if it means that a student would have to pay more (assuming that not all students get financial aid).

And I’m sure there are people out there who think that students with disabilities should have to pay more, and should go to a program like the one at Landmark in order to “fix” their disability. Except that some universities already employ advising and other strategies to retain minority students. Places like Stanford and UC Berkeley have been focused on the retention of Latinx students and have been successful. Why can’t the same effort go into the retention of students with disabilities? If colleges and universities learn about the strategies taught by Landmark and then hire more DS staff at their own institutions (who can coach students with disabilities to learn these strategies), then it’s likely that the retention rate of students with disabilities (and, subsequently, the overall retention rate) will improve. And if universities only provide supports for certain minority groups and exclude others, then they send a message that they only care about certain groups of students.

And finally, the article that ticked off every disability services coordinator who cares about their profession: Ari Trachtenberg’s “Suitable Accommodation or Legal Cheating” op-ed. Trachtenberg is a professor at Boston University who wrote, “It is inappropriate to give an objective test with a clearly delineated grading policy if some students get uncalibrated bonuses.”

Two things:

1. “Uncalibrated bonuses”? Who is he to decide what constitutes an uncalibrated bonus? Trachtenberg is an engineering professor (so, not that kind of doctor), and has no experience with disability services. He represents the sort of person who thinks that people with disabilities are trying to game the system. Getting an accommodation approved requires different standards at each institution, but a DS coordinator reviews all medical information (which the professor is not privy to) before granting accommodations. It is important to understand (if any professors/future professors are reading this) that a disability services office grants what they feel to be the most suitable accommodation. If a professor wants a better explanation for the accommodation that they are asked to grant, then they should take it up with disability services, and not whine about it to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

2. The fact that this article got published means that Trachtenberg is not alone. There are likely many professors who feel this way. And this is terrible for students with disabilities throughout the country, because it makes them hesitant to disclose a disability and request an accommodation. I mean, why ask for an accommodation if there’s a chance that your professor will think that you’re cheating? Out of 94% of students who received accommodations in high school, only 17% requested those accommodations in college. I’m speculating a bit here, but stigma may have something to do with that percentage drop, because college is where students have to start advocating for themselves (a topic that The Chronicle has covered before).

The cherry on top for all of this is that The Chronicle’s disability issue has an interactive article on diversity that doesn’t even mention disability. Seriously, who edited this issue?

To be fair, there were a couple of interesting articles in this issue, including a video on DeafSpace at Gallaudet University, and an article on universal design. The Chronicle has also published pretty good articles on disability in the past (see this article on Purdue University). But this particular Chronicle issue as a whole has convinced me that higher education still has a long way to go when it comes to including students with disabilities in the diversity conversation. I might be going back to medieval history in the fall, but I’m going to keep writing about students with disabilities in higher education. Because more are attending institutions of higher education than before, and they deserve access to a college experience comparable to that of their nondisabled peers.

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