In 2012, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 11.1% of students enrolled in undergraduate higher education in the US had a disability. Many researchers and specialists believe that number might be even higher, but students with disabilities don’t always report them, making it harder to measure. In fall 2016, there were 16.9 million undergraduate students in the US – meaning it’s safe to assume that roughly 1.8 million+ students in undergraduate higher education have a disability.
Considering there is a significant number of students with disabilities in higher education, how are they succeeding compared to non-disabled students? According to the American Institutes for Research, 46 percent of students with disabilities who graduated from high school enrolled in a postsecondary institution, and only 40 percent of those individuals completed their degrees or certificates within eight years.
Why the disparity? A recent survey concluded that even though 86% of universities enroll and educate students with disabilities, only 24% of the schools polled say they offer those students assistance “to a major extent”. Every type of student needs support to succeed in obtaining a degree – and those with disabilities have specific support needs that must be addressed in order to set them up for success.
So how can your institution ensure that you’re properly supporting students with disabilities? Below, we outline 5 strategies that colleges and universities across the country can adopt to ensure all students have an equal chance at success in their higher education journey.
- Create a sophisticated office of accessibility with resources for students.
An increasing amount of institutions around the US are creating an office of accessibility in order to provide quality resources and 360-support for students with disabilities. Some of the main goals of an office of accessibility may include: to offer resources and information around accommodation, provide emotional and physical support, ensure faculty and staff are knowledgeable about the topic, and to offer services to make programs and courses more accessible.
For example, Auburn’s Office of Accessibility allows disabled students to submit accommodation requests, schedule appointments with accommodation specialists, report a physical access issue, and more. They also act as a campus expert on accessibility, offering services like captioning videos, providing demonstrations of assistive technology and software, and evaluating websites for accessibility.
To create a new office of accessibility or strengthen your current one, start with writing down your overall goals, then look at what types of services and tactics can be used to reach those goals. While your institution may have various services that it offers, sometimes compiling it all in one place as a central resource can make a huge impact on student success and overall wellbeing.
- Develop a university-wide training program for faculty and staff.
In order to fully support students with disabilities, campus wide buy-in is crucial for successful implementation. For example, a study done at the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that faculty play a key role in determining the climate in STEM majors for students with disabilities. It’s clear that faculty and staff need to be equipped with the tools and strategies needed to assist and teach students with disabilities.
To increase awareness and understanding of different perspectives, experiences, and learning styles, The University of Texas at Austin compiled a variety of online trainings for their staff and faculty that can be accessed at any time. They pooled resources from different associations and peer institutions including Colorado State University and University of Washington to give faculty and staff a holistic view on supporting students with disabilities. Topics include things like disability advocacy, accommodation considerations, recruiting and training, and Universal Design Learning.
Online trainings are a great way to give all faculty and staff access to the materials and make sure it’s as easy as possible to become informed. Utilizing tools like Comevo’s online orientation software, you can pull from resources such as the American Psychology Association’s DisABILITY Resource Toolbox (DART) to build out an online training that is accessible 24/7.
- Increase accessibility to instructional materials and technology.
Access to learning materials that accommodate for students’ disabilities is key to success in the classroom. University of Michigan, ranked #1 by College Choice as the Best Disability Friendly Colleges and Universities, was the first to establish “an adaptive technology computing lab and together with the Provost’s office a fund to support mandated accommodations”. Its free resources include services like a robust HathiTrust Digital Library and Modern Language Aptitude Testing throughout the year.
Making accommodation requests easier for students is another way to increase accessibility to learning materials. Xavier University, also ranked on the College Choice list, uses a scheduling and database software called ClockWork that help manage accommodations. It allows students to request various services like note-taking, document delivery, alternate testing options, and more.
- Develop a peer program for students with disabilities.
While faculty and staff support are crucial in setting students with disabilities up for success, peer support is also a huge piece of the puzzle. Peer programs can provide both a social support aspect as well as support for career guidance after college.
University of Connecticut created a program called “REACHing Peers”, which is a three-fold mentoring program that includes: opportunities for prospective students with disabilities to connect with current students with disabilities on campus, mentor-mentee relationships for current students registered with the Center for Students with Disabilities (CSD), and linking current students with a network of CSD alumni for career prepartion. The goal of their program is to create a network among the CSD community at all lifecycle stages (prospective student, student, and alumni) and “to promote empowerment, engagement, and self-advocacy through peers supporting peers.”
- Build out a specific support program to accommodate for different ways of learning.
A disability can take on many forms, including ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, reading disorders, anxiety, blindness, medical-related impairments, and more. It’s important that faculty, staff, and anyone looking to support students with disabilities understand that support is not “one size fits all”. Depending on the disability, different resources and accommodations may be necessary. In Colorado State University’s resource guide on Universal Design for Learning, they offer modules on the common types of disabilities and what type of support is needed.
Institutions dedicated to supporting students with disabilities might also consider offering programs specifically designed for certain types of disabilities. For example,
Landmark College, recognized as one of the top ten colleges by College Magazine for offering services to students with disabilities, has developed specific services aimed to support students with autism spectrum disorder. Considering the fact that between 1993 and 2003, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder increased by 800% in the US, these types of programs are greatly needed.
Landmark College’s program features services like an early orientation program that includes a peer development group and establishing allies and safe spaces, social pragmatic courses, faculty and staff with strong backgrounds in teaching and learning for students on the spectrum, and social group clusters that meet weekly to help students focus on social skills and anxiety issues.
So how can your institution begin implementing these strategies? Begin by taking an audit of the current resources and support you have in place and look for opportunities to approve. Many of these strategies will require cross-department collaboration and campus support, so having a “program advocate” can be extremely useful. By taking steps to implement at least one of the strategies above, you can set your institution on the right track for ensuring higher education is accessible to all types of students.