Accessibility and Acceptance for University Students with Diverse Abilities

Perspectives on Diverse Student Identities in Higher Education: International Perspectives on Equity and Inclusion

ISBN: 978-1-78756-053-6, eISBN: 978-1-78756-052-9

ISSN: 2055-3641

Publication date: 27 December 2018


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990, comprehensively addressing the life needs and civil rights of people with disabilities (PWDs). Although the ADA would prohibit discrimination in the workforce, public services, transportation, and information, therefore spurring efforts by private and public institutions to plan for and adopt accessible environments and practices, the actual voice and experience of PWDs often remains unacknowledged, even on university campuses and in academic programs that purport to have progressive ideals. This chapter examines the efforts made by one midsized, comprehensive, American university not only to remove architectural, social, and academic barriers to student success as required by law, but to establish an academic voice for the disability experience and the disability rights movement through the newly founded Accessibility Studies Program.



Petersen, N. and Gruberg, S. (2018), "Accessibility and Acceptance for University Students with Diverse Abilities", Hoffman, J., Blessinger, P. and Makhanya, M. (Ed.) Perspectives on Diverse Student Identities in Higher Education: International Perspectives on Equity and Inclusion (Innovations in Higher Education Teaching and Learning, Vol. 14), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 13-28.

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What began in 1891 as a teacher’s college in a western outpost town has become a regional comprehensive university that no longer sees teacher education as its primary identity. Like most institutions of higher education, the university devotes considerable efforts to defining its purpose and promoting its diversity mission of “serving the underserved.” The university is an emerging Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and actively promotes equity for underrepresented groups based on race and sexual orientation through student life events and academic programs such as Ethnic Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. That commitment to providing a safe and inclusive learning environment for a diverse student population also extends to the population of students with disabilities through Disability Services (DS), a department that addresses barriers in academics, technology, and architecture, and then facilitates appropriate and reasonable accommodations and modifications. However, this institutional effort to modify services and facilities is only a part of the university’s story of accessibility and acceptance for students with diverse abilities. With the launch of the new Accessibility Studies Program (ASP), programming has evolved from primarily addressing federally mandated accommodations to designing and implementing an academic program (certificate and/or degree minor) that gives voice to the experience of people with disabilities (PWDs), exploring perceptions, self-efficacy, identity, and the right to social justice. This chapter is a preliminary investigation to describe the state of awareness and acceptance of disability at Central Washington University (CWU), written by the professor who initiated the program and a student who was enrolled in the inaugural course.

Equity in Higher Education

On an international scale, Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2006) defined “The right to education and to obtain inclusive education with others in the community,” following principles that address the identity and experience of the individual. This convention is binding for the members of the United Nations, each country being the community to which the PWDs have the right to be included. These communities vary greatly in the education they afford to all people.

Governments who sign the convention promise to fulfill three practical obligations: to respect the right with explicit laws and policies, to protect individuals with systemic safeguards, and to fulfill the intent of the convention with effective action. As noted by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2010), monitoring these states for compliance is reduced to the following question: Do persons with disabilities have access to inclusive education at all levels? While simple access is the primary condition, the focus of this chapter is also on the identity of the individuals with disabilities and their experience of inclusion.

In the United States of America, one such country that has signed the convention, there are federal civil rights laws guaranteeing access in all public accommodations, including schools, but the many states and territories within the country have sovereignty regarding education. In broad terms, the federal government provides funding for specific programs that may have social justice criteria. Federal funds are withheld if the institutions in any state do not comply with those criteria. There is a cumulative effect as states pass their own laws, having autonomy in their actual implementation of the federal guidelines as long as they align with the spirit of the law.

Equitable Access Legislation

The context of this chapter is a public institution of higher education in a western American State, requiring a bit of legal background to understand the perspective of the stakeholders regarding PWDs as part of its student population. In just a few decades, the citizens of the United States have become accustomed to standards of equitable access in public accommodations, thanks to parts of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, amended in 2010. These acts provide language to define the rights of people who have traditionally experienced exclusion.

It is important to point out the difference between civil rights legislation and spending appropriation, both of which are products of congressional action, and that enforcement of federal regulations occurs in response to citizen complaints via agency procedures or court cases. In actual practice, there is no legally required monitoring of ADA compliance. In the event of a complaint lodged against an institution, the documentation of planning to comply often excuses the offense because it has been acknowledged and therefore not violating the spirit of the law. Thus, there is some debate from a business standpoint surrounding the value of compliance (and the associated time, personnel, technology, and infrastructure expenses) versus the cost of risking noncompliance, mainly the expense of ad hoc defense lawyers. This was noted in a report by the Government Accountability Office (2011) studying vendors of standardized tests used for university admission that found “Justice has not initiated compliance reviews of testing companies, and its technical assistance on this subject has been limited” (p. 2). Such a strategy is passive and not the proactive approach necessary for achieving real and lasting change.

As a civil rights law, ADA carries no funding but provides legal justification for complaints of exclusion or mistreatment and defines minimum standards of accommodation. Compliance with its guidelines is now embedded in other regulatory procedures, such as building project approval. The rules are very concrete regarding the functional features and organization of facilities, and the guidelines emphasize the personal and practical experience of the individuals affected by their implementation. After 20 years of implementation, a trend of narrow interpretation was noted in court cases, prompting the 2010 amendment that more clearly defined disability.

The 1973 Rehabilitation Act, however, was a spending bill, originally authorizing federal aid to the disabled. Of powerful and lasting consequence was its civil rights protection outlined in Section 504, modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ruling out discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. Soon after, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 established the right of students to education in the least restrictive environment. Implementing regulations is a dramatic story well described by Shapiro (1997) who noted that the two laws together, finally implemented in 1977, “would give rise to a new generation of well-educated disabled children, who then went on to college in record numbers” (Shapiro, 1997, p. 70).

Equitable Education Legislation

The most significant education legislation is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which has since been amended to address equitable inclusion of underserved groups, for example, those in poverty, those with Limited English Proficiency, and women. It has been reauthorized and given more informal titles several times, that is, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 that profoundly shifted authority away from local school districts to the state, and more recently, the Every Student Succeeds Act which highlighted the rights of parents to be actively involved in decisions. Every state must provide education at no cost to the student, but each state may determine when attendance is compulsory.

Postsecondary education was also addressed in the civil rights era with the Higher Education Act of 1965, later the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, which specifically addressed the emerging pedagogical context of distance via online technology and the need for accessible materials, for example, assistive technology. The Assistive Technology of Act of 1998, later known as the Tech Act of 2004, focused on the funding of assistive technology devices (such as screen readers and voice-recognition software) and services (such as interpreters and advocates). This aligns with Rehabilitation Act Section 508, amended by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, requiring assistive technology for employees, and the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act of 2002, requiring accessibility standards for electronic textbooks. Further contributing to legislation aimed at increasing accessibility is Policy 188, a 2017 Washington State mandate affecting all state agencies and requiring all electronic information technology to be made accessible for PWDs.

Thus, American university students with disabilities will have experienced institutions sensitive to the functional needs related to access and learning and will be aware of their rights to postsecondary education and employment. If students were eligible for special education services, they have experienced close supervision and extensive advocacy on their behalf with a deliberate emphasis on “transition” beyond the age of 18 when they would receive federally funded programs. The individualized education program (IEP), developed for each student with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), must address transition services requirements beginning no later than the first IEP to be in effect when the child turns 16, or younger if determined appropriate by the IEP Team, and must be updated annually thereafter. The IEP must include (1) appropriate measurable postsecondary goals based upon age-appropriate transition assessments related to training, education, employment, and, where appropriate, independent living skills; and (2) the transition services (including courses of study) needed to assist the student with a disability in reaching those goals. There is no equivalent in higher education.

American Higher Education

The United States does not guarantee postsecondary education. Each institution is managed somewhat like a business, with tuition calculated to produce revenue, supplementing funding from patronizing institutions, individuals, and agencies. In 2015, there were 2,584 four-year institutions in America, 669 of which were public, that is, governed according to state regulations. Of those, 28% grant doctoral degrees and 29% grant only bachelor’s degrees. CWU is one of the 40% that award both undergraduate and master’s degrees (McFarland et al., 2017). Its board of regents is appointed by the governor of the State of Washington. Both private and public institutions may receive some federal monies and thus must comply with federal mandates described above; however, there is a great difference between private and public institutions in terms of funding.

In American universities, academic programs are not sustainable if there is not adequate student enrollment to generate enough tuition revenue to justify the expense of faculty. Faculty scholarship is produced as part of their workload funded by tuition and, less often, by research grants. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition at a private four-year institution is around $28,000. A century ago, tuition was free at this public institution; it is now $8,000 a year for residents and $20,000 for nonresidents. Room and board costs close to $10,000 at any institution. The cost is the responsibility of the individual student. Once enrolled, the student is granted access to a broad range of resources, including the library and student support services such as tutoring and DS. These services vary considerably between institutions and typically do not require additional fees.

Typically, American undergraduate degrees require about two years of General Education requirements followed by two or three years of coursework required for degree completion. Many students complete their General Education requirements at a local two-year institution and then transfer to a two-year institution for a bachelor’s degree. The degree programs are categorized as majors and minors. A liberal arts tradition places value on accumulating a broad exposure to the range of scientific, humanities, and arts disciplines. A practical tradition places value on preparing students for successful careers, as seen in a new ranking system that measures a college by its economic impact on graduates. CWU ranked 124 out of 1,275 public and private colleges and universities in the study conducted by The Economist (2015). Often students balance technical and personal interests by combining majors leading to professional certification with more esoteric minors. The individual student chooses from a menu of curriculum options to satisfy the graduation requirements. There is articulation between institutions that allows credit to be transferred, especially from two-year to four-year institutions.

Exclusivity in American Higher Education

There is a postsecondary culture that is not committed to inclusion and success for all as is found in elementary and secondary levels. This is true for the admission process as well as the instructional experience. There are two dynamics involved in admission: recruitment and selection. Institutions want maximum enrollment of students representing a diverse population, but they are also interested in recruiting students with academic promise. Institutions compete with each other for academic prestige (and other types, e.g., athletic) that attract students and justify the expense the students will incur. Students compete with each other for admittance. By its nature, application is a process of exclusion when more students apply for admission than there is room to accept. The admission process is vulnerable to bias, beginning with the criteria for admittance, which may include standardized tests. A study by the Government Accounting Office (2004) found that standardized tests used as admission criteria were not always administered with adequate accommodations for students with disabilities (GAO, 2004). However, the concern for equitable enrollment must be seen in the context of lenient enrollment criteria in most American universities. Nearly all two-year institutions (community colleges) have open admissions, meaning there are no application criteria; while 19% of public four-year institutions have open admissions, and most applicants are accepted at most institutions.

Disability in Higher Education

In investigating access, this chapter acknowledges some variation in the ideas of what constitutes a disability. The mainstream medical community’s definition of disability focuses on the diagnosis, conditions and time of onset, and treatment for rehabilitation, while the federal ADA definition addresses the functional aspects of a condition as protected by law: a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. In an even more in-depth definition, the World Health Organization breaks the term into three distinguishable subcategories: (a) an impairment is “any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function,” (b) a disability is “restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being,” and (c) a handicap is a “disadvantage for a given individual, resulting from an impairment or disability, that limits or prevents the fulfilment of a role that is normal (depending on age, sex and social and cultural factors) for that individual” (United Nations, Disability).

The wider implications of these differences in definitions relate to issues of compliance, accommodations, and experience in the university system. If a disability is seen as a medical deficit, then accommodations would be determined on a primarily medical basis, without regard to the social-emotional intricacies of the disability experience. If a disability is defined as a restriction from a “normal” functional role, such a definition suggests that the disabled individual must change or adapt instead of placing the responsibility for change on those who are creating or maintaining an inaccessible environment. Placing the fault or responsibility on the disabled individual is in stark contrast to the views of the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which asserts that “Disability resides in the society, not in the person” (United Nations, FAQs). In this same vein, Bolt (2015) warned that policies designed to protect PWDs from exclusion and discrimination will be ineffective unless social attitudes about disabilities change.

The number of PWDs has increased, attributable in part to advances in medical treatments, helping those with life-threatening conditions to survive for longer (Smart, 2015). Through IDEA, public schools no longer isolate and exclude students with disabilities from the education promised to all US citizens. Even as PWDs in Washington state attain high school diplomas at a much lower rate (15.2%) than the (20%) national average (Erickson, Lee, & von Schrader, 2017), university enrollment of PWDs is on the rise (NCES, 2017; Raue, 2011). The question remains, however, if enrollment alone is a predictor of persistence and a successful college experience. While higher education is a path to greater self-reliance for all students, students with disabilities are particularly vulnerable without full and equal access.

The needs of university students with disabilities are prominent themes in the events and publications of the National Association of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education ( as well as the American College Personnel Association ( and its Coalition for (Dis)Ability, which focuses on student affairs professionals with disabilities and Disability Service Providers in higher education. Extensive literature addressing the needs of students with disabilities (e.g., Heyward, 1993) includes such volumes as Burgstahler and Cory’s (2008) Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Numerous scholarly societies devote themselves to efforts specific to disability and higher education, such as the Association on Higher Education and Disability ( that hosts an annual Equity and Excellence: Access in Higher Education conference as well as Accessing Higher Ground: Accessible Media, Web, and Technology Conference, now in its 20th year.

There is widespread awareness of the needs of students with disabilities (e.g., Oslund, 2015); however, Shallish (2017) highlighted the prevalent exclusion of disability studies from higher education research and practice, a literature Pena (2014) found “vastly limited.” Hong (2015) found “many institutions are still unprepared to support (students with disabilities) beyond the basic federal mandate of equal access and reasonable accommodations” (p. 209). Addressing these same concerns is the State of the Art Conference on Postsecondary Education and Students with Intellectual Disabilities (, whose 2017 conference featured current disability research and scholarship by educators, self-advocates, and members from the National Down Syndrome Society, the Association of University Centers on Disability, and the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

This preliminary investigation highlights CWU’s efforts to address the rights and experiences of PWDs by providing an academic program that not only captures the voice, history, civil rights, and culture of the self-advocate but also the university’s role in contributing to the knowledge base through both research and career preparation that requires awareness of accessibility issues. The lens for this chapter is not one of critical theory so much as the authors’ commitment to fostering self-regulation, self-actualization, self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), and self-advocacy in the current contexts (Troiano, 2017).

Given that accessibility is now expected in all public accommodations, competence to recognize barriers to accessibility becomes an essential learning outcome of a general education. Every career is affected, for PWDs have a right to be employed in them, which means their managers must be competent to analyze tasks in order to design better functionality for people with a range of abilities. Every career serves PWDs; therefore, all goods and services must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (Horton & Quesenery, 2013). Advocacy must become a proactive and persistent feature of all customer and employee relations. This is a different dimension than rehabilitation that addresses exceptionalities. While the concern for providing opportunities for all people to learn about accessibility prompted the development of the ASP to be discussed below, it is first necessary to identify the primary resource for such advocacy and training:

Disability Services

Disability Services (DS) is a component of Student Success that is “committed to supporting and sustaining an inclusive campus that recognizes disability as diversity” (CWU). Disability Services exists to ensure that students with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate fully in the university experience and academic programs. The department is managed by the director of DS whose responsibility, along with a group of university partners, is to identify barriers to access, determine, and help facilitate accommodations, and engage the campus in disability awareness and universal design (CWU). DS also serves as a resource to the campus community, meeting with professors who are unsure about how to accommodate their students or working with recreational and sports programs, such as the equestrian team to include a blind student. DS staff also give student orientation presentations and serve on university committees, such as the Student Consultation Team, which engages high-risk students who have criminal or behavioral concerns, the Board for Veterans Advisory Board, the Center for Diversity and Social Justice, the Museum of Culture & Environment, and the Facilities Upgrades Focus Group.

According to the director, stabilizing the infrastructure of support is difficult, given the fluid manner in which the services are organized. Also, being labeled as disabled and being categorized as having a type of disability is itself a barrier for some students who do not want to be identified first and foremost by their degree of ability. For this reason, many people who would benefit from the assistive technology and instructional accommodations recommended by DS may not even apply for it. In a noble effort of independence and privacy, they solve problems ad hoc, and many are successful in doing so. However, many more could have a greater chance of success if they availed themselves of the services available.

Not all disabilities supported by DS are immediately visible. According to the director, the reporting of mental, emotional, and behavioral disabilities are on the increase, with 30% of DS students registering because of learning disabilities and another 30% disclosing disabilities categorized under mental health. Cognitive and psychiatric disabilities are subject to less agreement about their existence and validity (Berk, 1983; Shaw, Cullen, McGuire, & Brinckerhoff, 1995) than sensorimotor disabilities, making appropriate accommodations often more difficult to request and assess. For instance, the inability to process information due to dyslexia requires quite different accommodations than the inability to meet deadlines due to anxiety, which may require medication and/or counseling. Perhaps this is why these two categories of disability also suffer from greater stigma (Smart, 2015) and are likely to be underreported by students.

At the time of this writing, the DS director documented 866 students who were registered with DS as having a disability, which is approximately 10% of the overall student population enrolled at CWU (personal communication, February 7, 2018). According to the US Census Bureau, about 56.7 million people – 19% of the population – had a disability in 2010. Given that nearly 20% of the American general population is estimated to have disabilities, the 10% DS registration rate might seem low, but one must consider that half of the general population with disabilities is over 60 years old, a population not traditionally enrolled in postsecondary education at this university. Thus, a 10% participation rate would be considered close to representative. Given the sobering 2010 US Census Bureau Report of the Survey of Income and Program Participation, which showed that, compared to the national average of 79% employment, only 41% of those aged 21–64 with any disability had a job and were far likelier to experience persistent poverty, the university’s DS enrollment numbers are encouraging. Growing participation in and completion of higher education and career-path programs will likely lead to more representation of the disability community in the paid workforce.

One significant accessibility initiative to come out of DS’s work with university partners is the Accommodation and Disability Action Planning Team (ADAPT), a program of widely representative committees formed to address various accessibility issues facing the campus and administration. The team is comprised of university staff, faculty, facility managers, and information technology specialists, but even more importantly, members of the disability community who can inform policies and procedures from the perspective of those whom the initiative supports. The initial outcome of ADAPT is the accessibility compliance plan drafted by the Director of Information Services; however, the debate remains as to who is going to fund these efforts, thus delaying full implementation of the ADAPT initiatives.

The above reveals the underlying tension: The residual cultural effect of full inclusion is elusive, while focus remains on isolated events and procedures. It is a very progressive and sophisticated system that includes the voices of the PWDs to monitor the practical and personal effects of living within the system.

Faculty and Staff Engagement

DS is not just educating and empowering the students seeking services. The department is also a major influence on faculty and staff who must implement the accommodations recommended for learning and living at CWU. Faculty is asked to provide alternatives so students have a fair opportunity to gain and demonstrate their learning; facilities staff are involved when students require lodging or meal accommodations. DS issues over one thousand letters every term alerting faculty to individual students’ needs, requiring a response that acknowledges the need and issuing invitations for consultation. DS will follow up with students and intervene on their behalf, but primarily they provide solid information and strategies to help students self-advocate with their faculty.

At a recent meeting between DS, faculty, and the technicians who produce certain learning accommodations, such as alternative text and tactile graphics, there was a strong consensus that nearly all faculty and staff are sympathetic to and supportive of students with disabilities. The university has seen considerable advancement in awareness and acceptance of the need for disability accommodations, but the actual practice is haphazard and hampered by limited understanding of assistive technology, accessible design, and the disability experience. As an example, an instructor may make lecture attendance mandatory to avoid the inconvenience of having to re-teach a lesson or re-orient people who are not ready to move on in the class. This could be inequitable for a student whose disability prevents predictable participation. Other instructors admit difficulty in understanding how to accommodate a student with an invisible disability. As one professor states,

In terms of my own work with students, I think the really tricky cases are those involving anxiety issues. I think I have a really good sense of how to help a visually impaired student, for example. But I feel less prepared to help a student who starts having panic attacks and finds him or herself unable to start or complete (or turn in!) an assignment. The whole system of assignments, deadlines, and evaluations seems to be slanted against those students, but they seem to be the ones that could benefit from what higher education has to offer. (J. Welsh, personal communication, October 13, 2018)

Instances of outright resistance to recommended accommodations are thankfully rare, typically focused on doubting the veracity of invisible disabilities, such as psychological and neurodevelopmental disabilities. More typical is the difficulty in changing long-held habits and attitudes or in shifting the responsibility for modifications from the student with a disability to the institution and instructor. Consider the perspective of a full professor and teacher educator, long familiar with special education and a strong advocate for inclusion:

When I was asked to create a tactile graphic for a blind student in an upper division educational assessment class, I discovered that, despite my enthusiasm, I was a somewhat naïve and unskilled practitioner. I reached out to Disability Services and the technicians at the Multimodal Learning Center, and in a partnership between staff, faculty, and students, we designed the tactile graphic and researched Braille software. This collaborative experience benefited not just the student with a visual impairment, but all of the teacher education candidates as they observed our progress, and the university as a whole, as it marked the beginning of the Accessibility Studies Program. (N. Petersen, personal communication, June 30, 2016)

There is clearly a demand for a broader understanding of accessibility and access among educators as they deliver instruction to students. According to Aquino, Alhaddab, and Kim (2017), “Due to wavering accommodation service use and/or institutional community members’ limited experience with disability, students with disabilities may experience a different, more negative, postsecondary academic journey” (p. 50, as cited in Kim & Aquino, 2017). Faculty can improve their instruction with formal accessibility training, but staff can also improve the infrastructure of the university, which is increasingly using its online presence to provide all necessary information.

Professional development for faculty and staff is provided by the Multimodal Learning Center in such topics as universal design and how to make accessible PDFs. Such topics are included within a certificate in online learning taught as an institute with several integrated workshops. Participants in the institutes are unanimously enthusiastic about the value of their orientation to accessibility and universal design, but unfortunately, when the workshops were also offered individually, there were very few participants. The challenge is to engage those faculty who are not already aware of and accepting of the need to make all curriculum and information accessible to all abilities.

Community and Identity

Due to the many additional obstacles and procedures needed to assist in the success of college students with disabilities, this student population may feel not only unwelcomed as part of student diversity but also excluded from the overall institutional environment (Aquino et al., 2017, p. 48, as cited in Kim & Aquino, 2017). Students with disabilities are navigating within a larger campus community and are in contact with other students, most of whom are without disabilities. Such interactions can subject persons with disabilities to ableism, a type of social prejudice against PWDs (Seale, 2014, p. 110). While no overt acts of aggression toward persons with disabilities have been reported at CWU at the time of this chapter, incidents of microaggression abound, from either blatant insensitivity or lack of knowledge surrounding the disability experience. Able-bodied men and women have been observed to crowd past wheelchair-users at automatic doors. In classrooms, it is common to see similarly able individuals occupy the seating reserved for people whose disabilities make maneuvering in and out of fixed furniture difficult. A similar phenomenon can be observed on public transportation through and around the campus, which will have clearly marked seats to be used by those with disabilities or those who are otherwise likely to need seating, such as pregnant women or the elderly. Yet many able-bodied people are loath to give up the space, denying the fact that they have an abundance to share that equates to an imbalance of power. This social attitude is so widespread it cannot be considered peculiar to universities, but our institutions must take the lead in addressing its threat to our diverse students. By passively avoiding the issue, we create an environment in which those in need have to aggressively advocate for their rightful access. This advocacy is not dissimilar to protests on behalf of other minorities who have experienced discrimination and exclusion if not illegal mistreatment.

There is an ironic parallel to ableism in reverse, wherein a person with disabilities is convinced that others’ callous behavior that adds to their unpleasant experience is due not to ignorance but to incompetence or malice. The reverse ableism occurs in their assumption that others do in fact understand the ramifications of their condition. For example, a wheelchair-using student was challenged to a playful wheelchair race by a student without disabilities. The wheelchair user was incensed that the person without a disability would deliberately trivialize an accommodation that, in addition to meeting a physical need, requires skill and stamina far greater than most people realize.

Another variation on the theme of community and identity results from the great variety of disabilities that prevent a group identity from forming. There is little solidarity across groups of disabilities, and this is reasonable given that most identities are defined by such demographic characteristics as age, ethnicity, sexuality, language, religion, or occupation. Claiming disability as a factor of diversity begs the question of intersectionality, that is, the multiple dimensions of identity that all university students must synthesize in order to find their own voice.

To explore disability as a diverse identity within higher education and the larger community, PWDs must be given an intentional academic voice. Because the legislation that affects this university has primarily addressed accommodation with limited impact on the accessibility of teaching and learning, this author hypothesized that by giving PWDs an academic voice, the university community will become more aware of and sensitive to disability issues. To that end, a new ASP was instituted focusing on the functionality and participation of environments, the history of disability rights as civil rights, social perceptions and stigmas, and the disability experience itself.

The Accessibility Studies Program

The policies and programs discussed in this chapter have so far involved the necessity for accommodations and the university’s approach to compliance with state and federal mandates. However, accommodations alone do little to raise social awareness and give voice to the actual experiences of a person who has a disability. Such a gap between accommodations required by law and actual change in social attitudes and acceptance was the driving force behind the development of CWU’s Accessibility Studies Program (ASP), a multidisciplinary academic program that offers specialized courses and training modules, an undergraduate minor, and opportunities for undergraduate and graduate research, service learning, and professional development.

Prior to the development of Accessibilities Studies Program, there was not a program, or even a course, at CWU that exclusively studied the nature and needs of PWDs. Although the ADA prohibiting discrimination against PWDs in employment, transportation, public accommodations, commercial facilities, telecommunications, and state and local government services was passed a quarter century ago, inaccessibility, ableism, and microagression remain common and often unacknowledged. The need for a great range and sophistication of accessibility solutions is frustrated by widespread ignorance about the scope and complexity of disability and simple oblivion to the practical complications of temporary or situational limitations facing individuals and their caregivers (Oslund, 2013). It is time to recognize this significant part of our population as one that deserves an academic voice.

The ASP provides an opportunity to gain an understanding of the experiences and challenges facing PWDs and limitations and to become competent in recognizing where, when, and how to accommodate such needs. Accessibility Studies adds practical depth to all majors because of the increasing prevalence and awareness of disability in the general population. Competence includes facilitating accessible transitions and employment for PWDs and limitations, approached from different perspectives of employers, social service agencies, commercial enterprises, and the people requiring access themselves. Accessibility requires the integration of social, physical, and life sciences as well as humanities and education, aligning it with the principles of any General Education program.

The CWU ASP is delivered completely online, an important feature given that many PWDs consider this an aspect of assistive technology (Seale, 2014) and web accessibility is itself a component of the curriculum (Horton & Quesenbery, 2013). This also facilitates another challenge for offering such a specialized field: a larger pool of faculty can be recruited to teach the courses. This is an interdisciplinary program requiring close collaboration that bridges several traditional academic fields.

Raising Awareness and Acceptance Through the ASP

The ASP was proposed with an optimism based on compatibility with existing majors and demographics. The topic addresses the experiences of PWDs, most of whom already exhibit curiosity about their own rights. Of the over 800 students registered with CWU’s DS, if even 5% pursued a certificate, adequate enrollment would be achieved to sustain the program. Over 600 students are in majors that are conceptually aligned with Accessibility Studies and have less than 75 credits and therefore need a minor, or are in majors that require electives. In addition, there are nearly a dozen exclusively online majors with an expressed need for minors similarly delivered.

Several recruitment events were staged to promote the new program. These also functioned to raise awareness of accessibility in general. At the invitation of CWU’s Museum of Culture and Environment, a festive Diversability Day was staged to launch the ASP program, coinciding with Global Accessibility Awareness events held mid-May. Supported by both the Dean of Student Services that oversees DS and the Dean of the College of Education and Professional Studies, which houses the ASP, it featured many activity stations demonstrating assistive technology by volunteers from Central Access, DS, the Multimodal Learning Center, the Library, and several student clubs. The program included opening remarks from Washington’s Lieutenant Governor, Cyrus Habib, who has a visual impairment, poetry performed in American Sign Language, an award given to the museum director for his energetic efforts to engage students with disabilities in the design of exhibits, and a presentation by a recent graduate and her service animal. Posters of student work from the first course, ASP 305 Accessibility & User Experience, formed a backdrop for a vibrant community of student, faculty, and community members, highlighting the broad personal interest in the topic and the growing acceptance of diverse abilities as a reality in our culture.

Otherwise, the program is highlighted in recruitment literature for the university and prominently featured in advising materials. Students in the program are necessarily in other academic programs because ASP is a minor or certificate; their continued engagement in their majors cultivates a cross-campus awareness as they apply their knowledge of universal design and accessible information design. The building housing the program sports banners and posters drawing attention to course offerings. Frequent news items generated by the program director promote services and events on campus.

Research involves dissemination of formal scholarly inquiry, thereby raising awareness. The projects assigned within the courses prompt ASP students to investigate area locations, resulting in letters to the editor and other outreach communications that serve to raise awareness of accessibility issues. The capstone course includes a formal investigation of a real-world public accommodation, resulting in a formal report as well as a presentation in a scholarly colloquium. The reports are published in an archive, and the colloquium is a much publicized regional event. Currently one investigation is in progress studying the implementation of the state accessibility Policy 188 in order to identify the competencies necessary for the required Accessibility Coordinator position. Another investigation is reported in this chapter.

However, all this is still in the initial implementation phase. It remains to be seen if there is a quantifiable value added as a result. This requires a thoughtful collection of data from the stakeholders: the students, the staff, and future employers. This involves a two-pronged research agenda:

  • A program evaluation strategy should not only measure whether the outcomes of the curriculum are achieved by the students, but within the context of routine institutional reporting, we recommend disaggregation of data regarding students with disabilities in order to track perseverance and to measure quality of life.

  • Scholarly inquiries should add to the knowledge base of the professional literature with rigorous, systematic, empirical investigations of topics in the field. One such study could be of a theme in Twitter social media (#everydayacademicabelism) in which the ongoing conversation focuses on the common assumptions inherent to participation in an academic career, such as compulsory attendance policies or the lack of alternative text for graphics.


At the time of this writing, the CWU ASP is emerging from a painless infancy and appears to be establishing itself in the landscape of undergraduate options. It is responding to the call for a graduate specialization. We note that many students are not matriculated but are actually working professionals interested in broadening their perspective for both personal and career gains. Our tour of this university thus may highlight the experiences that contribute toward the capacity of people without disabilities to understand others’ perspectives and understand one’s own experience and find the meaningfulness possible in a complex world.


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