Higher Education’s Challenge: Disability Inclusion on Campus - Higher Education Today (2023)

By Dahlia Shaewitz and Jennifer R. Crandall

This post is part of the seriesBeyond the Margins: Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students.

Disability is inherently diverse—it is a category that includes people from every gender, race, culture, sexual orientation, geographic region, age group, and socioeconomic level. It’s also a group to which all of us can belong at any time. In 2016, one in four adults in the United States reported having a disability. This number increases to 40 percent for people age 65 and older.

Disability is part of the human condition. To ensure inclusion in higher education, campus leaders must consider how to fully embrace all students, faculty, and staff with and without disabilities. When developing a culture of inclusion, colleges and universities have specific responsibilities to students with disabilities to ensure they can learn and achieve their goals.

(Video) Reimagining Disability & Inclusive Education | Jan Wilson | TEDxUniversityofTulsa

Creating a culture of inclusion

Disability is a campus-wide concern. Typically, campus leaders turn to the disability support services and counseling offices on campus to build a comprehensive approach to access and accommodations. While those offices have specific and critical responsibilities to support students, becoming an inclusive community takes work at all levels—from senior leadership, to faculty and staff, to students. Research indicates that if new students do not experience a sense of belonging within eight weeks of arriving at college, they will be at high risk of dropping out. This is particularly true for first-time students with disabilities, with 25 percent dropping out by end of year 1 and 35 percent dropping out by end of year two. Thus, shaping the culture of higher education institutions is one of the most important steps to achieving the goal of disability-diversity and inclusion.

Strategies for full inclusion on campus

Although no higher education institution has achieved full inclusion, many are striving to reach that goal. Drawing from a recent higher education inclusion guide on how to accommodate students while building a comprehensive culture of inclusion, we highlight specific action steps campus leaders can take and examples of institutions with supports in place for students with disabilities to achieve their highest potential.

Focus on campus design and planning. What does it mean to create a campus that is welcoming and safe for all students? It includes attention to campus facilities and other physical space. The design and accessibility of a space communicates values and expectations. Inclusive spaces, or designing for inclusivity, takes into account the different ways in which we learn, work, and socialize.

At Gallaudet University, an institution committed to the intellectual and professional advancement of the deaf and hard of hearing, attention to campus design and planning is critical. DeafSpace, a design approach to physical space developed at Gallaudet, “considers the sensory world where vision and touch are a primary means of spatial awareness and orientation.” Primary concepts include sensory reach, space and proximity, mobility and proximity, light and color, and acoustics.

Reflect on how language is used. How we refer to disability and people with disabilities can be limiting. One way to change detrimental attitudes or stigma toward disability is to intentionally use more inclusive language that dignifies people’s images and expectations. Using positive images of students with disabilities from different backgrounds can also help to familiarize disability.

(Video) Disability in Higher Education: A Social Justice Approach

Talking about disability and using inclusive language starts with how we define socially constructed concepts such as disability, diversity, and inclusion. Are you, your staff, students, or faculty nervous when talking about disability? Do members of your campus community either behave differently or feel they need to behave differently around students with a disability? How is disability portrayed on your campus or at your institution?

Ferris State University defines diversity to include disability: “Diversity is the range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.” Coupled with their definition of inclusion, Ferris State sets expectations that all people are valued and respected for their talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and ways of living.

Build faculty capacity. Faculty may lack an understanding of inclusive pedagogy, so it is important to talk about disability bias and raise awareness about common disabilities. Faculty are likely to adopt inclusive teaching methods and materials if they are more knowledgeable about disability and understand that students with disabilities have limitations that arise from external barriers and not students’ inherent abilities. Students with learning disabilities, for example, do not have a reduced intellectual capacity. Rather they may have processing disabilities that can be addressed by the format in which information is conveyed, organizational mechanisms such as testing procedures and methods, and other tools. In addition, faculty can initiate conversations with students about supports they may need, or encourage them to consider the ways they learn best.

“I would say the biggest barrier for me going through college was ableism from professors. Much of it was subconscious ableism, like forgetting that VHS tapes used as class material don’t have captions,” said Kirsten Hernandez, currently a graduate student at California State University (CSU)-Long Beach. [While] “it was addressed as soon as I brought it to their attention, [s]ome of it was willful and repeated ignorance. One professor I had in my senior year of undergrad told us on the first day of class that she wouldn’t allow ASL interpreters or CART providers in her class because she was “distracted” by them (which, yes, is very illegal).”

Portland Community College offers an array of online accessibility training opportunities for staff and faculty. While these resources are geared toward faculty creating accessible content for online classes, they are relevant for any form of instruction that uses multiple mediums (e.g., documents, audio, video). Included are tutorials, accessibility guidelines, and syllabus templates.

(Video) The Future of the University

Ensure technology is accessible. Institutions should have a clear standard for accessibility when it comes to technology. The recommended standard from the U.S. Access Board is the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0, Level AA, which, until 2017, surpassed the 508 compliance standards for federal agencies. These guidelines include making captioning a standard element of all videos used in classes and on campus, providing a budget for creating video captions, and requiring that all new content posted to a website meet the accessibility standard and establish accessibility checkpoints before content can be posted.

The CSU system created the Accessible Technology Initiative (ATI) to facilitate access to information technology resources and service for all CSU staff, faculty, students, and the general public. This comprehensive initiative is built on the belief that technology accessibility is a campus-wide responsibility, that technology access must offer comparable functionality, affordability, and timeliness, and that Universal Design principles should be used. The initiative also has an ATI Communities of Practice for CSU employees.

“I would suggest college leaders/admin to ask themselves this question before they plan their classes and programs,” said Hernandez. “How will this lesson work for students with disabilities? Doing a small mental checklist and double checking to see if their materials are accessible would really make a difference for a lot of students. While things like non-captioned videos and scanned materials rather than text files might not seem like a big deal to many, it prevents some from getting the full education they deserve.”

Encourage responsibility and accountability. Leaders at all levels should be engaged in leading, messaging, and measuring improvements in inclusion. All staff should clearly see their own role in, and contribution to, inclusiveness. On-the-ground action among faculty, staff, and students needs to happen in tandem with support at the level of the president, dean, chancellor, or provost who embrace disability-diversity consistently and publicly.

The strategy, goals, and objectives of Landmark College in Vermont, according to President Peter Eden, “are grounded in the understanding that many students not only learn in different ways but they tend to succeed when provided a learning and living environment that differs from often rigid and conventional higher education models.” This disability-diversity ethos is driven by a mission to serve students with learning disabilities through accessible, evidence-based approaches to learning and built on commitments from stakeholders across the institution.

(Video) Design, Education, and Inclusion: Challenges and Innovations

Streamline the student accommodation process. Common reasonable accommodations in higher education include changes to course formats and schedules, examination accommodations, housing changes (e.g., permitting emotional support animals in housing or offering separate housing for people with post-traumatic stress disorder or gender dysphoria), alternative methods of demonstrating or obtaining practical skills, and extra time to complete projects.

Part of managing the student journey is ensuring that students and faculty understand the process for learning about, requesting, receiving, and modifying requests for accommodation. Effective, user-friendly solutions for students also create opportunity for the accommodation team, including faculty, to increase their level of service. Institutions need to understand how learning can be impaired by not tending to inclusive practice and accommodation for students with disabilities. Are your accommodations designed simply to pass the ‘reasonableness’ test or does your institutions strive to support learning for all through inclusion? Do you allow for increased flexibility in delivery? Is there variety in how learning is designed and delivered? Does increased interaction with faculty and staff meet the needs of students with disabilities when it needs to?

The Disability Programs and Resource Center (DPRC) at San Francisco State University is a one-stop shop on ensuring full and equal access to university programs and facilities. Included in its comprehensive approach to disability is myDPRC, a web-based application for managing the accommodation process for students. Students, faculty, and DPRC staff have access to the portal and are updated in real-time. A training portal also provides tutorials for faculty on the alternative testing process and for students on how to register with and navigate myDPRC and how to request and modify accommodations.

Culture is shaped by the attitudes of administration and faculty and the lens through which disability is viewed. Even when students do not experience outright hostility, stigma and generalizations are likely to be the most prevalent barriers in the path of students with disabilities. To counteract common biases against students with disabilities while creating an inclusive campus culture, leaders at all levels of the institution must get involved. Inclusion on campus helps everyone to understand the common interests, goals, and aspirations of people with and without disabilities. Students benefit from a diverse, inclusive campus culture, which helps prepare them for the world of work and civic and community engagement.

How will your campus or institution build a comprehensive culture of inclusion?

(Video) Turning challenges into leadership opportunities


How do you promote diversity and inclusion in university? ›

How to Promote Cultural Diversity and Awareness On Campus
  1. Setting the tone. ...
  2. Degrees of education. ...
  3. Make diversity awareness activities a party. ...
  4. Diversity Awareness Training & Teachable moments. ...
  5. Promote diversity awareness with artistic exposure.
Mar 8, 2017

How can you contribute to an inclusive college environment? ›

Creating an inclusive climate
  1. Look for ways to increase student exposure to the diversity of human experience. ...
  2. Include issues of diversity as part of the course learning outcomes. ...
  3. Create diverse groups or learning teams. ...
  4. Reduce stereotype threat. ...
  5. Include diversity and disabilities statements in your syllabus.

What is inclusion in higher education? ›

The Taishoff Center defines inclusion as the incorporation of students with disabilities into general academic courses on campus, across disciplines and departments with non-disabled peers.

Why is diversity important in higher education? ›

Diversity enriches the educational experience. We learn from those whose experiences, beliefs, and perspectives are different from our own, and these lessons can be taught best in a richly diverse intellectual and social environment. It promotes personal growth-and a healthy society.

Why inclusion is important in higher education? ›

Students who have experience on diverse campuses already understand that not everyone is like them. Underrepresented students also benefit from diverse and inclusive environments because they may be less likely to experience microaggressions and discrimination.

What are the challenges to creating a diverse and inclusive campus? ›

What are the Challenges to Creating a Diverse and Inclusive Campus? There are many challenges to achieving inclusive programs in higher education, from recruiting and retaining a diverse student population, faculty, and staff to managing diversity in ways that present desired outcomes.

How do you promote inclusion on campus? ›

Here are six strategies to consider in your efforts to create a more inclusive learning environment on your campus.
  1. Rethink policies. ...
  2. Ensure inclusivity is embedded in your institutional structures. ...
  3. Use inclusive language. ...
  4. Create goals and track progress. ...
  5. Help campus leaders understand their role.
May 18, 2022

How can I make my college campus more inclusive? ›

5 ways elite universities can be more inclusive
  1. Recognize that providing access and promoting inclusion are separate efforts. ...
  2. Challenge old notions of merit. ...
  3. At colleges, effect massive social change. ...
  4. Measure grit and determination alongside traditional hallmarks of achievement. ...
  5. Cultivate and support international students.
Jun 2, 2021

How are you helping to build an inclusive community on campus? ›

Diversity in Action

Supporting campus cultural affinity groups to foster pride and a sense of belonging. Diversifying curricular and co-curricular content to enrich academic insights and values. Building culturally competent career services to contribute to a more equitable workforce.

What is inclusive excellence in higher education? ›

Inclusive Excellence (IE) is the recognition that a community or institution's success is dependent on how well it values, engages and includes the rich diversity of students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni constituents.

What is concept of inclusion? ›

Inclusion is a philosophy that urges schools, neighborhoods, and communities to welcome and value everyone, regardless of differences. Central to the philosophy of inclusion are the beliefs that everyone belongs, diversity is valued, and we can all learn from each other.

How important do you think diversity should be on a university campus? ›

Ultimately, studies show that diversity in education, particularly on college campuses, improve the “intellectual engagement, self-motivation, citizenship, and cultural engagement, and academic skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and writing – for students of all races.

How is diversity defined in higher education? ›

Diversity is typically considered as “the condition of having or being composed of differing elements: variety especially. The inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization programs intended to promote diversity in schools.”

What diversity would you bring to a college campus? ›

Your identity can include any of the following: gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, religion, non-traditional work experience, non-traditional educational background, multicultural background, and family's educational level.

How do we benefit from diversity? ›

6 Benefits of Having a Diverse Workforce
  1. A Variety of Perspectives. Put a variety of world views into one room, and you'll come out the other side with better ideas. ...
  2. Increased Creativity. ...
  3. Increased Productivity. ...
  4. Reduced Fear, Improved Performance. ...
  5. Boost Your Brand's Reputation. ...
  6. Global Impact.
Jul 17, 2018

Why is inclusion important to students with disabilities? ›

Some of the benefits of inclusion for children with (or without) disabilities are friendship skills, peer models, problem solving skills, positive self-image, and respect for others. This can trickle down to their families as well, teaching parents and families to be more accepting of differences.

What is the purpose of inclusion? ›

Inclusion is seen as a universal human right. The aim of inclusion is to embrace all people irrespective of race, gender, disability, medical or other need. It is about giving equal access and opportunities and getting rid of discrimination and intolerance (removal of barriers).

What is the important of inclusion? ›

Inclusion creates employee engagement and a sense of belonging. In order for organizations to have successful talent, they must embrace and encourage engagement. Along with employee engagement, organizations need to make sure that they are diverse and have an inclusive environment.

What are the challenges of diversity in education? ›

what are the challenges of diversity in the classroom in...
  • 1 Clash of Opinions.
  • 2 Teaching styles.
  • 3 Difficult in promoting teamwork.
  • 4 Observance of holidays.
  • 5 Language.
  • 6 Different Learning Styles.
  • 7 The difference in Interests.

What does inclusion look like on a college campus? ›

“Inclusivity means having a sense of belongingness, but … the basis of that is feeling safe and comfortable.” “Acceptance of everybody's different lifestyles and identities … Nobody should feel outed or harassed due to their identity. No fear of violence or material that would make them feel less than.”

Why is there a lack of diversity in higher education? ›

Some districts are also segregated by income. These factors intensify the diversity gaps in higher education. Other causes for these gaps include structural inequalities, disparities in access to resources, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic.

How can I make my campus better? ›

8 Ways to Improve College Campuses
  1. Ways to Improve Your College Campus.
  2. Turn the Gym into a Recreation Center.
  3. Keep the Campus Grounds Clean!
  4. Improve Campus Mail Services with Smart Parcel Lockers.
  5. Increase Parking.
  6. Create a Sustainable Student Farm.
  7. Focus on Creating Spaces Where Students Can Come Together.
  8. Go Green.

How do you promote inclusion? ›

Photos courtesy of the individual members.
  1. Make It A Continuous Process.
  2. Hire Leaders Who Understand The Importance Of These Values.
  3. Always Keep An Open Mind.
  4. Help Employees Feel Comfortable Expressing Themselves.
  5. Invite Diversity Of Discussion.
  6. Have A Safe Space For People's Beliefs.
  7. Create Flexible Mandatory Holidays.
Jan 25, 2021

How can I be more inclusive? ›

Here are 10 things you can do today to create a more inclusive work environment.
  1. Listen and learn. ...
  2. Use respectful language. ...
  3. Run more inclusive meetings and work sessions. ...
  4. Stop interruptions. ...
  5. Give credit where credit is due. ...
  6. Give direct feedback. ...
  7. Volunteer to be included in interviews. ...
  8. Disrupt office housework.
Nov 1, 2021

How can you contribute to an inclusive community? ›

4 Ways To Create An Inclusive Community
  1. Use Thoughtful Language. Oftentimes, misunderstandings and hurt are a direct result from the language that is used. ...
  2. Learn About, And Eliminate, The Use of Microaggressions. ...
  3. Identify And Acknowledge Potential Unconscious Bias. ...
  4. Ask Questions, Make No Assumptions, and Listen!
Feb 22, 2019

How do you build an inclusive community in the classroom? ›

Fostering a Sense of Inclusion in the Classroom
  1. Learn your students' names and learn to pronounce them. ...
  2. Set aside time for relationship housekeeping. ...
  3. Have one-on-one conversations, discussions, and informal meetings with students. ...
  4. Connect with parents. ...
  5. See yourself as the students see you. ...
  6. Know your content.

Why is inclusive excellence important? ›

As a model, it incorporates diversity efforts into the core of organizational functioning. Applying Inclusive Excellence concepts leads to infusing diversity into an organization's recruiting and hiring processes, into its training, and into its administrative structures and practices.

How do you promote inclusive excellence? ›

Participation in academic preparation, outreach, or tutoring. Participation in recruitment and retention activities.
Examples of Contributions to Inclusive Excellence
  1. Teaching at a minority-serving institution.
  2. Record of success advising women and minority graduate students.
  3. Experience teaching students with disabilities.

What is an inclusive excellence statement? ›

Inclusive excellence is a framework designed to help campuses integrate diversity and quality efforts. As a model, inclusive excellence assimilates diversity efforts into the core of institutional functioning to realize the educational benefits of diversity.

What is an example of an inclusion? ›

Inclusion is defined as the state of being included or being made a part of something. When a book covers many different ideas and subjects, it is an example of the inclusion of many ideas. When multiple people are all invited to be part of a group, this is an example of the inclusion of many different people.

What are the biggest benefits to cultural diversity on a college campus? ›

The most diverse universities create places where all students can learn and grow: They expand student awareness, welcome multiple perspectives, and help build social skills.

What are the benefits of learning in a diverse and inclusive community? ›

When working and learning with people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures present in the classroom, students gain a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter. It also teaches students how to use their own strengths and points of view to contribute in a diverse working environment.

Why does diversity inclusion matter on a college campus? ›

Diverse college campuses offer more worldviews for students to consider and engage with. College students can learn from peers with different perspectives shaped by a variety of experiences. The interaction between students with different worldviews can help change minds or shape ideas.

Why might diversity and inclusion be essential to success in your future career? ›

Diversity and inclusion (D&I) is more than policies, programs, or headcounts. Equitable employers outpace their competitors by respecting the unique needs, perspectives and potential of all their team members. As a result, diverse and inclusive workplaces earn deeper trust and more commitment from their employees.

What is diversity and why is it important? ›

1) Diversity drives creativity and innovation

Every culture, every nationality, every single person sees the world in a different way. Similarly, every culture, nationality, and person has different knowledge, perspectives, and points of view. When all of these different views are shared together, miracles can happen.

How is inclusion related to diversity? ›

Mitjans: Diversity is the "what"; inclusion is the "how." Diversity focuses on the makeup of your workforce — demographics such as gender, race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, veteran status, just to name a few, and inclusion is a measure of culture that enables diversity to thrive.

How do you answer diversity and inclusion Questions? ›

When asked a question about diversity, discuss your direct experiences with people of different cultures. Refrain from saying you don't see color. Instead, explain the value of honoring diverse cultures and learning from others. If you are sincere in your answers to diversity questions, your true character will shine.

How do you answer a diversity college essay? ›

Tips for Writing a Diversity College Essay
  1. Highlight what makes you stand out. A common misconception is that diversity only refers to aspects such as ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. ...
  2. Share an anecdote. ...
  3. Show, don't tell. ...
  4. Discuss how your diversity shapes your outlook and actions.
Jul 1, 2020

How can you embrace your diversity as a college student? ›

What Students Can Do
  1. Acknowledge your own uniqueness, for you are diverse, too. ...
  2. Consider your own (possibly unconscious) stereotypes. ...
  3. Do not try to ignore differences among people. ...
  4. Don't apply any group generalizations to individuals. ...
  5. Take advantage of campus opportunities to increase your cultural awareness.

What is inclusion disability? ›

Disability inclusion means understanding the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society, and making sure everybody has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires.

Why is inclusion important in the workplace? ›

Inclusion enhances employee engagement and innovation, creates a sense of belonging, improves the employee experience, enhances innovation and improves leadership skills and abilities. “An inclusive culture is essential for recruiting and retaining the type of talent needed to succeed as a business,” said Savage.

What are the benefits of inclusion in the workplace? ›

The benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace
  • Benefit from a broader range of perspectives. ...
  • Recruit from a larger pool of talent. ...
  • Understand your customers better. ...
  • Improve business innovation. ...
  • Faster, better problem solving. ...
  • Improve overall business performance. ...
  • Improve your overall reputation.

How do you promote inclusion on campus? ›

Here are six strategies to consider in your efforts to create a more inclusive learning environment on your campus.
  1. Rethink policies. ...
  2. Ensure inclusivity is embedded in your institutional structures. ...
  3. Use inclusive language. ...
  4. Create goals and track progress. ...
  5. Help campus leaders understand their role.
May 18, 2022

How do you increase diversity in academia? ›

Ten easy ways you can support diversity in academia
  1. Start a diversity journal club. ...
  2. Write a lab mission statement. ...
  3. Ask your chair for a diversity training or workshop. ...
  4. Nominate someone from an underrepresented background for an award. ...
  5. Make your seminars, committees, and conferences diverse.
Jan 7, 2016

How can you embrace your diversity as a college student? ›

What Students Can Do
  1. Acknowledge your own uniqueness, for you are diverse, too. ...
  2. Consider your own (possibly unconscious) stereotypes. ...
  3. Do not try to ignore differences among people. ...
  4. Don't apply any group generalizations to individuals. ...
  5. Take advantage of campus opportunities to increase your cultural awareness.

In what ways can a college or university foster tolerance and an inclusive learning environment? ›

Universities can foster an environment of respect and tolerance by raising awareness, promoting dialogue and speaking against discrimination and bigotry without taking away anyone's rights.


1. Roundtable on Procurement for More Inclusive Education (February 24, 2022)
(G3ict: The Global Initiative for Inclusive ICTs)
2. Reimagine Higher Education with Ruben Elias Canedo
(Transition US)
3. Keynote Speaker Debra Hart National Update on Inclusive Higher Education
(Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities)
4. How College Fails Us: Reimagining Higher Education | Leah Goodman | TEDxRushU
(TEDx Talks)
5. Inaccessible Accessibility: Addressing Mental Health Disabilities In Higher Education
(Mental Health America Webinars)
6. On Diversity: Access Ain’t Inclusion | Anthony Jack | TEDxCambridge
(TEDx Talks)
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