Higher education is embracing disability services to ease challenges for the growing number of disabled students arriving on campuses

Incremental improvements, new opportunities bolster campus accessibility

Higher education is embracing new tools and opportunities to ease challenges for the growing number of disabled students arriving on campuses

Key points:

Disability services on college campuses have long been under-resourced, creating considerable barriers to academic achievement for disabled students.

Even among 50 NIH-funded undergraduate programs, researchers found that 60 percent earned a grade of D or F for their lack of disability inclusion and accessibility, according to a 2022 peer-reviewed paper.

And many disabilities services offices are often overworked as well as under-resourced. In a survey of more than 600 institutions, the average on-campus ratio of full-time disabilities services staff to disabled students is 1:119, according to the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

But, as we prepare to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities on Dec. 3, which promotes an understanding of disability issues and mobilizes support, bright spots are emerging. Higher education institutions are collectively making incremental improvements and beginning to embrace new tools and opportunities to ease the challenges for the growing number of disabled students arriving on their campuses.

Awareness grows

Across institution types, and even those who have historically championed access and inclusion, awareness around accessibility issues is growing. The rate of disabilities among people, aged 3 to 21, nearly doubled between the 1976-77 and 2021-22 academic years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Today, 19 percent of undergraduate students have a disability, the center found.

Meanwhile, news coverage of those living with disabilities, particularly celebrities, is helping to raise awareness on the lived experiences of being disabled. Actress Christina Applegate has been vocal about her multiple sclerosis. Actor Michael J. Fox has long been open about his life with Parkinson’s. And countless others have shared about their diagnoses with ADHD, learning differences or bipolar disorder, among others.

This heightened awareness is reshaping perspectives and attitudes at universities and colleges, especially for students with “invisible” or non-apparent disabilities. These could include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, or clinical depression, which aren’t outwardly obvious. Our collective understanding of these disabilities is rightfully increasing demand for support across the entire spectrum of disabilities.

But it’s not just these new attitudes that are prompting change. In some cases, higher ed has no choice. Colleges and universities are facing growing legal challenges for their lack of support for disabled students. Augmenting accessibility helps mitigate their risk of potential of legal challenges, or perhaps address current ones.

What’s more, accrediting bodies such as Middle States Commission on Higher Education and Quality Matters, the global organization leading quality assurance in online and innovative digital teaching learning environments, are beginning to include accessibility standards and considerations in their requirements. This new level of accountability is compelling institutions to do better for students.

Inclusive digital environments

Accessible online learning is an area where improvements are emerging. More higher education institutions are integrating Learning Management Systems (LMS) with digital tools that make online content more accessible.

With these tools, faculty and staff can build inclusive digital environments that incorporate everything from alternative descriptions to images necessary for students using screen readers or any text to speech functionality to content in a variety of formats that align with students’ differentiated learning needs. And these tools also increasingly make it easier for professors and instructors to revise learning materials and make them accessible. That ease of use helps boost adoption, especially among faculty members who might be overworked or don’t fully recognize the benefit that accessible content provides to every student.

The newly updated Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), which help define on how disabled users interact with content online, will continue to bolster the usability of technology for the disabled community.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to imagine artificial intelligence becoming a powerful tool for disabled students. The key today is for institutions to develop a thoughtful approach to AI that encompasses the full scope of campus life, including accessibility.

Another hopeful sign: More campuses are beginning to embrace a diversified approach to assessing student learning. Whether it’s a paper, presentation, or multiple-choice test, providing multiple ways for learners to prove what they learned is one of three core principles of Universal Design for Learning. It empowers students to demonstrate what they’ve learned in a way that suits their unique needs.

Everybody’s responsibility

So, as we take a moment to mark International Day of Persons with Disabilities, there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Tech is making it far easier for instructors to serve up different learning modalities that makes content more accessible, aligning it to the needs of students in a more individualized manner.

It is the hope that the stigma around disabilities will continue to diminish as more people speak up about their experiences with disabilities and more higher education institutions receive and deploy the funding needed to provide disability services as broadly as possible. Ultimately, that rising awareness and advocacy creates a better learning experience for every student, not just those that identify as disabled.

After all, anybody can join the disabled community at some point during their lives — whether due to an accident, illness, or age. This is a universal experience that requires a universal response. Providing equitable access to ensure student success is our collective responsibility.

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