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Improving Accessibility in Higher Education

4 min read

Thaís Roberto

Just under 20% of undergraduate students have some form of disability, according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics. The number drops to 12% among graduate students - partly because students with disabilities are less likely to complete a Bachelor’s degree than their peers without disabilities.

While there has been a growing awareness of the importance of accessibility in education, universities still fall short to provide a fully inclusive and supportive learning environment for students with disabilities. Some institutions have taken important and innovative steps to improve accessibility and make higher education accessible to all, but many are still reluctant to do more than comply with regulations.

We take a look at what universities can do to improve accessibility on campus.

Understanding the challenges

The challenges disabled students face within the higher education system can significantly impact their ability to thrive. Only by delving deeper into these challenges and grasping the extent of the existing barriers can universities start progressing toward providing fully inclusive and equal education.

Common barriers include outdated infrastructure, inaccessible buildings and learning materials, lack of assistive technologies, and so on. Different types of disabilities pose different obstacles, and a university’s inability to accommodate students’ disabilities restricts their ability to attend classes, engage in campus activities, and fully immerse themselves in the academic experience.

In addition to physical or technological barriers, students with disabilities face the higher education community’s lack of awareness and understanding of disabilities. Disability-related issues and the unique needs of disabled students are not always well-understood or acknowledged by faculty, staff, and even fellow students, resulting in misconceptions, stereotypes, or unconscious bias, leading to alienation from peers and a negative impact on the student’s mental health.

A 2015 study by Barbara Hong indicated that the most frequent barrier faced by students with disabilities lies in how they are perceived by faculty once they reveal their need for accommodations. Students report feeling judged, humiliated, and embarrassed by professors, who often assume they are less capable than their peers due to their disability.

General data regarding disability in higher education is still lacking, but universities can run periodic surveys and town halls among their students to better know their needs. Through a comprehensive understanding of the barriers faced by disabled students on campus, institutions can implement effective strategies to mitigate these challenges and ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to succeed academically and personally.

Here are some strategies universities can implement to improve accessibility on campus…

Flexible teaching practices

Since the upheaval brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have adapted to more flexible classroom models, although many have safely returned to in-person classes.

However, the lack of options to attend class remotely may be an obstacle for students with mobility impairments, immunocompromising conditions, or other health issues. One student in Hong’s study reported: “I’ve been told that I would not be successful in the class if I miss it at all and that I shouldn’t have taken a course if I can’t attend.”

In many cases, the mode of delivery of a particular class will be up to the professor, but guaranteeing synchronous and asynchronous options to attend class is a measure that not only accommodates students with disabilities but also benefits any student who may be unable to attend class due to temporary health conditions.

Still, simply offering online classes isn’t enough to level the field for every student. Courses must be designed with full accessibility in mind, ensuring the content is compatible with assistive technologies, providing content in advance, and offering different assessment options.

Comprehensive employee training

Instead of waiting until a student with a particular disability requests a specific type of support to begin thinking about how to approach it, campus staff should be ready to implement new policies and procedures at any time. Providing comprehensive employee training is crucial to equip university staff with the knowledge and skills necessary to welcome and support students with disabilities all year long.

This training should focus on increasing awareness and understanding of various disabilities, eliminating misconceptions, and promoting empathy and inclusivity. By educating faculty and staff about the unique challenges faced by disabled students, every worker can develop a deeper understanding of their diverse needs and create a more supportive environment, in addition to streamlining any unforeseen changes to university procedures.

University support services

Providing comprehensive disability services on campus by specialized counselors is essential in ensuring disabled students receive the necessary support. Services may include simplifying the registration process for accommodations, advocating for flexibility for exams or schoolwork deadlines - such as allowing extra time or a separate testing environment - and any form of pedagogical assistance students may need.

Moreover, counseling and mental health support should address the unique emotional and psychological challenges faced by disabled students. Creating a campus culture that encourages open discussions around mental health and disability contributes to student well-being and helps students thrive academically.

Promoting student agency

Too often, universities are unable to provide any form of accommodation to disabled students unless they have a formal medical diagnosis. This reluctance can delay the conversation between staff and students or even prevent them from getting the support they need altogether.

Instead, universities should provide a team of well-prepared counselors to intermediate the dialogue between students and administration and encourage disabled students to speak up about their needs. By creating an open line of communication and fostering student advocacy, universities can more readily implement new policies that lead to long-term change, improving the experience of disabled students and making the campus more accessible for future generations.

Collaboration with disabled students is essential in ensuring their needs are met. In addition to the strategies described here, universities can further develop their inclusion policies according to the Disability Inclusion Institutional Framework - a complete guide to understanding and addressing accessibility in higher education. By embracing accessibility, universities can create a transformative educational experience that benefits all students and celebrates the diversity within their community.


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