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Disability Equity in Higher Education

Many students with disabilities come to face with a variety of challenges while enrolled in higher education. It is critical that institutions and other stakeholders be aware of these challenges in order to best support equity for students with disabilities in higher education.

Written by: Thea Louise Thomaseth Bugge

A large part of the population has some sort of disability. In fact, 26% of the U.S. population have one form of disability, including around 19% of the undergraduate college population. A 2022 survey of 54,000 undergraduate students found that:

  • 5% reported having a learning disability.

  • 4% reported having some sort of blindness.

  • 3% reported having autism.

  • 2% reported being deaf or having a hearing impairment.

  • 2% reported having a speech/language disability or having a mobility/dexterity disability.

Students in higher education deal with a wide variety of disabilities. Some include;

  • Eating Disorders: Between 10-20% of women, and 4-10% of men suffer from an eating disorder in college, according to estimates by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

  • Anxiety: As many as 11% of college students are estimated to deal with anxiety disorders of some form.

  • Depression: The prevalence of depression amongst college students is estimated to be in the range of 7-9%.

  • Substance abuse: Excessive drinking is prevalent amongst college students. One SAMHSA study found that over 10% of college students meet the criteria for alcoholism. Substance use harms many students every year. According to a SAMHSA report, over 3 million college students drove under the influence, nearly 700,000 students were harmed by someone who were under the influence, and over 22,000 were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.

  • Dyslexia: This is the most diagnosed learning disorder in the U.S.. It is estimated that dyslexia accounts for between 80-90% of all learning disorders. That being said, studies have found it difficult to accurately determine how many students in higher education have dyslexia.

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity Disorder (ADD or ADHD): A 2022 study of 54,000 students found that 15% of students reported having ADD or ADHD.

  • Mobility impairments: Mobility impairments are not common amongst the higher education student population. Only around 1% of students have some sort of mobility disability, according to the American College Health Association.

Equity challenges: Students with disabilities may face many equity challenges that can make academic success and personal well-being harder to maintain. A 2021 National Center for College Students With Disabilities survey found that students with disabilities are more likely to feel excluded or less sense of belonging than their peers without disabilities. They were also more likely to report experiencing discrimination. Additionally, students of color who have disabilities may deal with additional factors that can make higher education more difficult compared to white students with disabilities.

What stakeholders can do to support students with disabilities:

  • Reframing the approach to supporting people with disabilities to the 'Social Model of Disability'. This framework suggests that people's conditions do not make someone disabled. Instead, what makes someone's conditions disabled is society's exclusion of adequate support systems for those conditions.

  • Make efforts to de-stigmatize asking for help and make access easier. Many students don't report their disabilities or ask for help. A survey by Mental Health America found that only 30% of students with disabilities registered for accommodations at their schools.

  • Include disabilities as a category in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Planning. In an article for Inside Higher Education, professors at the College of New Jersey stated that higher education should apply a more holistic approach to supporting students with disabilities. They suggested that making disabilities a category in DEI planning could foster a more comprehensive support system for students.

  • Foster an inclusive school community. Critically, students with disabilities should know that they are an integral part of the school community and not singled out. Schools can and should foster a community where students feel a sense of belonging and purpose. They can make amenities accessible for anyone, implement the use of more inclusive language, and support faculty's ability to learn more about and better understand disabilities and how to be accommodating.

Read more about how to improve equity for students with disabilities in these links below:

Columnist of the month:

This month's featured columnist is Dr. Haben Girma. Dr. Girma is a disability rights advocate who was the first Deafblind person to graduate with a Doctor Degree of Law from Harvard University. She has earned many kinds of recognitions, including the Helen Keller Achievement Award, being named one of the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, and held a TIME100 Talks. She currently works as an author and a Disability Justice Lawyer. Some of her work includes her book

Check out her LinkedIn profile and read more about her at her website.

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