The 2020 GEM Report on inclusion and education will go into depth on the first barrier they describe, which is a lack of knowledge or empathy about disabilities among college teaching staff. Ashley argues that our legal systems are flawed because they are based on the medical model of disability, which treats impairment as a flaw and places too much responsibility on the disabled person. It’s not enough to just make sure our rights are protected under the law; we need to go further than that to ensure that everyone is included.
Third-year law student Ariana recalls that, as an undergraduate, she “almost always was faced with disparaging remarks from professors and TAs regarding [her] not really being disabled or an attendance accommodation being inappropriate” when she missed class due to her gastro vascular disorder. She says that people often treated the observation that “she didn’t LOOK disabled” as a compliment when she was in college.
Mary, a student with low vision, shares a similar experience: “I tried to obtain my math requirements, but this was hard because of the widespread belief that blind people can’t do math because it is visual.” As Ashley put it, “my grades became a direct reflection of course accessibility, vacillating from academic probation to the Dean’s List” due to her lack of control over her schedule.
“My first semesters were rough because I didn’t know what my rights and responsibilities were,” Mary continued, emphasising the importance of awareness for the students themselves, many of whom are unaware of their entitlements. She brought up the fact that rights laws in the USA mandate reasonable accommodations in educational institutions. The use of note-takers, audio recordings of lectures, and/or the introduction of laptops into the classroom are all examples of how this can be accomplished. Hayley, a landscape architecture master’s student with severe mental illness and fibromyalgia, is adamant: “The longer that you are in school, the less accommodating people are.”
Inclusive education funding is necessary for full participation.
Access to higher education is meaningless for students with disabilities if they are not also provided with financial aid and academic support. “Dropout rates reflect this,” Ashley says, her belief that postsecondary institutions are fundamentally unprepared to support students with attendance-impacting disabilities. To give just one example, Ariana’s Disability Services Office was located on the third floor of a dilapidated building with a frequently malfunctioning elevator. For two years, she lobbied and worked with university administration in order to get that office relocated to the ground floor.
Sometimes, the lack of resources is the result of there simply not having been any previous cases or requests that were similar. Because her professor and the disability services office had never had a blind person in this level of math before, Mary says, “there was little support for me when it came to tables and charts for statistics.”
Some people’s ability to go to college is negatively impacted by the difficulty of paying for health care in the United States. One person with Asperger syndrome, Philip, shared his experience of “the urge to drop out of school, partially due to the classic financial reasons,” which he attributes to his condition. Similarly, Anna, who uses a motorised wheelchair and requires the help of a personal care aid, has repeatedly faced cuts and threats to these vital supports, causing her to say, “the American healthcare system has just, quite literally, ruined my future” in terms of her ability to continue her college education.
Understanding and compassion: the value of friendships
“I seriously consider quitting school almost every week. Having Asperger’s, I can only see things in extremes, so that’s the first thing to keep in mind about me. Frequently, I find myself writing to the school’s registrar’s office to request withdrawal. Our friend Philip enlightened us. Isolation causes him severe emotional distress: “I find it difficult to maintain friendships and social circles.” Level 1 ASD student Beekah shares similar concerns, saying, “I didn’t fit in well socially.” When there aren’t many people in my life, I find it much simpler to lash out and do something drastic, like dropping out of school or worse.
Education that is inclusive cannot be mandated from on high but rather requires the involvement of a caring community. Mary corroborate this view by stating that “someone to believe in [us]” is often the only thing holding us back from success. Anna also emphasised the significance of having a supportive family: “I managed to succeed in high school due to the fact that […] [my parents] always ensured that I would not be pushed out of my advanced classes merely because of my disabilities.”
Multiple students reached out to us through the National Center for College Students with a Disability to discuss the difficulties they face and the strategies they use to overcome them in order to complete their degrees. The ten students profiled in this blog have nearly as many disabilities as they do members, but they also have some things in common. They never gave up on getting a degree, and now they work tirelessly to help others in similar situations. Michelle discusses the prevalence and causes of rare diseases on her podcast, The Awareness Show. Similarly, Qusay, a psychology undergraduate who survived a suicide bombing in Iraq and sent us his story, now travels the world giving speeches designed to inspire others. Anna is collaborating with New Jersey lawmakers to enact progressive legislation for people with disabilities. While there, Beekah is working to “ensure they feel less alone than I did” by providing support to students with disabilities at Kansas State University.
Ashley’s observation that “the responsibility falls on the disabled student to self advocate, and persevere” is, however, not correct. Successful integration necessitates the participation of all parties. Everyone has a responsibility to find out about and eliminate the obstacles to education that people with disabilities face.