Academic journal article Community College Review

Editor's Choice: Lessons on Disability and the Rights of Students

Academic journal article Community College Review

Editor's Choice: Lessons on Disability and the Rights of Students

Article excerpt

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 form the basis for this discussion of students with disabilities and the role played by community college faculty in promoting their success. After asserting the need to foster self-awareness in one's perceptions of those with disabilities, the author defines practices that ensure receptive classroom environments with examples of effective attitudes, behaviors, and language.

Before reading further, stop to ask yourself this question: When I think of a person with a disability, I usually think of someone who has the following disability. What comes to mind? Remember these images, thoughts, and feelings.

Disability is a common experience that we view as uncommon. We prefer to think that disability happens to "the other guy." Yet nearly 1 out of every 5 persons in the United States (54 million people) has a disability that impairs his or her ability to accomplish activities of daily living (National Organization on Disability/Louis Harris & Associates, 1998). If you're typical, the image of someone with a disability probably evokes a mixture of feelings and thoughts influenced by centuries old beliefs involving stereotype, stigma, and devaluation (Gartner & Joe, 1987; Longmore, 1985; Taylor & Bogdan, 1993). We're not sure how to respond to a person with disabilities; on a subconscious level we fear what we see in the other. Rather than say the "wrong thing," we avoid contact. Murphy (1990), an anthropologist, reports the following in The Body Silent:

      One cannot shelve a disability or hide it from the world. It is not a
   role; it is an identity, a dominant characteristic to which all social
   roles must be adjusted. (p. 106)

      The disabled person's radical bodily difference, his departure from the
   human standard, dominates the thoughts of the other and may even repel him.
   But these are thoughts that can barely be articulated, let alone voiced.
   (p. 122)

   The disabled are regarded as contaminated; eyes are averted and people take
   care not to approach wheelchairs too closely. My colleague Jessica Scheer
   refers to wheelchairs as "portable seclusion huts." (p. 135)

Similar to culturally diverse populations based on race, ethnicity, and gender, many students hide their disabilities because of fear and prejudice--theirs and ours.

Students bring a variety of physical, cognitive, emotional, sensory, and learning disabilities into the classroom; hidden and obvious, recognized and unrecognized. Few teachers in community colleges have any didactic or significant prior exposure to disability. Unfortunately, even faculty educated to teach students with disabilities may lack experiential preparedness. As a result, disabled persons may feel misunderstood in educational settings and negatively affected by teacher perceptions about disability. Further, many faculty lack understanding of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as applied to postsecondary education settings.

This article focuses on what students with disabilities wish educators understood about them; its purpose is to assist community college faculty and administrators in their encounters with students who have disabilities. My perspectives reflect personal experience as a parent of a young adult with physical disabilities (Treloar, 1998a), conversations with educators, and responses from disabled adults who participated in a qualitative study that explored the spiritual experiences of 30 people affected by disability (Treloar, 1998b).

Including People with Disabilities in Community Colleges

The Twentieth Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) reports a 31% increase in high school completion for students with disabilities ages 14 through 22, during the 10-year period from 1986-87 to 1995-96 (U.S. Department of Education, 1998). …

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