The Chilly Climate for Students with Disabilities in Higher Education

By Beilke, Jayne R.; Yssel, Nina | College Student Journal, September 1999 | Go to article overview

The Chilly Climate for Students with Disabilities in Higher Education


Beilke, Jayne R., Yssel, Nina, College Student Journal


An increasing number of students with disabilities are pursuing higher education and are assured of the support of legislation and advocacy groups to enable them to be successful. Postsecondary institutions may be willing to make physical accommodations for students with disabilities; however, this does not necessarily translate into positive attitudes on the part of faculty members in higher education. Ten students with disabilities at a midwestern university were interviewed to investigate students' perceptions of faculty members' attitudes. It appears that students often found faculty willing to make instructional accommodations, but encountered a less than positive classroom climate. Possible reasons for the reluctance to fully accept students with disabilities are discussed in this paper.

In 1997, a judge ruled that Boston University violated federal law by failing to provide special services to students with disabilities. The suit was filed after President Jon Westling referred in his speeches to "Somnolent Samantha," a student who requested special services due to a predisposition to falling asleep in class. Westling's subsequent admission that Somnolent Samantha did not exist outraged students with disabilities and advocacy groups alike. In his defense, Westling stated that he was "critiquing an advocacy movement that goes beyond the search for reasonable accommodations to declare every deficit a disability" rather than "attacking individuals who have or believe they have disabilities" (Selingo, 1997).

But Westling is not alone in his assertion that some students "fake" learning disabilities in order to avoid meeting course requirements. In an article which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, John Kelley, dean of students at Kendall College stated that he "would bend over backwards to make accommodations" for a student who, in his estimation, is hardworking. But "when students give me a label as their excuse for inadequate performance, I begin to ask questions, particularly about the time they spend on homework ... Not once has a `labeled' student said that he or she spent two hours on homework for each hour of class. They have already concluded that because they have a learning disability they cannot do the work or achieve higher than a C in the course" (Kelley, 1989). These statements reveal deeply held prejudicial attitudes on the part of faculty and administrators towards students with disabilities, particularly those with "hidden" (non-visible) disabilities, who are suspected of using disability as a way to gain preferential treatment.

After being historically underrepresented in four-year colleges and universities in the United States, the number of students with disabilities has risen steadily. This is in large part due to the existence of a significant pool of undergraduates who were diagnosed as having disabilities -- particularly learning disabilities -- in elementary and secondary school (Selingo, 1997). Concurrently, an increasing number of support and advocacy programs has developed as the result of legislation such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (which provided for equal access to public institutions) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which expanded equal access into the private sector (Sabornie & deBettencourt, 1997). Advocacy groups such as the National Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities press for comprehensive school services such as social, academic or program counselling, instructional accommodations and special admissions policies (Decker, Polloway, & Decker, 1985).

Recent studies have shown that colleges and universities are reasonably accommodating when it comes to ensuring the physical accessibility of buildings, classrooms and other facilities (Blaqua, Rapaport, & Kruse, 1996; Nelson, Dodd, & Smith, 1990). There is also, however, evidence that faculty seem uninformed about the nature of disability, oblivious to the needs of students with disabilities, or generally lacking in terms of understanding what it means to have a disability (Greenbaum, Graham, & Scales, 1995). …

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