Civil rights laws including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 worked to protect classes and individuals for whom discrimination had been documented. In an effort to further remedy educational inequality, colleges and universities increasingly used identity categories to enable access and participation in postsecondary life. In addition to anti-discrimination statutes, attention to marginalized groups evolved to include larger networks of academic and co-curricular support such as formations of identity centers, cultural events, fields of study and scholarships yet disability is largely absent from this work as much of higher education maintains a singular focus on legal compliance. This study investigates how disability law is conceived and enacted on five divergent campuses and how participants understood both the function of disability law and other cultural, social and political aspects of disability-related identities.

The civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s moved colleges and universities to address social inequality by utilizing categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion and disability in hiring, recruitment, campus programming, academic supports, financial resources and fields of study (Clark, 2011; Smith 2009). Legal rights in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) protected classes for whom discrimination had been documented and a variety of affirmative action policies were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s to establish student populations that more accurately reflected the demographics of society at large (Orfield, 2001). The formation of identity centers, academic departments, cultural festivals, scholarships, alumni events and social and academic resources for underrepresented groups—while not mandated by federal regulations—-enabled social and cultural shifts designed to better represent otherwise minoritized students (Benitez, 2010).

As these shifts focused on the opening of doors to postsecondary life, students who embodied diversity were largely constructed in deficit-based terms (Smith, 2009). Federal anti-discrimination law provided an impetus for equality yet an institution's unchanged academic standards and singular, standardized focus on merit failed to account for a growing population of diverse learners. Competition or the myth of meritocracy worked against students of color, LGBTTQQA identities, persons labeled with a disability and women in support of an elitist view of higher education that favored reputation over redistributive justice (Thomas, Kuncel & Crede, 2007). The assurance of numerical representations of diversity did not mean that diversity or full participation had been achieved (Gosh, 2012). Against traditional academic standards, students who represented historically marginalized groups were seen as underprepared and lacking motivation-—constructions that largely ignored structural inequalities in civil and educational life (Alon & Tienda, 2007). While anti-discrimination served as a way to hold colleges and universities accountable, "legal changes in the form of rights did not bring about the deep transformation [various social movements] were seeking" (Spade, 2011, p. 20).

Protected classes are, by law, guaranteed equal access and opportunity yet the social and cultural shifts intended by civil rights statutes have proven more difficult. Marginalized groups remain underrepresented in postsecondary life even as recruitment and retention programs attempt to address the declining equity of American higher education (Astin & Oseguera, 2004). The growing challenge to the establishment of diversity initiatives is that they are often positioned in contrast to a focus on academic excellence (Ghosh, 2012). In their work, Privilege and Diversity in the Academy (2007), Maher and Tetrault cite how a focus on merit masks historically acquired group privilege. Groups that do not reflect and represent the white middle class heterosexual able-bodied standards are still measured against them (Solorzano, Ceja & Yosso, 2000). A uniform focus on merit, also known as academic performance, systematically works against groups who have been subjected to interlocking systems of oppression in social, educational, economic, and political spheres. Even as colleges and universities may look diverse, appear celebratory of difference and comply with civil rights statutes, inequitable structures that maintain the status quo persist (Ahmed, 2012).

In the courts, legal interpretation of affirmative action policies have come under strict scrutiny since the Michigan cases in 2000 (Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger). Colleges and universities now find themselves asking how much or little diversity makes them a target for lawsuits about discrimination: Does the omission of quota systems and the measure of strict scrutiny help or hinder the democratization of higher education? Is the law a floor or a ceiling for diversity work in higher education? Does the singular aim of compliance best serve increasingly diverse groups of students, faculty and staff? As one participant in this study put it, in an increasingly litigious society, "Just how much diversity will the law permit?" (Emily, Interview, 2013).

Even as diversity work in higher education is ever-evolving, there is little consideration of how disability fits within this narrative. Both quantitative and qualitative studies have researched programming, resources, centers, fields of study and institutional structures that respond to changing demographics of college-going populations (Patton, 2010) yet smaller bodies of research have investigated how ability diversity, disability and constructions of intelligence are situated within larger practices that seek to address social and educational inequality. With the rise of the civil rights movements and the War on Poverty, genetic explanations of intelligence were dismantled yet residual beliefs about ability and practices of in-group discrimination persist in programs that address diversity in higher education (Baynton, 2013; Renn, 2010; Smith, 2009). Scholarship on racial and ethnic groups in postsecondary settings has examined structural inequalities, student movements, social protests, cultural programming, civil rights, anti-discrimination, affirmative action and multiculturalism (Hurtado et al., 1999; Orfield, 2001; Smith, 2009; Patton, 2010). By contrast, research on disability and higher education predominately occupies a space of quantitative study, longitudinal surveys and analyses of case law examining legal compliance and the administration of supports and services (Treloar, 1999). Discourses used to build awareness about inequality for other groups have not been applied to disability in the same way: "Academic courses, festivals or awareness campaigns that attend to marginalized identities in a celebratory or communally empowering manner often operate under the presumption that disability is harder to see as empowering" (Davis, 2011, p. 2). Disability1 is absent from marketing materials, family weekends, capital improvement projects, alumni events and student traditions (Davis, 2011). Courses that involve topics of disability largely focus on medicine, vocational programs, special education and rehabilitation (Linton, 1998; Burgstahler & Cory, 2008). There is little sense "that disability can have benefits (to the person with the disability or those around her) or that accommodations benefit more than the individual who requests them" (Emens, 2013, p. 43). The problematic idea that race or gender, for example, liven up the white, mainstream culture of the institution (hooks, 1993) does not necessarily apply as the dominant view of disability represents an individualized biomedical impairment, not a valued group identity with shared cultural and political histories (Liasidou, 2014; Pelka, 2012). While colleges and universities may intend to celebrate diversity and empower underrepresented populations, these efforts largely overlook disability:

The rather limited underlying concept behind the idea of diversity in the university is laid out as: "We are all different therefore we are all the same" but if difference is sameness, how can being different mean anything? That contradiction is resolved by finding some "other" to repress: disability. What diversity is really saying, if we read between the lines, is "We are different and yet all the same precisely because there is a deeper difference that we, the diverse, are not." (Davis, 2011, p. 3)

Even as legal and civic progress has changed social policy, access to schooling and participation in employment, higher education remains a focal point in the debates around educational access and equality. A 2009 study by the National Center on Educational Statistics found that 99% of public two- year and four-year Title IV degree-granting postsecondary public institutions enrolled students with disabilities: A total of 707,000 students in the 2008-2009 academic year. Yet 52% cited limited staff resources for training on accessibility, 41% cited lack of incentive for faculty to change institutional practices as a barrier to more inclusive campuses, and 45% cited "other institutional priorities" as a set-back to the implementation of Universal Design features at their institution. Even as students with disabilities are present on any given campus, the social and cultural aspects of disability identities are further removed from postsecondary life given the pervasive ableism on college campuses, differences in legal protections between K-12 and higher education and the general presumptions that disability is something to be delegated to the office managing legal compliance.

One element of disability's exclusion from the diversity narrative is how the provisions of access for persons labeled with disability substantively differ from those of other identity categories. Said another way, what counts as discrimination/non-discrimination utilizes a different-—arguably more involved-—calculation of medicalized evidence, individualized inquiry, essential function and undue hardship (Colker & Milani, 2012). These claims differ from civil rights protections for other classes who, for example, do not have to provide individualized, medical evidence of their racial or gendered status against the essential functions of the job with considerations of mitigating measures and cost benefit analyses. A Latina, for example, does not need to provide medical evidence of her racial or gendered identity in order to access her civil rights protections. The weight and influence of the legal calculations required by an institution to maintain its compliance with Section 504 and the ADA may, in fact, compound the exclusion of disability in cultural programming and resources geared toward postsecondary diversity work. By appearing heavily (and differently) regulated, biomedical, individualized and confidential (as provided by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or FERPA), disability is either not included in diversity work or rendered a different "type" of category entirely. This is not to demean the protections of Section 504 and the ADA and their subsequent amendments, which were the result of significant activism, social protest and legislative victories (Pelka, 2012). Instead, this is an effort to highlight the potential by-products of a college's singular goal on disability compliance, which can eclipse an understanding of disability history, social collectives, culture and emerging disciplines that transcend biomedical interpretation given the weight of federal regulations that remain largely unfamiliar to the general campus population outside an institution's office of disability services.

In this sense, a college's interpretation of the law has proven to be both a tool and a barrier for the understanding of disability as a form of diversity. While Section 504 and the ADA provide civil rights and enable access, universities largely interpret these regulations on an individualized, case-by-case basis (Higbee, Katz & Schultz, 2011). As such there is little collective responsibility within campuses as disability access is often delegated to a counselor who administers compliance through the institution's office of disability services (Cory, 2011). Costs associated with disability are frequently attached directly to an individual giving the appearance that disability is the expensive diversity, when in fact, the costs of accommodations are similar to the structural changes institutions were required to make for race and sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Emens, 2013). Even as there are increased enrollments and participation of persons labeled as disabled, studies show the most common institutional barriers include a lack of understanding of disability-related experiences (Rao, 2004) or the perception that services provide a "special benefit" which disability studies scholars argue is the reflection of the ableist assumption that accommodations provide an unfair advantage (Williams & Ceci, 1999). Since disability-related accommodations are only needed for a small portion of the population, students, faculty and staff who need them are seen as "costly" even as a 2005 study found that among 778 employers, 50.5% reported having made highly effective accommodations at very little or no cost (Hendricks, Batiste, Hirsh, Scartz & Blanck, 2005). This narrow focus eclipses the larger benefits of including diverse learners and persons who identify as disabled among campus populations. As scholarship in K-12 education has proven, inclusive settings benefit all learners, not just students labeled with a disability (Disher, Mathot-Buckner, Mendel & Ray, 2003).

Anti-Discrimination Law

Despite efforts to have it included, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not include disability as a protected class and therefore Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the American's with Disabilities Act (1990; 2008) are the statutes by which colleges and universities are held accountable for disability access and accommodation (Russo & Osborne, 2009). Notably, the ADA is a civil rights law and not a continuation of the educational entitlement guaranteed under special education laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Section 504 and the ADA "fundamentally protect people against discrimination and guarantee equal access to programs, facilities and services available to the non-disabled" (Gordon & Keiser, 1998, p. xi). Individuals seeking protection under the anti-discrimination provisions of the ADA must first prove they meet the statutory definition of disability. The tensions between legal protection, institutional culture and personal experience are not new for historically marginalized groups in higher education; yet the category of disability and related accommodations are predominately perceived as highly individualized. In order to qualify for services a person must provide medical evidence of their impairment, against the essential functions of the job with considerations of mitigating measures and cost-benefit analyses (Price, 2011). For other classes based on race or gender, civil rights law is one part of a larger effort to address inequality yet much of the literature and training around disability focuses on legal compliance. If compliance "is the singular goal of institutions, that aim itself suggests that students with disabilities have a marginalized status, that meeting the legal obligations is the goal, and there is no other guide for action" (Burgstahler & Cory, 2008, p. 564). While the spirit of federal regulations intend to provide access for persons with disability in postsecondary settings, they predominately focus on individualized and medicalized interpretations. An institution could cite the weight of such regulations as the reason other social, cultural and political experiences are thwarted given the nature of the individualized request. While institutions have before been required to make structural and organizational changes to include diverse groups, the changes provided for people with disabilities remain scrutinized as they are often directly connected to the person who requires such services:

Anti-discrimination status for race and sex—Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—involve costs to the employer and changes to policies and practices that operate like accommodation…Putting women's restrooms in a formerly all-male workplace may cost money. Similar to the ADA, then, Title VII requires employers to absorb costs and make structural changes. On the other hand, the ADA obliges employers to respond to individual requests by employees for change to their practices, requiring a different kind of interaction. (Emens, 2013, p. 48)

The nature of this interaction for disability civil rights is an important point of difference. Whereas institutions may seek to empower minoritized racial groups through the enactment of an identity center, scholarships, fields of study, and academic and social supports, disability (and the costs associated with it) are often directly attached to specific individuals. Costs for accommodations are, in many cases, assigned to the individual who requests them giving the perception that disability (more specifically, the person requesting services or accommodations guaranteed by civil rights statutes) is an added expense.

Calculating Discrimination

The nature of disability discrimination involves both discriminatory actions toward a qualified person with a disability and/or failure to accommodate a person's disability. Discrimination and failure to accommodate must be weighed against the essential function of the job and any potential burden to the institution of undue hardship. Margaret Price (2011) described it in this way: "One must be disabled enough under the ADA to require accommodations but not so disabled that they cannot perform the essential functions of the position or that accommodations would place an undue hardship on the employer" (p. 109). Price (2011) argued that this balancing act has been detrimental to those who have brought claims of disability discrimination against colleges and universities, specifically those who identify as having psycho-social impairments, citing Abram's (2003) analysis that a majority of cases (93%) lose in summary judgment as a result of the disabled/essential function balancing act that the ADA requires. Testimonies of faculty and staff experience demonstrate deficit discourses about disability and myopic understandings about accommodations in university settings. A 2003 study of University of Pennsylvania Medical faculty with disabilities found that unlike gender, racial, and ethnic groups, faculty members with disabilities remained uncounted (Orlans, 2003). Vance's (2007) edited volume of first-person accounts illustrated that faculty with disabilities endured questions about their expertise and credentials and have been confronted with retaliation that accused them of being overly costly or a drain on financial resources. Areheart's (2008) analysis of the "Goldilocks Dilemma" for employment and disability services found that faculty with disability must engaged in a balancing act of sorts: A person must be disabled enough to require accommodations but not so disabled they cannot perform the essential functions of their job.

While the amendments to the ADA (2008) have expanded who can be included in its protections, it comparably involves a calculation of discrimination that is not required by identity categories of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and nationality. This is not to argue that the calculation is ineffective but a singular focus on compliance may position the cultural, political and social aspects of various disability identities as secondary to weight of the legal regulations for compliance.

While considerable research has examined diversity in higher education (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado & Gurin, 2009; Harper & Hurtado, 2011, NCES, 2010), very little has been explored about disability as a form of diversity and culture within postsecondary life. This study challenges this omission and brings together nine semi-structured in-depth interviews and research on diversity, higher education, disability studies and qualitative methods to examine how the law functioned in the inclusion of disability as a form of diversity in higher education. This study asked: Why is disability not a central aspect of diversity agendas in higher education? How do interpretations of the legal protections enable or inhibit this work? What efforts do activists utilize to establish a more disability-affirmative agenda?


This small-scale study involved nine participants who were invited to participate by a formal letter of request sent via publicly available information on their institution's website. Students who had evidence of a commitment to diversity work through campus activism were recruited through the administrative, staff and faculty participants who served as their mentors or advisors. Semi-structured, in-depth interviews allowed me to explore the meaning faculty, students and staff made of diversity and disability and how the discourse of disability entwined with existing diversity and anti-discrimination rhetoric in postsecondary life (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007). Critical discourse analysis also allowed me to investigate the medical, social, cultural and educational perceptions of disability, diversity work and anti-discrimination law. Discourse, as it is used here, refers to the ways of "representing, believing, valuing and participating with linguistic representations-—in addition to the identities and meanings that go along with such ways of speaking" (Rogers, 2004, p. 5). Core categories were developed from the student information using grounded theory and the headings used for the findings were from the data and therefore led by the participants (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Participants also received copies of their interviews, were able to edit their responses, and had the option to withdraw from the study at anytime. All names, references to host institutions and any other identifying information were changed to maintain confidentiality.

Data Sources

The research for this project involved interviews with presidents, administrators, faculty, staff and students at five colleges and universities in the northeast United States. The institutions included Seneca State, Central College, City University, Western College, and Ontario College. All participants identified as having a commitment to diversity or were currently serving in a position whose job description required a commitment to diversity. Two of the institutions identified as having a commitment to disability studies in their diversity agendas. Here, disability studies is defined as representing a vantage point that examines experiences of disability as a social, cultural and political phenomenon (Taylor, 2011). Research sites also represented the expanse of diversity work in various settings: two large, research-one universities, a women's college, and two private liberal arts colleges. Two of the participants were directors of their institutions' Office of Disability Services.


Three major themes emerged in this study: 1) Leveraging the law, 2) Delegating disability, and 3) Tensions between culture and compliance. In each section, disability law is addressed yet just how it informed campus culture and interpretations of disability identities varied. By acknowledging how the understanding of Section 504 and the ADA was shaped, I intended to demonstrate how practices maintained the separation of disability from other categories of diversity and also expose the political and cultural aspects of disability identities to show how these inclusions can enable more just and equitable practices for all groups in postsecondary life.

Leveraging the law. A number of participants discussed the ways in which the ADA was a powerful tool for anti-discrimination but that the legal guidance either served as a floor or a ceiling for efforts that focused larger diversity efforts. Emily was a faculty member at City University and described her experience with civil rights statutes as hinging on an institution's read of the legal landscape:

There is the law as it exists and the law as it is enforced… what's required by it and what's actually done about it. People think the law is supposed to do the work so they don't need to do more. So in the diversity context I assume that one of the ways that this plays out is the social pressure of various sorts [that] makes many institutions want to have diversity efforts and then they're battling the courts to let them have them with regard to race. They're willing to try to stick their neck out even beyond maybe what the law will permit. The question, "How much diversity will the law permit us to have?" is the question for so many institutions. (Emily, Interview, 2013)

Emily worked as a professor at City University. In our interview she acknowledged the dissonance between the requirements of anti-discrimination law and the work done by universities to expand these regulations in the form of culturally affirming programming, fields of study and academic and social resources. In her example of affirmative action, this policy intended to counteract inequality and "jump start" equal opportunity beyond the protection of civil rights yet it continued to be challenged in the courts. As a result postsecondary institutions have been cautious of enacting diversity work beyond what is "allowable" by law. Using the example of race, Emily predicted other identity categories would encounter similar narratives of litigation (e.g. "How much diversity will the law permit us to have?"). Compliance vis-a-vis civil rights law served as a contested space in efforts to understand just how disability was situated within diversity initiates at City University.

Marty was the president of Central College and described the ADA as a means to provide access and opportunity that would otherwise not be afforded to persons with disability: "I think the most significant thing that's happened in our country-—one of the most significant-—is the ADA. For the law, if we didn't have the pressure of the law, things would fall off" (Marty, Interview, 2013). Constructing the law as "pressure" illustrated how there would otherwise be significant resistance. Without the law, there would be no standard enforcement of disability access and participation postsecondary life. The words "national scale" also indicated the ways the ADA served as a civil rights law, not a continuation of the educational entitlement guaranteed under special education laws such as the IDEA (Gordon & Keiser, 1998). Marty focused on what the law established but did little to explain what it enabled beyond enforcement of non-discrimination. In his interpretation, the ADA was the singular form of guidance for disability equality.

Even as the ADA was perceived as having far-reaching protection, knowledge of civil rights and anti-discrimination were constructed as the duties of certain individuals. Stacy, a white, female staff member at Upstate College who ran the office of disability services described the law as a tool to leverage and advance campus considerations of disability. She, too, spoke of narratives of resistance and ways in which the law became a mandate for enforcement and education on her college campus:

When I was at [University of Northeast], I had to educate—I used to have to pull the ADA out of my back pocket and talk a lot to them. At some point I would have to actually lay down [the law] and say you're legally responsible. We have admitted this student; the student has a right and we have to educate about the law. (Stacy, Interview, 2013)

Like Marty, Stacy cited the law as a tool for accountability and often had to reference the law in order to advocate for students with disabilities on her campus given what she cited as a lack of awareness among her faculty colleagues. Stacy described compliance with the law as a tool to leverage and advance considerations of disability yet it was often her task alone to provide that awareness for her colleagues. This tension represented the way the presence of a student with a disability necessitated the enforcement of ADA protections and training about the rights guaranteed by the regulations. The fact that Stacy figuratively kept the ADA "in her back pocket" showed how awareness of disability law was more situational and emergent rather than established across larger institutional practices. Stacy's interview once again constructed disability as attached to an individual who required accommodations.

Rita worked as the Section 504 and Title IX compliance officer Western College and spent most of her time working on facilities that pre-dated Section 504 and the ADA. The standards provided by the legal statutes did not always match the most recent advancements in technology or the student's individual needs:

I spend a lot of time working with facilities. We have a very old, beautiful campus and we are trying to stay current with the ADA laws and also trying to stay current with the unique needs of our students that are outside of the laws. For instance, the law says that tables have to be at a certain amount of height but we have students that use motorized wheelchairs that are higher than that because it's a motorized scooter. No one's really using a hand wheelchair at this point. So we are in compliance with the law in many different ways. We are trying to balance those two pieces. Because again, the laws are general but our students—we have to respond to our students' specific needs and that's often a challenge because you can have students that have differing needs but are in the same class so how do you accommodate both of those? (Rita, Interview, 2013)

While failing to provide a reasonable accommodation is discrimination under the ADA, Rita highlighted how the provision of the accommodation itself may not be the most useful prospect to the consumer. Section 504 and the ADA are unequivocally two of the most broad-sweeping rights-based protections for people with disabilities but the services and accommodations they describe may not be the ones that are best suited for the person so labeled. While there is deference in the law for the consumer to decide if the accommodation is the one they would prefer, individualized inquiry does not always promote the shifts in the built environment and campus culture that extend beyond individualized consumption of the service provided. As Rita concluded with her question ("How do you accommodate both of those?") this also hinted at the looming risk that a request could be considered "undue hardship."

While the spirit of federal regulations intended to protect people with disabilities in postsecondary settings, they also focus on individualized and medicalized interpretations of disability and a majority of the training for students, faculty and administrators on disability topics attend to legal issues (Treloar, 1999). The influence of a singular focus on legal statutes can eclipse social, cultural and political experiences— or construct the incorporation of these dimensions as "extra work" since they fall outside of the legal requirements. Rita's example also illustrated how postsecondary service practices that privilege the knowledge of professionals in the administering of accommodations "exacerbate a situation where a person's experiences and expertise on how she or he functions best are overlooked and undervalued" (Burgstahler & Cory, 2008, p. 563). The weight of the law, the institutional practices and the staff responsible for administering services have the potential to minimize the role a person with a disability can play in advancing the campus culture. While not explicitly a form of discrimination as outlined in the law, the literal interpretations of the legal statute may not necessarily be the most inclusive or affirming practices. Commonly referred to as a "consumer" or "recipient of services" this positioning can construct people with disabilities as passive recipients rather than the expert.

Delegating disability. For my participants, disability was either absent or disconnected from other campus diversity initiatives. Multi-cultural centers, LGBTQQA resource centers, or international student unions, for example, were instructed to delegate disability to the campus office responsible for compliance. The impetus for this practice was largely informed by interpretations of disability as liability or a topic that had no bearing on cultural programming. Participants commented how the mandate of the ADA's "individualized inquiry" informed their practice of deferment and contributed to their apprehension about engaging with disability-related topics. Given that disability is highly regulated and individualized compared to categories of race or gender, participants described their engagement with disability as something that required deferment to the office that managed compliance.

Mohammed was a director of a multi-cultural center at Seneca State and had been instructed to avoid disability. His employer saw disability as an issue requiring specific qualifications rather than a socio-political and cultural identity similar to that of the multi-cultural identity center where he worked: "I don't do disability. Maybe some class and some religion but we have a separate dean who does disability and international students. I was told not to do disability because that is not my job" (Mohammed, Interview, 2013). Disability was not in Mohammed's purview because the institution identified the topic as one involving expertise about regulation. There was little consideration that a subset of the students the participant worked with might also be students of color with a disability label and that disability culture could foster important connections to other socio-political programming and resources. Both racial and disability identities require an intersectional analysis and approach, which in this case was thwarted by his supervisor's instruction.

Aaron was a graduate student at a private research-one institution and discussed how disability was viewed as secondary to the better-known categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. The description of Aaron's interaction was shaped by how disability had been presented on her campus in the form of letters of accommodation (LOA). No other category requires a letter of documentation:

"Often disability gets tacked on but it's not included in the same kind of substantive way. What I find is that discussion of disability kind of comes along as an attachment…" (Aaron, Interview, 2013). Aaron went on to explain why disability was often a "last thought" for faculty and teaching assistants at the university:

I think that because most of the encounters that we have with disability as instructors happens through forms and documents that come from [the office of] Disability Services. I think a lot of instructors who are not involved in disability studies and are outside of that, their impression of disability is this is something I have to take into account so as to not break some kind of law or compliance… I think often instructors are really scared to discuss disability because there's that knowledge that this is a confidential thing. (Aaron, Interview, 2013)

Disability was deferred, in this case, because of the entangled issues of weighty legal regulations and confidentiality, all of which were relative to the individualized inquiry of a student's disability label. The letter of accommodation signaled responsibility of another office rather than one piece of a larger project to create an accessible space for all students. Here Aaron cited the tension between confidentiality and a politically empowering identity. Outside of statements on syllabi and letters of accommodation, there was little training to faculty and teaching assistants on what a disability identity entailed.

Tensions between culture and compliance. Knowing that diversity agendas redress issues of social inequality and past discrimination—and these are compelling and necessary endeavors of social justice projects—it was also the case that a deepened understanding of the benefits and collective outcomes of diversity were less noticeable compared to the weight of anti-discrimination statutes. Emily described the negatives of past discrimination as a necessary part of her diversity work but that a forward-thinking approach was also a more useful way to incorporate considerations of disability on her campus:

The way I teach it is generally a more forward-looking approach that says we're interested in diversity for its own sake. That this is a model… that tends to focus more on the positives of diversity than the negatives of past discrimination. To try to tell a story of a kind of win-win of bringing a broader range of people but in a way that benefits everyone. (Emily, Interview, 2013)

As a faculty member, the ways in which compliance served as the foundation for more progressive work around both disability and diversity on campus illustrated how the inclusion of disability (and diversity at large) could foster benefits for the wider campus community:

The innovation piece is huge for me so I've always been interested in what allows people to think outside the box. To think new thoughts, to do new things. That was a big part of what got me hooked on this as an issue beyond caring about lots of different areas of discrimination because I care about discrimination and social justice. But the thought too that here was this new stuff, both because disability in all of its diversity demands constant rethinking of many things. You can't just make one fix and be done with it. It's a constant pressure to innovate. (Emily, Interview, 2013)

Similar to the principles of Universal Design, Emily acknowledged how the inclusion of disability was not stagnant. Accommodations and services are required to be reassessed and re-evaluated which is a practice that could benefit all learners. Belonging, rather than superficial involvement or physical inclusion, connoted an expectation of valued participation.

Maggie was a research assistant at City University, saw her language practices on the topic of diversity work as a means to convey a broader and more expansive view of equality, which she described as full participation:

Full participation is a way, honestly, to get away from diversity language because not everyone's understanding agrees organically with what they mean by diversity. Full participation is an umbrella term that we use that has in some cases helped us to work with institutions to get past language they might otherwise be uncomfortable using. The way I explain it is that it enables people, whatever their identity, whatever their tradition or background, to thrive, to realize their capabilities to engage meaningfully in institutional and community life and to contribute to their own flourishing and the flourishing of others (Maggie, Interview, 2013)

Maggie honed in on ways diversity language can be problematic for diversity workers in higher education. It is emotionally and politically charged and involves a myriad of meanings in any given setting. Thinking more expansively about what diversity can offer, she framed the idea of inclusion as a matter of full participation thereby enabling people "To thrive and realize their capabilities to engage meaningfully in institutional and community life" (Maggie, Interview, 2013).

The idea of full participation also enabled a consideration of intersectionality, which can often become lost in a singular focus on legal compliance. Dianna was a student at a Western College who identified as disabled and echoed this sentiment with a unique focus on student affairs. Here, she explains how her experience of diversity varied greatly from the institutional structures and resources designed to accommodate historically marginalized groups. She described how Western College failed to account for her many identities and their intersections:

I feel like it gets more complicated… Not only do I speak Spanish and would be considered a Latina, but I'm also Caribbean and on top of that, like a part of the African diaspora. Then that sets me in the BSU, the Caribbean organization and the Latina organization…There are students from Botswana and they don't see themselves as black when they get here but they're being forced to identify as black while they're here. And it's being forced down their throats by Black students here… If I'm in a group of women like the Pan African group here, then I have to erase my class—I have to exist based on my race and nationality. I think that's the biggest problem that, because we're expected to stick together based on race and ethnicity, then everything else that matters is also ignored… It's like airing dirty laundry in a way. (Dianna, Interview, 2013)

Dianna's story shows how current diversity agendas are, in many ways, limiting and one-dimensional. While many universities have allocated programming, curriculum and staffing to represent marginalized groups there is little understanding of the ways in which multiple identities intersect and how that experience informs a students' life on a college campus—even as centers and resources have been established to provide counterspaces for underrepresented groups. As Dianna identified, diversity work is often parceled out with little analysis into who these silos actually involve —or how in-group discrimination plays a role in the growing multidimensional experience of student life.


While considerable research has examined diversity in higher education, very little has been explored about the function of the law in establishing disability as a form of diversity and/or culture within postsecondary life. Scholars who study diversity in higher education are primarily concerned with better-known categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and nationality. Furthermore, literature on disability in higher education overwhelmingly occupies a space of legal compliance and service provision (Treloar, 1999). Very little acknowledges disability as a social, political and cultural identity and how its inclusion can reconstruct outdated notions of the purpose of higher education and call a challenge to what diversity means in a postsecondary setting.

While legal protections have dismantled previously formalized practices of exclusion, this research showed that Section 504 and the ADA alone may not always engender the social and cultural understandings of disability that transcend accommodations and services. As these participants stated, a college's singular focus on federal regulations leaves little opportunity for intersectional understanding of experiences related to disability and minimal analysis into the realization that there exist benefits to the inclusion of disability on a college campus (even as methods used to incorporate disability benefit many groups, not just those who have been labeled). While many point to the law as an important tool for equality, there is little understanding throughout campus divisions outside of offices of disability services of just what these protections entail. Very literal interpretations of the law—which are routinely delegated to the office responsible for the management of services and accommodations—can, at times, prove inadequate given ever-changing technologies or are interpreted in a way that underscores the perception that disability requires specialization and management. Disability is a form of diversity and colleges must interrogate just how the provision of services and accommodations enable or prohibit cultural, political and social shifts that diversity work requires.


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  1. I realize this is limiting terminology and that the experience of impairment and/or disability varies widely among individuals and is affected by intersecting social and cultural identities that extend beyond this legal definition
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