Disability as a form of human diversity? Imagine that!
While those of us researching and writing within disability studies take this idea for granted, it can appear radical to others in the academy whose understanding of diversity is primarily grounded in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, with disability conceived as primarily within the purview of medicine, science, and psychology. Of course, as has been argued for some time now, conceptualizing identities as unidimensional is reductionist, limited, essentialist, and therefore not quite as accurate as once thought. Well aware of this dilemma, editors Kim and Aquino contextualize disability through the lens of intersectionality, integral to student identity and diversity writ large, with view to illustrating ways in which institutions of higher education can expand their incorporation, and support, of students with disabilities.
The editors also point out that disability has largely been understood as a potential limitation for college success, with much of the discourse being shaped by deficit-based framings of disability. To counter this point, their purposeful intersectional focus addresses "the current disconnect between perceptions of disability and student diversity in higher education, and (re)establishes the ground for how disability is and should be interpreted within the postsecondary environment" (p. xii-xiii). Along with descriptive works, many chapters feature original research that directly focuses on college students with disabilities, faculty who teach them, administrators who serve them, and institutions who educate them.
The book is organized into four parts: (1) theoretical lenses and their application; (2) college experiences of students with disabilities; (2) perspectives of faculty and higher education administration, and (4) institutional programs and initiatives. Each section has three or four chapters, containing a range of scholars—nascent, emerging, and established—whose work connects to the overarching theme of the volume.
Part 1: Theoretical Lenses and Application
This section begins with Christina Yunkis and Eric R. Bernstein's "Supporting Students with Non-Disclosed Disabilities: A Collective and Humanizing Approach," in which they advocate for a culturally relevant disability pedagogy. Culling from the multi-cultural and race-centered works of notable scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings, James Banks, and David Gillborn, the authors seek an extension and adaptation of three criteria for culturally relevant pedagogy, "(a) Students must experience academic success; (b) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and (c) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order" (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 160). Yunkis and Bernstein also provide examples of culturally relevant disability pedagogy in practice, designed to shape a more welcoming, friendly, understanding environment that can lead, in theory, to student academic success and eventual graduation.
Next is Lauren Shallish's "A Different Diversity? Challenging the Exclusion of Disability Studies from Higher Education Research and Practice." This chapter provides a fascinating delve into the type of disability scholarship that gets published within higher education, and the resistance within this academic field to research outside its self-imposed criteria of overwhelmingly quantitative studies, longitudinal research designs, and case law. Moreover, the authors conduct original qualitative research across six campuses that seeks to counter existing limitations in academia by asking questions such as: How do diversity workers understand their role in higher education? What are the ways participants conceptualize disability in relation to other diversity endeavors? In what ways do diversity workers interact with systems of power—including ableism? In what ways have participants' experiences of privilege and inequality informed their work? What efforts do diversity workers utilize to establish a more disability affirmative agenda? The author's findings are insightful, revealing the complexities of individual student lives as they navigate multiple markers of identity simultaneously with disability.
In "Queering Disability in Higher Education: Views from the Intersections," Ryan A. Miller, Richmond D. Wynn, and Kristine W. Webb interview college students with disabilities who identified as members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community. Using their own scholarly personal narratives, the authors acknowledge their biases in relation to disability, gender, and sexuality in higher education, and embrace how that subsequently informs their analysis of interviews. Findings by authors include the desire of some students for their university to go beyond transactional, service-oriented models of disability, and a more toward authentic, visible commitment to disability as part of student diversity.
Part 2: College Experiences of Students with Disabilities
Katherine C. Aquino, Taghreed A. Alhaddab, and Eunyoung Kim's chapter, "Does Disability Matter? Students' Satisfaction with College Experiences," cuts straight to the important topic of students with disabilities' satisfaction of their higher education experience. The authors' original research is motivated by universities that provide adequate disability support to students, but do not meet their holistic needs. As they explain, "Viewing disability as a form of diversity, this chapter aims to investigate whether or not students' satisfaction with academic and social experiences on campus is influenced by the presence of a disability, compared to the experiences of other diversity groups" (p. 51). In brief, the authors look at degrees of belonging and social exclusion felt by students with disabilities, before discussing implications for the students' educational outcomes.
In "Engaging Disability: Trajectories of Involvement for College Students with Disabilities," Ezekiel Kimball, Rachel E. Friedensen, and Elton Silva begin by pointing out that "college students with disabilities are a remarkably diverse population" (p. 61), therefore justifying an intersectional approach in disability research as a starting point. The authors believe their focus on student engagement is crucial to better understand the degree of success within classrooms. Students in their study describe successes and challenges in college learning environments, along with matches and mismatches between professors' teaching styles and their own preferred learning styles. Moreover, the authors emphasize the importance of supportive peer networks for students, and the variable salience of disability identity for those who teach, concluding "Scholars and practitioners alike would do well to be mindful of the fact that 'disability' can be simultaneously refer to a medical diagnosis, protected legal category, and social identity" (pp. 71-72), revealing the multiplicities of meaning within the term and the need to contextualize when it's being used, how, by whom, and to what end.
Wanda Hadley and D. Eric Archer's chapter "College Students with Learning Disabilities: An At-Risk Population Absent from the Conversation of Diversity" notes the steep rise in numbers of students with LD (learning disabilities) who attend college, and the various experiences that they have. Of concern is that the most successful students with LD who transition into college do so because they are self-determined and self-reliant (Reiff, 2007), raising the question of how do students with LD without these characteristics successfully develop them? Hadley and Archer argue the need for LD to be located within the notion of diversity, and discuss the implications of LD as a social construct for college disability services.
In "Using a Spatial Lens to Examine Disability as Diversity on College Campuses," Holly Pearson and Michelle Samura analyze the relationship between space and disability within institutions of higher education. Drawing from theories of racial space, the authors contend "…meanings of disability are contested, fluid, interactional, and infused with inequality" (p. 91). They also discuss findings that include disability and: the contestation of space and in/accessibility; space as fluid and historical in relation to majority and minority demarcations; space as relational and interactional, and; space defined by difference and inequality. Taken together, these spatially-oriented lenses provide a novel way to make transparent how social spaces help create and reinforce social relations, always undergirded by power dynamics.
Part 3: Perspectives of Faculty and Higher Education Administration
In Allison R. Lombardi and Adam R. Lalor's chapter titled "Faculty and Administrator Knowledge and Attitudes Regarding Disability," the authors focus on the need for faculty and administrators to "…possess some degree of disability-related knowledge and nondiscriminatory, disability-related attitudes toward this student population" (p. 107). The authors hold many concerns, including how mainstream higher education journals publish only a very small number of articles on disability, and the inadequate professional development of college-level service providers. These observations lead them to advocate for ongoing, job-embedded, professional development that focuses on disabilities, including the use of "…instruments for faculty tend[ing] to focus on measuring attitudes and actions toward inclusive instruction in classrooms settings" (p. 116).
The theme of professional development of faculty continues in "Working it Backward: Student Success through Faculty Professional Development," by Cali Anicha, Chris Ray, and Canan Bilen-Green. Simultaneously, the authors call attention to, "Whereas student diversity is increasing on many campuses, university faculty remain remarkably demographically homogenous" (p. 127), while articulating campus-wide benefits of having a diverse faculty. Looking at three areas in depth—accessibility, tenure, and climate—as a way to forge a framework for action toward a more expansive understanding of diversity, Anchita et al. conclude by arguing that "…the cross-cutting nature of disability provides fertile ground from which to cultivate critical examinations of our social responses to a broad range of diversity" (p. 132). Amen.
In "'It's a Very Deep, Layered Topic': Student Affairs Professionals on the Marginality and Intersectionality of Disability," Annemarie Vaccaro and Ezekiel Kimball discuss findings from their action-research project that used grounded theory to build meaning from interviews with student affairs professionals. The authors discovered that professionals "…were often overwhelmed by, and unprepared to effectively navigate, the diversity within disability" (p. 142), and identified areas such as diversity of: diagnoses, accommodation needs, self-advocacy skills, and social identities and intersectionality. Subsequently, they urge for "'Multifocal' Competency Development" (p. 149) toward developing a greater knowledge base for college-based professionals to make them more informed, confident, and competent when supporting students with disabilities.
Jacalyn Griffen and Tenisha Trevis' "Tools for Moving the Institutional Iceberg: Policies and Practices for Students with Disabilities" provides practical information for navigating a slow-to-change higher education system. In particular, the authors focus on students with disabilities transitioning into college, illustrating the complexities faced by students, the administrators responsible for serving/supporting them, and the need for students to develop self-advocacy skills. In critiquing contemporary practices of colleges in regard to students with disabilities, Griffen and Trevis write that despite federal initiatives for colleges to open up to historically underserved communities, "…[a] focus on students with disabilities is mostly absent from the college access conversation" (p. 165). This chapter makes a substantial contribution in rethinking this troubling dilemma.
Part 4: Institutional Programs and Initiatives
In "Disability, Diversity, and Higher Education: A Critical Study of California State University's Websites," Susan L. Gabel, Denise P. Reid, and Holly Pearson share findings from a study that analyzed 23 California State websites to see if disability was related to diversity. Using a snapshot analysis approach to show whether and how an institution made disability visible or invisible, the authors utilized a discourse analysis. Interestingly, they found that "…the majority of language used about disability was based on the disability rights model," noting, "This surprised us because we assumed the dominant discourse would be the medical model" (p. 177). That said, ways in which they reveal disability is also constituted and contained make for illuminating reading, and spur the authors to recommend that disability be connected with diversity so that educational institutions recognize the sociopolitical context of human differences.
Heather Albanesi and Emily A. Nussbaum's chapter, "Encountering Institutional Barriers and Resistance: Disability Discomfort on One Campus," looks at to what degree and in what ways has disability been incorporated into a college campus. The authors contemplate a wide and interrelated range of topics that include the physical environment, social exclusion, treatment of students with disabilities by faculty and staff, and the absence of disability within the curriculum. In addition, they illuminate moments of struggle and success, discussing the nature of "steps forward, but more steps back" (p. 197) when advocating on campus for disability to be part of diversity. Echoing the iceberg metaphor in Griffen and Trevis's chapter, Albanesi and Nussbaum observe the glacial pace of change in some institutions, along with efforts to thwart attempts to integrate disability as part of the larger discourse of diversity.
In "Access Ryerson: Promoting Disability as Diversity," Denise O'Neil Green, Heather Willis, Matthew D. Green, and Sarah Beckman share insights from a Canadian perspective. In comparison to the gained and lost ground experienced in the previous chapter, O'Neil Green et al. narrate how their efforts begin to steadily materialize and take root. The authors articulate foundational principles and values that include: accessibility at the start; disability as diversity, not deficit; accessibility, not disability; accessibility and accommodations as distinct approaches; intention; fairness and equitable treatment; leadership commitment; shared responsibility; collaboration, and: social innovation. In addition, they share ways in which working groups can be structured and organized to move the disability-as-diversity agenda forward. Results are tangible, as can be evidenced in one student's comment, "There has never been a better time to be a university student with a disability" (p. 210).
Finally, Sue Kroeger and Amanda Kraus' "Thinking and Practicing Differently: Changing the Narrative Around Disability on College Campuses," rounds off the book by calling attention to the narratives of disabilities that universities create. After deftly guiding the reader through considerations and suggestions to ensure disability representation within universities through a disability rights/social model, the authors write, the need to be "…critical of how disability is represented in institutional marketing and communications, through curriculum and events. What is the narrative we produce on campus through images and language? Is it one of compliance and pity, or communication and pride? How does an institution communicate that disability is a valued and welcome perspective? What would a prospective disabled student understand about her/his disability identity from campus materials?" (p. 228). In other words, can the student see themselves—literally and symbolically—at the university?
As someone who has worked in higher education both part-time and full time for twenty years, and conducted research in students with disabilities transitioning out of high school and into college, I have seen first hand many of the issues raised in this volume, including: inadequate preparation of students with disabilities entering college; disability support primarily viewed as administrative compliance; a lack of diversity in general perspectives about disability; levels of bureaucracy that hinders potentially innovative ways to change how disability is understood by institutions; underrepresented participation in universities by students and faculty with disabilities; active resistance to program and curriculum changes that frames disability as diversity over disability as problematic; the foregrounding of disabled students at graduation ceremonies to highlight "overcoming" narratives…and the beat goes on. While these topics can weigh down any significant sense of change, they can be counter-balanced with stories of more students with disabilities attending college than ever, disability studies programs around the country flourishing, advances in technology, online learning, greater implementation of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a shift in cultural discourse, a movement to cast disability as human diversity…and the beat goes on.
I imagine most of the readers are able to note the push and pull of progression and regression, encapsulated by the two chapters showing how attempts to shift disability to be part of diversity can be "done" and "undone." That said, after finishing this edited collection of scholars who actively engage in this area, I took heart in how they all centered their work in reframing disability from deficit to diversity, and how this phenomenon is manifested in so many different ways. After all, it is important to understand all perspectives—students with all kinds of disabilities, administrators, service providers, faculty with and without disabilities—in moving forward to ensure continued and expanded success of students with disabilities being sought, supported, and celebrated in universities. In addition, the topic of intersectionality and disability was consistent throughout the books as a way to better understand the context of disability and lived realities. The topic also revealed support staff's general lack of preparation for nuanced understandings of disability, calling upon that situation to change.
In sum, this book is as timely as it is engaging. Faculty and administrators within institutions of higher education must continue engaging about the moral and ethical call toward providing increased access to historically underrepresented and marginalized groups, many of them at intersections of multiple identities. It is therefore my hope that this book will become taken up by university personnel in their efforts to seek self-improvement so, as the subtitle says, "policies and practices to enhance student success" will be further developed, including understanding—and valuing—disability as part of human diversity. It's as simple as that.
- Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465-491. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312032003465
- Reiff, H. B. (2007). Self-advocacy skills for students with learning disabilities: Making it happen in college and beyond. Port Chester: Dude Publishing.