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Why Are Huge Numbers of Disabled Students Dropping Out of College?

US colleges and universities need to do better at meeting the needs of disabled students.

When Andrea Chandler, a disabled Navy veteran, used her GI bill funds to go to college, she expected to graduate with a BA that would allow her to build a career and establish a new life for herself. Instead, she never completed the requirements that would have allowed her to transfer to a four-year college, joining the ranks of the many disabled students who are unable to attain a four year degree—despite the rising number of disabled students entering academia.

Today, an estimated 60% of disabled young adults make it to college after high school, yet nearly two thirds are unable to complete their degrees within six years. Is this the fault of their disabilities, or is something more complex at play? The testimony of disabled students suggests that the problem lies not with their disabilities, per se, but with the numerous barriers they encounter in higher education, from failing to provide blind students with readers, to the refusal to accommodate wheelchair users in otherwise accessible classrooms.

In Chandler’s case, going to college after leaving the Navy seemed like the logical next step, but she knew she would need help navigating campus with her wheelchair or service dog, depending on the pain levels caused by her fibromyalgia. She contacted her community college to request accommodations for her service dog, a German Shepherd named Sid, and was ordered to provide information above and beyond Department of Education requirements:

“[They wanted me to] fill out paperwork that would have given them access to my entire medical record. They also wanted me to give then permission to discuss my academic performance with a family member. I had to threaten to call the DOE Civil Rights department before they would back down and accept that all they needed was a note from my doc saying yes, I need a service dog.”

Even after she’d called their bluff, the college still required Chandler to resubmit her doctor’s note every semester. Meanwhile, she says, “the school buildings were an accessibility nightmare. Apparently no one looked up ADA guidelines before cramming the hallways and classrooms full of tables and desks. The classrooms in particular were stuffed with desks to the point that it was difficult for even a small, skinny, non-disabled person to get around. I emailed the disability services office about it and was roundly ignored. The hallways finally got fixed after I emailed the VP of student affairs.”

Inaccessibility and trouble with her service dog weren’t what ultimately drove Chandler out of school, though. For that, it took a class discussion of Shakespeare’s Richard III in which the professor repeatedly stressed that the king’s disability (a spinal deformity, often characterized as a hunchback) was a signifier of evil, a point that had also been highlighted by the director of the film the class had just watched. Chandler spoke up, questioning the use of disability to represent evil in contemporary or classical narratives. She was quickly shut down.

Chandler asked Sid to help her up and left class, never to return.

Disabled and Unwelcome: The Educational Experience in America

What Angela Chandler faced was a denial of both physical and emotional access to education. She was barred from participating in college life at the same level as her nondisabled counterparts thanks to poor facility design and the school’s misguided policy on service animals. She was also, however, made to feel unwelcome by college personnel, echoing a problem cited again and again by disabled students in discussions about their difficult experiences in academia.

Reception of disabled students from instructors, department chairs, and other staff at colleges and universities can vary considerably. Some instructors work closely with disabled students, respecting necessary accommodations, suggesting accommodations that have worked for other students, and creating a safe learning environment. Others refuse accommodations, as for example in the case of Anna Hamilton, who holds a master’s degree in women’s studies from San Francisco State University and has written extensively about her experiences in the academy.