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

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.

Hamilton notes that during her time in university, she was routinely denied basic accommodations in violation of the ADA. She was especially surprised by her experiences since she was working in a women’s studies program and focusing on disability studies. Hamilton assumed that the department’s interest in the politics of the body would make her a natural fit, but instead, she says, she encountered grinding hostility during her studies there. Like many disabled students, she:

 “…briefly considered legal action, since section 504 of the ADA was apparently no big deal to this professor, and the university probably would’ve taken exception to that, but [I] realized just as quickly that such a move would take up resources—physical energy, time, money—that I was pretty much already spending trying to maintain a place for myself in the program.”

Candice Casas, a doctoral student in kinesiology at UNC-Greensboro who has mobility impairments, describes her school as an accessibility nightmare:

“Even in the buildings, most of the classrooms are barely accessible. After my spine surgery, I was back in classes after about two weeks and found out that with my walker, there were only three spots I could get to in that classroom because the tables and chairs were packed so tightly… the elevator in the administration building was out for most of a week with an "out of order—sorry" sign on it. The bathrooms are barely accessible with a wheelchair, and most of those assume that you don't care if the door is wide open with your wheelchair in the doorway.

Casas also notes the added stress obtaining disability accommodations visits on disabled students:

“Like most universities in the US, our disability services office requires medical paperwork for any adaptations, which places undue financial stress on students that already deal with additional financial obligations (which are exacerbated by our student insurance policy and poor student health facilities). We also have no medical leave policies for grad students that allows us to keep working at [our] assistantships while [we] sort out medical issues (I had to stay in classes the semester of my spine surgery, and thankfully had a work supervisor willing to let me make up the hours missed from rehab).”

Even when accommodations are granted by colleges and universities, it is often difficult for disabled students to take full advantage of them, as Laura, a mentally ill student in Portland, Oregon, explains:

“I had to disclose that I had a ‘mental health concern’ to every single one of my professors in order to get accommodations. I experienced more than one incident where a professor refused to honor my accommodations.

“In [one] class, I met with the professor in the beginning of the term to discuss my accommodations. I asked him about flexibility on the deadline of a certain assignment that I anticipated would be hard for me to complete…and he refused, saying, ‘It's not that hard,’ and he only allows extensions if ‘someone is in the hospital.’

“I felt pressured to not push back because he was the chair of my major department and I didn't want to get on his bad side. So I just kept quiet, and as I expected, got a bad grade on that assignment, which counted for a significant portion of my grade in the class.

“I would say that my experience as a disabled person in college has been pretty difficult,” Laura says now. “If I'd had adequate support for my disability, I might not have had to withdraw from two courses and postpone my graduation date.”

What Lies Across the Water: Colleges Doing It Right

While disabled students in the U.S. continue to bump up against systemic exclusions, their peers across the Atlantic often report their experiences on campus to be quite different on campus. As Katie, a graduate student in film in the United Kingdom who has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (aka, brittle bone disease) shares:

“On the whole, I think I've been really fortunate—if that's the right word—with the support I've received in [higher education]. When I first applied for university, there was talk of me not having a note taker, and relying on other students' notes. This is something I would not have felt comfortable with but, after my first assessment…it was understood that I would need a note taker, not only for the obvious, but to help me get around campus.”

Her college took steps to accommodate her, and worked with her to make sure she could access the same education that other students did. When her campus was under construction, the university went to great lengths to make sure that she could still access classes, sometimes even “[moving] teaching rooms if they could,” Katie says.

Katie’s positive sentiments about her college experience were echoed by Camille DeVrais*, who attended Bangor University in Wales.

“[The university] arranged all sorts of adjustments including my own note taker who would sit with me … and go through notes. Everyone was understanding, nothing was ever too much. Without the support of the university I would never have finished. The adjustments and support I was given allowed me to not only graduate in time but also graduate with first class honors.”

What accounts for such a difference between US campuses and those in the UK? Some of it has to do with the stark differences in how these countries approach disability overall. While much of Europe embraces a social model in addressing disability—putting the onus on society to accommodate impairments rather than on disabled people to adjust themselves—the US favors a person-first, medical model, in which disability is viewed as an individual, rather than social issue. Seen as an individual impairment, disability becomes something for the disabled to manage on their own.

Additionally, in the UK, students have the benefit of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), funds provided to disabled people to assist them with the cost of living. DLA funds can be used for things like maintaining a vehicle to access medical appointments, paying aides, and helping with other expenses. Though the program is now under attack, benefits like these improve student life by providing people with the support they need to finish degree programs. Such support can include help with leaving the house in the morning, assistance with tasks of daily living, cleaning services, and more.

The UK is not alone on this front. In Spain, measures have been taken to secure the rights of disabled students. Melania Moscoso, who declined to state her disability, is a Junior Researcher at the Spanish National Research Council, and reports great experiences with her colleagues. She says she owes a great deal to her advisor and her team, even though, as a graduate student, she occasionally found herself the target of patronizing and ableist comments from students and professors.

When the opportunity arose for her to pursue disability studies in the United States, she was initially excited, but:

“What looked like an opportunity soon turned into a nightmare. I readily learned that in the States, there is a divide when it comes to things like CP or physical disability. If you have a visible disability and are American, you can successfully ask for adaptations and be considered a deserving disabled person. If the disability is not visible or minimal at plain sight, but you have ADD paired with a strong accent, chances are that you will be regarded plain useless.”

Her infuriating experiences in the United States soured her perceptions of academia, and she was glad to return to Spain, where she pursued post-doctoral education and research in a setting where she was more welcomed, accommodated, and considered a valued member of the research team.

The Way Forward

What can be done to improve conditions for disabled students in the United States? How do we create a more welcoming, sustainable educational environment for them? Two things are key: promoting a proud self-advocacy culture, and reforming institutional attitudes about disability.

In Chandler’s case, one thing that stands out is her insistence on asking for accommodations from the start and clearly articulating what she needed. Self-advocacy plays a key role in success for many disabled people, but it can only be effective when supported by institutional changes. Part of Chandler’s struggles with her community college came from a lack of disability education on the part of the educators and personnel she interacted with. When she approached them to advocate for herself, they were perplexed at best, and sometimes actively hostile.

Given what most disabled students in the US find themselves up against, it is perhaps unsurprising that large numbers of disabled students don’t disclose their disabilities, don’t request accommodations, or don’t identify as disabled at all. (This is sometimes the result of the isolating way in which disabled people are raised and educated: Rather than being provided with opportunities to connect with fellow disabled people and the larger disability rights movement, disabled children may be pushed to “make their own way” in the world.) Disabled students may also struggle with notions like their right to accommodations, or more abstract concepts such as disability pride.

Furthermore, for disabled people striking out on their own in university environments, there may be a temptation to tough it out through the college and university system instead of asking for help. In part, this is due to social narratives about disability that reward those who show “strength” or “courage.” “She refused to let her disability stop her” is a common refrain in the headlines, and it’s one that disabled people take to heart as they interact with the world. For some disabled students, there may be pressure to prove that they can succeed in academia without “special treatment,” which is how accommodations are sometimes cast.

But their resistance to asking for help is also the result of an awareness that they may indeed be met with hostility in academic settings. Changing the US culture around disability—turning disability from a tragedy into an asset, yet another lived experience instead of something to gawk at— would help students more openly express their needs, which would in turn dovetail with a change in how universities approach disability. The American relationship with disability is one of pity and fear, rather than acceptance and integration.

A first step in the process of improving the on-campus experiences of disabled students would be to standardize physical access policies at American institutions of higher education, to provide clear guidance and standards nationwide on how to accommodate disabled students. Colleges and universities must commit to having fully physically accessible campuses, with information available to faculty and administrators about how to adjust for common accommodations like more time on tests, extended deadlines, and frequent absences. Instructors should receive training in how to interact with and support disabled students, including how to mitigate ableist attitudes, which often run rampant at colleges and universities. While Department of Education publications have provided the initial groundwork on some of these issues, a team effort from disabled academics and government policymakers might be the best fit for creating guidance documents that will have a real-world benefit for disabled students.

With nearly 20% of the current US population experiencing impairments, and roughly 10% of college and university students identifying as disabled individuals, it’s time for colleges and universities to rethink their historic positions on disability. US schools and policymakers looking for ways to increase access for disabled students ought to spend a little time examining what’s working in the UK, and how we might adapt it to the American context.

*Name changed for privacy.


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