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This Just Published: Students and faculty with disabilities

by Brett Ranon Nachman | Mar 14, 2018

This Just Published logoBrett Ranon Nachman is a ​doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at ​UW-Madison and a ​project assistant for WISCAPE. His research focuses primarily on the experiences and depictions of college students on the autism spectrum, as well as STEM community college students’ experiences and transfer pathways.

Brett NachmanWelcome back to This Just Published. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that more than one in 10 undergraduate students ha​ve a disability. ​Among college faculty, about one in 25 ​have a disability. ​As providing inclusive and equitable experiences for students and faculty with disabilities is increasingly discussed on campuses nationwide, ​as well as within academic literature, ​we have chosen to highlight journal articles focused on th​is topic for this month's issue.

Austin, K. S., & Peña, E. V. (2017). Exceptional faculty members who responsively teach students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 30(1), 17-32.


View the journal article.

College campuses are increasingly seeing students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and faculty members are prompted to adjust their teaching approaches to serve these students most appropriately. Accordingly, a 2017 piece by scholars Kimberly S. Austin and Edlyn Vallejo Peña explores pedagogical approaches implemented by supportive faculty members to address these students’ learning needs. The authors demonstrate how, through instructors understanding how to individually support them, they can create inclusive classrooms for ASD students and students more broadly.

Austin and Peña’s study, which utilized a constructivist and social justice framework, represented a qualitative study in which they sent out a call for nominations to both ​two- and ​four-year institutions for faculty members who were exceptionally supportive of ASD students. In the end, nine faculty members, consisting of five females and four males, in a variety of fields and institutional types, participated in the study.

Interviews centered on the processes associated with teaching ASD students. The researchers identified six main themes. First, instructors had personal connections to disabilities due to having relatives or friends with children who had disabilities​; this enhanced their understanding of their strengths and issues. Second, instructors believed in students’ abilities through offering guidance and knowing they could overcome challenges. Third, they held high expectations of ASD students who received support services. Fourth, they possessed an ethic of care through wanting to best understand how to support ASD students’ success. Fifth, they held a passion for teaching and students. Sixth, several faculty possessed an explicit commitment to social justice through mentioning language about accommodations and serving the underserved –- not because they felt it should be a priority, but because they felt a desire to support their success.

“Faculty members believed that their students, especially those with ASD, responded more positively to their feedback and guidance once the students felt comfortable and safe,” the authors wrote. Among the useful pedagogical approaches included the following: structured scaffolding of assignments; utilizing differentiated instruction (for instance, offering a variety of tasks to appeal to different learning needs and styles); providing comprehensive accommodations outside of what was mandated; and implementing collaborative institutional support through working with different campus offices and talking with colleagues.

While these themes only capture a handful of faculty members’ experiences, they illustrate characteristics that all instructors can possess or strategies they can employ, even without formal ASD training. Austin and Peña incorporate raw, powerful quotes from faculty that detail accounts of their experiences in working with ASD students. Although the article fails to indicate institutional location or enrollment information more generally, nor gives context to organizational culture, clearly these faculty members embody role models that others should emulate.

Austin and Peña urge for mandated faculty development opportunities to provide greater ASD awareness and options of how to modify pedagogical practices. They are also proponents of Universal Design practices, such as integrating kinesthetic learning into the classroom, though recognize that some colleges fail to offer such training. The researchers feel a quantitative study would be helpful in determining the level of significance of particular practices over others. Additionally, observations would further validate findings. I concur. Future studies may consider obtaining perspectives from both the exceptional faculty members and the students they serve, so as to recognize which approaches students find to be most helpful.

In numerous ways, this study is pioneering in both informing fellow faculty members on how they can create empowering classrooms for their ASD students, and also inspiring researchers who study students with disabilities regarding new pedagogical-based practices to explore in their scholarship.

Bialka, C. S., Morro, D., Brown, K., & Hannah, G. (2017). Breaking barriers and building bridges: Understanding how a student organization attends to the social integration of college students with disabilities. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 30(2), 157-172.

View the journal article.


Though much literature on students with physical disabilities concentrates on these individuals’ access to services, Bialka, Morro, Brown, and Hanna pivot the focus, instead underlining their social experiences in an assessment of LEVEL, a student organization that addresses ableism and offers community for all students.

Through incorporating Tinto’s theory of university integration and retention as a mechanism to frame the study, the authors draw on decades of literature to offer a composite of how college students with physical disabilities, who may lack academic and social integration, cope with finding community and battle stigmas in settings often not built to meet their needs. Sadly, both physical barriers and negative peer attitudes may compromise their capacity to partake in social outlets. Groups that bridge these divergent communities can help, however, hence the interest in studying LEVEL, an organization situated at a private university that unites students of all abilities.

Combining social programming and ableism awareness, student-led LEVEL also promotes peers working with individuals with disabilities to complete assignments through a “LEVEL hours” program. The researchers interviewed five college students with physical disabilities, all of whom had received LEVEL hours. Participants lacked racial diversity, as all were white, though they were varied in their year of college, self-identified sex, and self-identified disability. Interviewing these students both before and after participating in the program, over the course of an academic year, provided researchers the opportunity to see in what ways LEVEL influenced their social experiences.

The participants shared their common difficulties in socializing prior to LEVEL participation, in that they had previously been excluded, stigmatized, and misunderstood by peers. In fact, this initially caused some participants to initially remain skeptical of the intentions of able-bodied LEVEL members. Early LEVEL involvement also included students with physical disabilities educating their peers about misconceptions and demonstrating that they were not fragile. As time evolved, LEVEL served as a comfortable setting that cultivated friendships, particularly so via the LEVEL hours where peers continually engaged with one another and dispelled myths about disabilities.  At times these friendships extended outside the LEVEL context. That said, participants noted some typically-abled members as possessing abliest attitudes, though once conversations on these topics surfaced, typically-abled peers demonstrated openness to learning. Additionally, socializing with peers outside LEVEL served as an ongoing challenge.

Reflecting on their research, the authors share many opportunities for programs that may reproduce elements of LEVEL. For instance, they contend where the program is housed may dictate how students engage in the organization, as well as how staff or faculty might help in managing it. Determining organizational expectations and methods to promote the most equity are also highlighted. Though this study only focused on undergraduate students, there would be value in understanding graduate students’ experiences in such a program, and how they compare their socialization based on academic level. Additionally, it would be intriguing to know how other spaces, whether on campus or within the community, foster a sense of belonging, in conjunction with programs like LEVEL. Context can dictate how and to what extent individuals feel like they fit in with others. Further exploring this theme can offer insight into how LEVEL and similar programs may tap into these students’ needs and desires.

Price, M., Salzer, M., O'Shea, A., & Kerschbaum, S. L. (2017). Disclosure of mental disability by college and university faculty: The negotiation of accommodations, supports, and barriers. 
Disability Studies Quarterly37(2).

View the journal article.

College students are not the only members of campus who live with disabilities and reconcile if and how to share these personal issues with other members of the community. This salient point runs deep in a Disability Studies Quarterly article by Margaret Price, Mark S. Salzer, Amber O’Shea, and Stephanie L. Kerschbaum that forefronts usage of accommodations by faculty members with mental disabilities, and in what ways they disclose their challenges with colleagues and peers.

Addressing the literature on disclosure, the authors emphasize how individuals with disabilities cope with concepts like visibility, passing, and educating oppressors, which collectively represent unfair responsibilities to place on them. Tied with other identities, individuals with disabilities must continually unpack how they interact with others and determine how, where, and when to be seen. Needless to say, this process is laden with stress and discomfort.

Through distributing a large-scale, anonymous survey to institutions across the United States, the authors gathered the voices of 267 participants who all identified as faculty with mental-health histories. Defining mental health disability as having “received mental-health care and/or a mental-health diagnosis,” the authors were quick to caution individuals that they need not identify as possessing a disability to participate. Thoughtfully, the scholars did not pigeonhole participants to merely checking off boxes that most applied to their diagnoses, but also allowed them to indicate their own identifications as well. This is particularly important for individuals whose identities require disentanglement.

Two-thirds of respondents were assistant, associate, or full professors, and a majority of participants identified as women. The authors note the lack of representation by participants from community colleges, HBCUs, as well as individuals who identified as faculty of color. Nearly half of participants said they were diagnosed with depression, with anxiety representing the next most common diagnosis at just over one-third. The authors’ transparency about demographics allows us to not paint broad strokes about participants.

The survey revealed how commonly faculty members were unfamiliar with accommodations that could serve them, and most felt they did not require accommodations. Others raised concerns that requests could negatively impact their job prospects or stigmatize them. While nearly two-thirds had disclosed their diagnosis to at least one person, generally a colleague, many indicated that it was not others’ business to know about this aspect of their identity. Accordingly, selective disclosure emerged as a major theme. Most participants received the greatest support from their spouse or significant other. Interestingly, participants noted that they had “extremely” supportive colleagues at other institutions at higher rates than “extremely” supportive colleagues at their own institutions. Determining the roots of this potential dichotomy would be fascinating in understanding the relationships and trust that faculty members build with others within and across campus lines.

Clearly, institutions must make greater steps toward creating more hospitable settings for faculty members with mental disabilities, and as the authors suggest, one first measure may include being more explicit in demonstrating the types of services and accommodations that are available to them. Complementary, they must inform them of ADA protections that cover mental disabilities. The authors find the applicability of Universal Design by calling for policies that allow for accommodations without mandating faculty members to disclose.

In order to reduce the potentially negatives risks that individuals feel in disclosing their disabilities to colleagues, I contend that departments must be more upfront in breaking down walls and having honest dialogues. This may be easier said than done, but with some guidance from disability service offices and facilitators trained to frame these conversations -– perhaps in conjunction with discussions around other identities -– such dialogues may become more commonplace. Institutions must first prioritize this measure, though, and should find value in making workplaces more welcoming and supportive for faculty members.

Collectively, these articles embody just a segment of the amazing and significant scholarship ​focused on college students and faculty members with disabilities, in particular autism, physical disabilities, and mental ​disabilities. Importantly, we recognize that the theme of "disabilities" must continue to be disaggregated by not only individual types of disabilities, but also by other identities, institutional type, and role (e.g., graduate student, academic staff, etc.), among other characteristics. The onus should not fall solely on students and faculty to disclose their disabilities in order for positive changes to transform postsecondary education into more welcoming and supportive environments for these individuals. It is on the broader campus community, and administrators, to place greater attention, resources, education, and consideration ​toward redefining ​institutions catered for everyone, for every ability. 

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