WASHINGTON – In the diversity movement, nearly every imaginable identity marker is part of the conversation—race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation—but disability remains a burden many in higher education fail to acknowledge, a panel of higher education disability advocates said Tuesday.
At the Educational Policy Institute’s annual National Capitol Summit, disability advocates expressed dismay that so little progress has been made to include students with disabilities—particularly those with cognitive impairments—in the national conversation about access and equality. The Virginia Beach, Va.-based Educational Policy Institute is a nonprofit research organization dedicated to issues related to the expansion of quality educational opportunities.
“I think the most frustrating part is really promoting an understanding of disability as a part of the diversity discussion,” said Jane West of the American Association on Colleges for Teacher Education. “Disability is a part of human life; it’s a part of the differences we experience every day. We have targeted outreach efforts to other underserved groups in higher education, but there is no such thing for students with disabilities.”
While recently passed higher education legislation has authorized more than $2.5 billion in support for institutions serving underrepresented minority students, funding for disability-focused programs has remained flat for the last 15 years, West said.
West and her colleague, Sally Scott, the director of disability services at the University of Mary Washington, say pedagogical reform should include the notion of universal design—a teaching method that allows a broad range of students to engage in classroom instruction through different learning styles.
Such definitions were written into the Higher Education Opportunity Act, but research and programs for the “new approach to educational access” have remained largely unfunded, Scott said.
Teaching teachers more about disability could help students like 56-year-old Laurie Rippon, a master’s student at George Washington University, struggling with cognitive disabilities that affect her classroom experience.
Once a quick-witted New York City publishing house executive, Rippon suffered two brain injuries that left her in rehabilitation for months. She had to readjust her life to the unfamiliar difficulties that came with reading, using a computer, and processing information.
After rehab, she came to the realization that there wasn’t much help for people with brain injuries to transition into the working world again. With a U.S. Department of Education fellowship, Rippon has been studying at GWU for the past three years to finish a degree in transition special education.
With the help of the university’s disability support services, Rippon is able to take two courses a semester, receiving special help with tasks like online research in the library, writing papers, and studying.
“I get extra time on exams, and my processing is slow,” Rippon said about her life after two vehicle accidents. “Reading and memorizing is hard now where it wasn’t before. Fatigue is also a major problem. When I’m tired, everything else gets worse.”
Yet, despite the aid, the classroom is an intimidating realm for disabled students like Rippon—especially if the impairment is not perceived by classmates and teachers.
“It’s completely invisible,” said Rippon, who speaks and appears normal, about her disability. “It’s not hard to imagine a person in a wheelchair needing a ramp to enter buildings. It’s not hard to imagine that someone who is deaf needs sign language assistance in lecture. But for cognitive stuff, it’s harder to imagine.”
Rippon said professors are skeptical of students like her even after she explains her difficulties and displays her medical documentation. Teachers say they understand, she said, but it doesn’t translate into daily classroom experiences where she said her disability is downplayed.
Unable to absorb written text projected on computer screens, Rippon spends hours converting PowerPoint presentations to Word documents that she prints for reading. She has tried to convince her instructors to use other teaching methods that would also be adequate to fit other special needs.
“They have their curriculum that they go through, and it’s fast. It’s not that it’s too hard for me, I just need more time,” she said. “When you have to read 10 articles in one week, I need it assigned with time because I can’t do anything last minute. I read things three of four times to understand the ideas.”
Panelists said some students refuse to disclose their disabilities because they don’t want to be treated differently. As a result, students with dyslexia, attention deficit disorder or other learning disabilities find themselves without an advocate.
These types of experiences have fueled advocacy for universal teaching methods that are inclusive for a spectrum of students, Scott said.
Rippon said that, although she was encouraged by the panelists’ message, she’s not sure the concepts will catch on in higher education circles in a down economy.
“In theory, it’s great, but, in practice, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it,” Rippon said. “But educating teachers to be better teachers is always a good idea.”