Disability, Diversity and Inclusivity: Pedagogy in Higher Education

Abstract: In recent decades, understandings of disability have shifted from an exclusive focus on compliance to broader considerations of culture. Members of the Faculty Affairs Committee and representatives from James Madison University's Disability Studies Program will discuss ways that (in their words) institutional systems often "inhibit or promote full participation of people with disabilities, explore how communities define and reinforce norms, and understand disability as an inherent part of diversity and inclusivity."

Providing background notes (below) and moderating: Alison Bell, W&L Faculty Affairs Committee Chair Skyping in for presentation from James Madison University:

  • Valerie Schoolcraft, Office of Disability Services and Disability Studies
  • Susan Ghiaciuc, Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication and Disability Studies
  • Daisy Breneman, Justice Studies and Disability Studies

Background Reading: Key Themes in Disability Studies and Post-Secondary Education

Guiding Metaphor

The author, her husband and son installed a ramp on the side of their house, connecting the deck to the sidewalk. "Almost everyone commented on the ramp and, in most cases, asked which of our elderly friends or relatives was going to use it. They seemed surprised that we did not have anyone particular in mind. In fact, most of the beneficiaries have been children with pull toys and people moving items from the garage to the deck. This approach is an example of universal design (UD) - proactively designing a space to meet the needs of potential visitors with a wide range of physical capabilities. The design feature itself sends the message to anyone who requires its use, ‘We expected that you could come to our home. You are welcome here'" (Burgstahler xi).

Who's Expected? (Normativity)

  • "When a disabled body moves into any space, it discloses the social body implied by that space. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the dimensions of the built environment and its preferred social body" (Dolmage 53-54).
  • "Too often, we react to diversity instead of planning for it" (Dolmage 78).
  • "Once we begin to go down the road of accommodating disability, we are also admitting that dominant pedagogies privilege those who can most easily ignore their bodies" (Dolmage 80).
  • How can we re/create universities to expect, welcome, and support many types of bodies and minds? (Dolmage 99)
  • "University leaders need to initiate a policy and culture shift that encourages prospective students with disabilities and communicates that they belong and are needed" on campus (Wong xxii).
  • "People with disabilities ... many not fit precisely into the able-bodied mold that school were designed for. While they participate in the culture ... they are often still considered less-than and treated to a whole host of injustices and oppressions" (Yuknis and Bernstein 13).

Medical and Social Models of Disability

  • Many universities are working to embrace "social model thinking, where disability is situated within a spectrum of human variation. Rather than viewing disability as a physical, sensory, psychological, or medical condition causing limitations within an individual, ... [we can] view disability as a problem that arises from design that does not anticipate diversity on campus" (Yager 339).
  • "Societal perceptions of disability have changed over time. The medical model of disability was based on the notion that disabilities are a physical or mental deficiency, and that the individual with disabilities should be ‘fixed' or otherwise conform to society's definition of normal. ... In contrast, the social model of disability, developed in the 1970s and 1980s, asserts that it is society's environmental, cultural, and attitudinal barriers, as opposed to the disability itself, that prohibit people with disabilities from participating fully in all aspects of society. The social model encourages society to accept disability as another form of human diversity, and to develop societal structures and programs that accommodate and include all forms of disability, thus reducing the need for individualized accommodations" (Laird-Metke and Moorehead 15-16).
  • Disability studies "is an emerging field in critical theory that seeks to define disability outside of the traditional medical view and in terms of the social construction of disability. The main posit is that society is set up in such a way as to be oppressive to people with various physical or cognitive characteristics, and as such disables them" (Yuknis and Bernstein 5).
  • Many are working to change "the framework from personalizing the disability in an individual, as in something is wrong with the individual that must be remedied or accommodated, to recognizing the disability of the environment, as in identifying the parts of the environment that prevent a person from being able to do what s/he needs to do" (Yuknis and Bernstein 10).
  • "The perpetuation of disability as an individualized, medical condition maintains its devaluation within diversity efforts and obstructs the understanding of persons who identify as disabled as a valued social group" (Shallish 20).
  • "Disability studies understands the category of disability as a social phenomenon rather than a biomedical deficit that exists solely within the person." It argues for a "social model of disability, one that identifies the category of disability as a construct defined by norms and preferences that do not account for bodily or psycho-social difference. The social model opposes the medical model by arguing impairment is the product of disabling environment and therefore requires interventions at the level of social justice" (Shallish 22-23).
  • "Institutions that choose to view disability from a medical model perspective may focus their efforts solely on compliance and provide reactionary services on a case-by-case basis when students with disabilities approach the office for assistance. Alternatively, those institutions that choose a universal approach to the provision of disability services are more likely to go beyond compliance and to view disability as another aspect of diversity and to work proactively to integrate students with disabilities into the larger campus community and to view these students as having important contributions to make to the overall culture of the institution. (Hadley and Archer 84-85).
  • "'Impairment is an individual limitation, while a disability is a socially imposed restriction. Not being able to walk is an impairment but lack of mobility is a disability' (a socially created situation) [citing Seale]. Not being able to see is an impairment, but not having access to documents in an accessible format creates a disability for this person"1 (Burgstahler 7).

Disability as Diversity

  • "The terms disability and cultural competency are touted as important priorities in ... education programs. ... However, the definition of diversity most often used leaves much to be desired. Universities aim to have diversified workforces and students by focusing on outreach to women; racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other (LGBTQ+) individuals; immigrants; and veterans. With approximately 57 million Americans with disabilities in the United States - the country's largest minority at 18.7% of the general population - people with disabilities are still often excluded from diversity initiatives, practices, and policies. ... An expansion of what the terms disability and diversity mean is a step in the right direction" (Wong xxi-xii).
  • "Re-frame accommodations as a diversity best practice that benefits the entire student body and campus community" (Wong xxiv).
  • Undertake the work of reimagining "diversity beyond deficits" (Miller et al. 41).
  • "Encourage institutions to view disability as another aspect of difference: an identity status that some students may hold that can serve to further increase diversity within the campus community and can add to the experiences of all students within the academy. ... Seize the opportunity to move beyond individual models of disability which simply focus on compliance, to truly incorporating all students, including those with learning disabilities, as active participators in the campus community who can further enrich our understandings of diversity within postsecondary education" (Hadley and Archer 85-86).
  • "There is a need to connect disability with diversity that enables the institution to acknowledge disability within the sociopolitical context of social differences. ... the Association for Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) defines diversity as ‘encompassing the variety of qualities, traits and characteristics that are inherent to humans, with a focus on the worldviews, communication styles, and unique ways of ‘thinking, being, and doing' of individuals within our institutions and the communities we serve'" (Gabel et al., 182).

Universal Design [UD]

  • "Consistent with the social model of disability that looks first to products and environments instead of to the individual to identify access barriers," Universal Design "encourages anyone designing a course, service, technology, building, or other application to consider the great diversity of characteristics that users possess, such as those with respect to ability, language, race, ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and age" (Burgstahler xii).
  • "Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design [citing Ronald Mace, among the founders of the concept of UD]. The UD movement was first an architectural movement that worked against the exclusion of people with disabilities, and argued that instead of temporarily accommodating difference, physical structures should be designed with a wide range of citizens in mind, planning for the active involvement of all" (Dolmage 115).
  • "Wide doorways, for example, ramps and automated water faucets are elements of universal design [that] are necessary to some, but efficient for all" (Yager 308).
  • UD principles include redundancy and tolerance for error; for example, "a lever door handle that can be moved upward, downward, pushed or pulled to open a door; a door that swings in both directions, and that has an access button for a powered opening ... So, if the goal is to understand and to show how well you understand a difficult concept in class, there should be multiple avenues to get to that understanding and to convey it. ... I create ‘tolerance for error' by making sure that student who don't want to raise their hands and respond in the moment can have time to write questions and comments down (on note cards) and submit them to be read anonymously. ... They can do more and better thinking if given more time and different ways to contribute. Isn't that what we want (at least most of the time): more and better thinking?" (Dolmage 119-120).
  • "Many of the benefits of UD are bound to be unforeseen ... If we design a product with open-mindedness and inclusiveness, it can have an expanding range of uses. If we design for one [type of student] ... it will need to be retrofitted to work for any others; if we try to design for all [students] every single body that interacts with that technology will find a use for it (many of them novel)" (Dolmage 124).
  • In 1990 "Steve Jacobs wrote about the ‘Electronic Curb-Cut Effect,' showing that unusual things happen when products are designed to be accessible to people with disabilities. It wasn't long after sidewalks were redesigned to accommodate wheelchair users that the benefits of curb cuts began to be realized by everyone," although tactile paving also needed at curb cuts for the vision impaired. The typewriter, closed captioning, Audible, Siri, etc. are all traceable to ‘assistive technology." (Really all technology is assistive technology; [citing Sara Hendren and Caitlyn Lynch] Dolmage 86).
  • "Things created for these smaller markets become useful - terrifically, unforeseeably useful - for all. ... This provides evidence of the value of disability in design" (Dolmage 87).
  • "Without Universal Design, the alternatives are the ‘steep steps' that are set out in front of many people with disabilities, or the ‘retrofits' that might remove barriers or provide access for disabled people, but do so in ways that physically and ideologically locate disability as either deserving exclusion or as an afterthought" (Dolmage 134).
  • When UD "practices are applied, only a small minority of students will need disability-related accommodations" (Burgstahler 35-36).
  • "Design for disability and benefit all" (Dolmage 118).
  • "Design against normativity" (quoting Joost and Bielig, Dolmage 130).
  • Universal design is in some ways "a worldview. Universal Design is not a tailoring of the environment to marginal groups; it is a form of hope, a manner of trying" (Dolmage 116).
  • Universal design is "finally a matter of social justice" (Dolmage 132).
  • Universal Design in Higher Education (UDHE) "benefits all students, including those with various learning styles and technological expertise, those whose native language is not English ... and those who are members of racial and ethnic minority groups" (Burgstahler 20).
  • Embracing UDHE "requires a paradigm shift from
    • a medical or deficit model to a social model of disability;
    • viewing disability as a deficit to viewing disability as a diversity characteristic;
    • viewing inaccessibility as a problem caused by the person's impairment to viewing in accessibility as a problem caused by the inaccessible design of products and environments;
    • a design focus on the average or typical person to a design focus on individuals with a wide range of characteristics; and
    • a reactive accommodations-only approach to providing access to student with disabilities to a proactive UD approach that minimizes the need for, but is well prepared to offer, reasonable accommodations when needed" (Burgstahler 20).
  • Universal Design for Learning "appears to hold great promise in higher education, not only as a leveling force for students with disabilities, but also as a way for colleges and universities to retain and successfully graduate students who are increasingly diverse, nontraditional, and therefore more ‘at risk'" (Spooner et al. 145).


  • "When the accommodations that students with disabilities have access to, over and over again are intended to simply temporarily even the playing field for them in a single class or activity, it is clear that these retrofits are not designed for people to live and thrive with a disability, but to achieve around disability or against it, or in spite of it. ... [It reflects] the belief that disability should not and cannot be something that is positively claimed and lived-within" (Dolmage 70).
  • "The retrofit is ... an after-the-fact construction. It is always supplemental - always not-original. The retrofit is additional. But as a supplement, to retrofit is to fix in some way (Dolmage 122).
  • "The Association of Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), the international professional organization that offers guidance and practical standards for disability services, recently revised its guidance on how to utilize documentation in determining reasonable accommodation (AHEAD, 2012). Where previously students were required to provide medical documentation so a professional could determine eligibility and reasonableness, now AHEAD [informed by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act of 2008] advises a more holistic, individualized process that relies on good conversation with the students about where and how she/he experiences disability-related barriers. That conversation alone might be sufficient to implement an effective accommodation" (Kroeger and Kraus 223).
  • "It is not enough to cite the ADA and advertise that we facilitate individual accommodations so as not to discriminate on the basis of disability. In order to cultivate a campus culture that is truly welcoming and inclusive to disabled students, individual accommodations should be the institution's minimal response, a foundation on which to build. Accommodations do not ensure an equitable experience, or necessarily a positive or respectful one" (Kroeger and Kraus 227).
  • We must "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 ... or one of community 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?" (Kroeger and Kraus 228).
  • "Historically, higher education in America has been tailored to meet the ends of English-speaking, able- bodied, white male students. However, ... the number of students from underrepresented groups is growing, and disability is no exception. In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 10.9% of all college students have a disability. While colleges and universities have made many attempts to keep up with expanding diversity, when it comes to disability, requesting retrofit accommodations through disability service department is the primary modality through with students with disabilities gain access to programs and services in higher education" (Buchannan and Smith 337).


  • How do university policies uphold, favor, enforce "normalcy"? (cf. Miller et al.)
  • "Academia exhibits and perpetuates a form of structural ableism" (Dolmage 53).
  • "For much of the 20th century, the focus of design has been on streamlining, on speed, and on normative ideal types - ideal bodies ... Design itself was an extension of eugenics ... This idealization is basically the opposite of the design of products for the broadest possible range of users and uses. ... The university was designed [like vacuums, cars, and factories] ... with the ideal human in mind and as its goal" (Dolmage 121).
  • "There is a structural ableism to the university: a way of repeatedly rewarding bodies and minds and forms of communication and sociality that are the right (constrained) shape. But there is also an explicit disableism that denigrates specific bodies and minds and forms of communication and sociality. The retrofit [accommodation] is one way ... [of] singling out the body that needs to ask for access" (Dolmage 70).
  • "If it is an inaccessible building, it is alive and working to physically filter students out of the university every single day. It's not solely an old building; it's a living thing doing abelist work, and actively ignoring this allows it to do that work incredibly efficiently. Likewise, teachers apologize for ableism and refusals to accommodate by saying things like ‘I need to impose standards' or ‘I am preparing students for future classes' or even ‘I would be doing them a disservice if I didn't prepare them for what will come.'" (Dolmage 36).
  • Stigma against disability often "begins with the idea that the university is the space for society's most able, physically, mentally, and otherwise - not a place to admit to any weakness or challenge (Dolmage 96).
  • "Discriminatory attitudes can create barriers to higher education. For example, Hehir (2002) describes ableism as a devaluation of disability that ‘results in social attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, [and] read print than read braille'" (Burgstahler 290).
  • "A ‘survival of the fittest' attitude about students in general" inhibits the adoption of Universal Design in Higher Education (UDHE). "Attitudes are often reflected in the language people use. Inhibitors to the adoption of UDHE can be the use of terms that marginalize people ... or that label some aspect of the disability experience as negative (e.g. saying someone is ... ‘confined' to a wheelchair - which is an odd expression since people actually gain mobility because of this empowering technology)" (Burgstahler 291).

Practical Suggestions

  • "Universal Design for Learning [UDL] has become a philosophy of teaching ... advocating the use of multiple and flexible strategies to address the needs of all students. The three major ‘moves' of UDL mandate that there be multiple means of student engagement ... multiple means of delivering content ... and multiple ways for students to express themselves and act" (Dolmage 124).
  • Universities can "foreground the role students must be given in the redesign of social futures ... [Faculty can] allow students multiple modes of anonymous course assessment or critique - to give them some control over course design so that their abilities and needs could be adequately addressed as the course went along, not just when it ended" (Dolmage 132).
  • Provide students with options for demonstrating knowledge and skills. ... Alert students to availability of digitized texts (e-books). Offer students information in redundant media. Choose physically accessible locations for your classes (Burgstahler 36).
  • Three principles guide the application of Universal Design for Learning (citing Rose, Meyer & Hitchcock, 2005):
    • multiple means of representation;
    • multiple means of action and expression; and
    • multiple means of engagement (Burgstahler 37).
  • "Methods are flexible and diverse enough to provide appropriate learning experiences, challenges, and support for all students. Assessment is sufficiently flexible to provide accurate, ongoing information that helps teachers adjust instruction and maximize learning (Burgstahler 38).
  • "Present new terminology on a whiteboard or projected image at the start of class; provide outlines, summaries, study guides, and other cognitive supports in both printed and electronic formats; provide both oral and printed instructions; post a syllabus online early enough to allow students to read course materials before the first class session; minimize time constraints and distractions; announce assignments well in advance of due dates (Burgstahler 41).
  • "Welcome all students by name, interacting with them as they enter the classroom. Arrange seating to ... give each student a clear line of sight to the instructor and visual aids" (Burgstahler 46).
  • "Repeat questions asked by students to ensure that all students have heard them. ... Provide multiple types of assessments" (Burgstahler 47).
  • "Students have choices - for example, a choice of completing several small assignments or a final exam; the option of doing group or individual work; and a choice of due dates for assignments. ... There are choices in assessment measures. A study guide or an outline of the content to be covered is provided in advance. ... Material is presented in multiple formats. The instructor highlights key information after showing a video" (Roberts et al. 75).
  • In an experimental course in Harvard's Graduate School of Education, "The lecture's content is made available in alternate sensory modalities. The speaker verbally describes any visuals ... Second, we video- record each lecture in its entirety and post that video on the course website, where it can be accessed at any time. ... Students for whom English is a second language or who have a language-based disability, for example, find the video version superior because it can be reviewed to fill in gaps, topped and stated to repeat difficult segments, and even replayed in tis entirely. For students with attentional weaknesses, the online video presentation is helpful because it allows them to segment the larger whole of the lecture into manageable chunks. ... Third ... we collect student notes from the lecture and display them for everyone in the course. ... we have found this simple technique to be enormously beneficial and a wonderful example of the unexpected advantages of universal design in learning. ... Each week, several students ... volunteer to take notes on the lecture, including whatever discussion happens. The volunteers then post their notes on the social networking platform that we use for the course, making the notes available [88] to everyone, regardless of their disability or lack thereof. Though the notes are not graded, they are included as a part of a student's participation in the course" (Gravel et al. 87).
  • "Universal Instructional Design (UID) ... is a means for providing equity in access to higher education for all students by encouraging faculty to rethink their teaching practices to create curricula and courses that include all learners. Although initially many postsecondary educators perceived that the focus of UID was access for students with disabilities, the intent of this theoretical model is to consider all possible student who might be taking a course and then design the course accordingly. All students benefit. In implementation, as in theory, it becomes clear that when this approach to course development is taken, students from other historically underrepresented populations are also likely to experience a more welcoming learning environment ... UID has gradually gained notice as a tool for social justice and multicultural secondary education" (Higbee 101).
  • "On the first day of lecture, the faculty member ... stood at the entrance to the lecture hall to welcome students as they came through the door" (Higbee 103).
  • One instructor: "I provide my syllabus in three formats: hard copy, accessible Word document, and interactive online. ... Lectures open with announcements, summary of previous content ... While in-class participation is important, online discussion forums allow for students to participate outside of the classroom. Maps are used in color, pattern, and black and white formats to avoid color/vision biases. ... The chosen textbook is furnished in hard copy and/or electronic version at the student's choice" (Yager 342).
  • Another instructor on note taking: "Each day I could walk into class and list three random names on the board. These were my three note takers for the day. They had 48 hours to type notes into a Word document and send them to me. I would post these notes on the course management system under the dates of the lecture" (Yager 343).
  • A third instructor: "I create discussion threads on the course management system that parallel the discussion we have in class and encourage students who are reticent about speaking in class to post their responses to question and their colleagues' comments there. The same strategy is also helpful for students who miss class, whether due to illness, university events, family or personal emergencies, etc." (Yager 343).

Sources Quoted Above

  • Sheryl E. Burgstahler, editor (2015). Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice, Second Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Education Press.
    • Sheryl E. Burgstahler, Preface, pp. xi - xvi.
    • Sheryl E. Burgstahler, Universal Design in Higher Education, pp. 3-28.
    • Sheryl E. Burgstahler, Universal Design of Instruction: From Principles to Practice, pp. 31-64. o Kelly D. Roberts, Maya Satlykgylyjova, and Hye-Jin Park, Universal Design of Instruction in Postsecondary Education: A Literature Review of Empirically Based Articles, pp. 65-80.
    • Jenna W. Gravel, Laura A. Edwards, Christopher J. Buttimer, and David H. Rose, Universal Design for Learning in Postsecondary Education: Reflections on Principles and their Application, pp. 81-100. o Jeanne L. Higbee, The Faculty Perspective: Implementation of Universal Design in a First-Year Classroom, pp. 101-116.
    • Al Souma and Deb Casey, The Benefits of Universal Design for Students with Psychological Disabilities, pp. 131-138.
    • Craig L. Spooner, Patricia L. Davies, and Catherine L. Schelly, Universal Design for Learning Intervention in Postsecondary Education: Results from Two Effectiveness Studies, pp. 139-150.
    • Sheryl E. Burgstahler, Promoters and Inhibitors of Universal Design in Higher Education, pp. 287- 296.
    • Susan Yager, Small Victories: Faculty Development and Universal Design, pp. 307-314.
    • Tara Buchannan and Rachel E. Smith, Collaboration for Usable Design: A Case Study in Partnerships to Promote Universal Designs in Higher Education, pp. 337-346.
  • Jay Timothy Dolmage (2017) Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Eunyoung Kim and Katherine C. Aquino, editors (2017). Disability as Diversity in Higher Education: Policies and Practices to Enhance Student Success. New York: Routledge.
    • Eunyoung Kim and Katherine C. Aquino, Preface, pp. xi-xvii.
    • Christina Yuknis and Eric R. Bernstein, Supporting Students with Non-Disclosed Disabilities: A Collective and Humanizing Approach, pp. 3-18.
    • Lauren Shallish, A Different Diversity? Challenging the Exclusion of Disability Studies from Higher Education Research and Practice, pp. 19-30.
    • Ryan A. Miller, Richmond D. Wynn, and Kristine W. Webb, Queering Disability in Higher Education: Views from the Intersections, pp. 31-44.
    • Wanda Hadley and D. Eric Archer, College Students with Learning Disabilities: An At-Risk Population Absent from the Conversation of Diversity, pp. 75-89.
    • Heather Albanesi and Emily A. Nusbaum, Encountering Institutional Barriers and Resistance: Disability Discomfort on One Campus, pp. 185-199.
    • Susan L. Gabel, Denise P. Reid, and Holly Pearson, Disability, Diversity, and Higher Education: A Critical Study of California State University's Websites, pp. 171-184.
    • Sue Kroeger and Amanda Kraus, Thinking and Practicing Differently: Changing the Narrative around Disability on College Campuses, pp. 216-229.
  • Lisa M. Meeks and Neera R. Jain, editors (2016). The Guide to Assisting Students with Disabilities: Equal Access in Health Science and Professional Education. New York: Springer.
    • Alice Wong, Introduction, pp. xxi-xxv.
    • Elisa Laird-Metke and Gregory A. Moorehead, Disability Law and the Process for Determining Whether a Student Has a Disability, pp. 15-31.
    • Elisa Laird-Metke, Jan Serrantino, and J. Leigh Culley, The Process for Determining Disability Accommodations, pp. 33-55.

See Also

1One might be moderately vision impaired but would only be disabled if denied the use of glasses.