Disability Accommodation in Today’s Schools

Zoe Frishberg

In a recent lecture, Professor Arlene S. Kanter discussed the importance of integrating disability into education. Kanter is a professor at Syracuse University College of Law and the founder and Director of the College of Law’s Disability Law and Policy Program. The lecture discussed the benefits of including the disabled in university education and creating an inclusive community.

Kanter discussed how, although recently passed legislation has made progress toward improving protection of the disabled, there is still a lot of work to be done. There are many stigmas associated with the disabled, particularly in the field of university education. On the Colgate webpage, disability services are not listed under the “Diversity” page. Instead, this resource is available on a separate “Disability Services” page. Kanter wants universities to include disability services as a subset of diversity on campus, instead of a completely separate topic. She discussed that college websites and brochures commonly depict different races and genders in the interest of portraying diversity, but very rarely show disabled individuals. When the websites do include them, it is limited to the pages dedicated to disability accommodations. 

Kanter stressed the importance of including the disabled as part of campus diversity efforts. She presented four reasons why disability has remained mostly “invisible” on campuses. 

The first is that there are misunderstandings about how society defines disabilities. There are both mental and physical disabilities for society to accommodate. While physical disabilities are visible, mental disabilities are harder to recognize and cater to. The second reason is that there are concerns over costs of making campuses accessible to the physically and mentally disabled.

“Accommodations are simply a way to level the playing field,” Kanter said. “The most common accommodations that need to be provided actually do not cost Colgate anything.”

Accommodations for mental disabilities include extra time, larger print or extra help. These things do not cost Colgate any money, but greatly increase the inclusion and accessibility for the disabled. Kanter justified that colleges accommodate able-bodied students all the time by admitting athletes or children of alumni and making exceptions for events like sports games or family emergencies. 

The third reason is that fear and stigma still exist around disability. Kanter explained that often we still associate learning disabilities as a “ploy” to get ahead. Students with mental or invisible disabilities often choose not to reveal their disability because of the stigmas attached to disability in education and professions. In contrast to racism or sexism, ableism comes in the form of “kindness.” Kanter described stories that her law students have recounted, where one student was told “you speak so well for a deaf person.” One of her students experienced being unwillingly wheeled around in her wheelchair by students trying to “help” her. According to Kanter, ableist remarks often fall under the guise of helping, even when that help is unwanted and patronizing. 

Kanter then described the two most pervasive stereotypes when it comes to the disabled. First, there is what she called the “tiny Tim” category. This is when the disabled are portrayed as child-like and in need of pity, help and charity. The second stereotype is the “super crip” depiction, where the disabled are portrayed as only being worthy of respect when they accomplish something grand, like a blind man who climbs Mt. Everest, or a paraplegic running a marathon. These two stereotypes limit the inclusion of the disabled by distorting society’s view of them. 

The last reason why disability has remained invisible is a fear that focusing on disability takes away from other concerns, like sexism, islamophobia and racism. But, Kanter explained that there is diversity within the disabled community, and including them does not detract from efforts to include other groups as well. Kanter then moved on to why and how we should work to include the disabled. 

She started with the potential benefits to the university. Students with disabilities reflect an entirely new applicant pool. In 1995 only six percent of undergraduates identified as disabled, in 1999 it was nine percent and in 2004 it was 11.3 percent, with the stats increasing every year. With college applications low and finances tight in the U.S., including disabled students could lead to new applicants. For the professors, including disabled students forces them to reconsider and modify their teaching styles. According to Kanter, students learn in many different ways, and some of these ways are considered disabilities. Including the disabled and diverse invites us to reexamine teaching styles. 

Kanter clarified that disabilities can be viewed as a positive addition to campus life, and universities will only benefit from their inclusion. Kanter concluded that to create an inclusive campus we must make all buildings and course materials accessible. In return, universities will create an inclusive campus with an openness and respect for difference.