College students with disabilities are too often excluded

AnnCatherine Heigl, a sophomore at George Mason University, recently attempted to join all eight sororities at her school. All eight turned her down.

If you ask her sister, who Tweeted about how the experience left AnnCatherine “unwanted and devastated,” the reason the sororities denied AnnCatherine is because she has a disability: Down syndrome.

This kind of outright rejection isn’t the experience of all college students with disabilities. But AnnCatherine’s experience is hardly an isolated case. Since colleges and universities only have so much control over student-run groups, it’s important to consider how disability is viewed within the school community.

I’m a researcher who focuses on raising disability awareness in educational settings.

All students need to feel included in order to succeed in college. But when a student has a disability, inclusion can be more difficult to achieve. One study shows students with disabilities participate in fewer extracurricular activities, like clubs or on-campus events, than non-disabled peers. This is due to a lack of social inclusion, the study states. It also stems from the fact that many colleges and university programs “focus mostly on academic and physical accessibility.” The social participation of students with disabilities gets less attention. Since many extracurricular activities are student led and organized, it’s all the more important to understand how peers with disabilities are being excluded.

College students with disabilities are also more likely to drop out of school than their peers without disabilities. Research shows that only 34 percent of college students with disabilities complete a four year program. Conversely, 51 percent of their peers without disabilities finish school. This begs the question: How can colleges and universities become more inclusive?

Start early

First, teachers at the K-12 level need to develop skills to talk about disabilities. While educators might teach about topics like race, class, gender, or sexuality, disability is often left out of the discussion.

Ask yourself: How many books did you read in school that featured characters with disabilities? How much did you learn about the disability rights movement in your social studies classes? Or was it largely a hidden story?

Some educators have begun to recognize the importance of disability-based lessons. Still, I’d argue that those lessons need to be more deliberately incorporated in school.

By the time students enter college, they might hesitate to discuss disability because they are worried about saying the wrong thing. Awkwardness and avoidance can continue long after college.

Teachers can help by using literature to discuss disability in class. The mainstream success of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder – a book about a boy born with a craniofacial disability – shows how this is possible.

Think about language

When people do talk about disability, they may default to “disability rhetoric.” This sort of rhetoric casts people with disabilities as either inspirational or pitiable.