Advancing Accessibility in Higher Education
On a September morning in 1992, an undergraduate engineering student at the American University of Beirut (AUB) experienced a horrific moment in class. What seemed to be an ordinary college day turned out to be a major transitional point in his life. He was copying notes from the board when he suddenly noticed he was not seeing clearly. His eyesight quickly deteriorated in the days following and, overwhelmed with fear, he visited an eye doctor.
The student was diagnosed with bilateral optic neuropathy, a medical condition in which inflammation causes damage to the optic nerves. He lost about 95 percent of his eyesight in both eyes within just six months, making it nearly impossible for him to progress in his engineering studies. In a time of limited assistive technologies, the student was no longer able to draw, read texts, perform research, or sit for exams, and his dream of becoming a civil engineer was shattered. He had to turn his attention to another course of study that relied less on visualization.
Today, that student, Bassam Farah, is a professor of strategy and international business at AUB’s Olayan School of Business (OSB), in Lebanon. As one of the authors of this article, he can speak from first-hand experience about the challenges faced by students with disabilities (SWDs) at the postsecondary level.
Disability Challenges in Higher Education
Stories like the one above are numerous. While the medical cases might differ, the challenges for SWDs at the postsecondary level persist, for two main reasons:
- Limited data on the number of SWDs in higher education. Several factors contribute to this data scarcity. Some students choose not to disclose their disability out of fear of discrimination. Moreover, some underdeveloped or developing countries still have no wealthy reservoir of relevant data or no reliable means of data collection. Finally, in cases where data is actually available, data retrieval may be difficult because of privacy protections. All of this leads to an underrepresentation in the number of postsecondary SWDs.
- Limited understanding of SWDs’ university experiences. Because of the data deficit, not all SWDs’ challenges and concerns in the higher education system are fully represented. Consequently, it becomes hard to devise measures that meet these students’ individual needs and to identify emergent issues affecting them.
That said, we are compelled to ask ourselves: How have the enrollment dynamics of SWDs changed over the years? How do the difficulties they face manifest at the university level? What are the effects of these challenges on SWDs?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Digest of Education Statistics, the total number of enrollments in U.S. postsecondary schools has increased by 29 percent between 2000 and 2017. This figure is expected to increase another 3 percent by the year 2028. Further, the most recent NCES data show that students with diagnosed disabilities (e.g., intellectual, physical, sensory, and psychiatric disabilities) comprise 19.4 percent of total postsecondary enrollments in the U.S. Despite the increase in overall enrollments, students with disabilities are still less likely to attend college and more likely to have negative experiences, compared to their peers without disabilities.
Sometimes SWDs who do attend college end up dropping out because their universities do not offer them the accessibility they need. Numerous studies suggest that graduation rates among SWDs are lower than those of their counterparts without disabilities, and research further shows that SWDs report lower rates of college adjustment. As a result, the percentage of SWDs who have completed a bachelor’s degree is lower than that of their peers without disabilities.
At the university level, inaccessibility for SWDs may arise in different contexts. As a result, SWDs tend to experience a more stressful daily life and may suffer from fewer opportunities compared to their peers without disabilities. It is worth mentioning that this inequality of opportunity continues to reach the job recruitment level, with employment rates being higher for students without disabilities.
SWDs continue to experience alienation from peers, which negatively affects their self-esteem and prevents them from feeling the sense of belonging that every student deserves.
While obstacles differ depending on a student’s type of disability, a few general examples of inaccessibility include dormitories and classrooms that are architecturally unaccommodating, mass university emails that aren’t optimized for screen readers, lack of assistive technologies in colleges with limited funding, and poor lighting in some regions of campuses. The list could go on.
The challenges SWDs face impact their lives on many levels. Socially, SWDs continue to experience alienation from peers, which negatively affects their self-esteem and prevents them from feeling the sense of belonging that every student deserves. As a result, SWDs are more likely to worry about vital daily interactions, which can negatively affect their mental health. The effects continue at the academic level, where SWDs can show poor performance and intellectual distress when not well supported. These impacts are alarming, as they have long-term consequences on the students’ quality of life.
A Landscape of Opportunity
Business schools and universities are hubs for diverse groups of students with a wide variety of abilities. This diversity is what adds value to an institution’s culture; thus, having SWDs among a university’s body of students is a great merit to the community. Almost all universities have missions to help students accomplish their goals and to train them to become more inclusive, socially aware, and diversity-embracing individuals.
As was mentioned during AACSB’s 2020 virtual Global Diversity and Inclusion Summit, there is an urgent need for schools to link diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) efforts to their values and missions. Such prioritization necessitates that higher education institutions are prepared with fully accessible campuses. It also requires them to be responsive to the individual accessibility needs of students, faculty, and staff. Universities must provide the means to fully integrate persons with disabilities as well as ensure that their stakeholders are aware of the support available to them.
To address these concerns in earnest, schools must find inclusive solutions and devise innovative assistive technologies that will help SWDs pursue their degrees with fewer challenges and greater motivation. At an essential level, these methods should include making reasonable accommodations or adjustments that suit each disability type and striving to reconstruct mindsets, attitudes, cultures, and environments to embrace disabilities.
A Glimmer of Hope
Despite the challenges that still exist, a number of institutions worldwide have made relentless efforts to revolutionize education so that it is more inclusive. Here are a few examples:
- At AUB, with the support of OSB’s deans, faculty, and staff as well as technological advancements across the university, Farah was able to equip himself with a fully accessible office and classroom dedicated to giving his lectures. For class presentations, he uses a large font on his slides and a special projector that both accommodates the larger font and projects images lower than usual, in line with Farah’s field of vision. The university also has an Accessible Education Office, which Farah helped inaugurate. AUB also started the Accessibility for a Bolder Learning Experience (ABLE) initiative, which helps bring awareness to accessibility issues in higher education. As part of the initiative, ABLE hosts the ABLE Annual Summit and manages the ABLE Student Club, for which Farah is the faculty advisor.
- Loyola Marymount University, in addition to having a Disability Support Services Office, has a Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy, and Innovation, which, to fulfill its mission, “collaborates with the disability community to cultivate leadership and advocate innovative approaches to advance the lives of people with disabilities.” The Coelho Center also builds a scholarly community dedicated to disability studies, fosters students and practitioner engagement in the disability community, and provides training to enhance campuswide efforts to improve a positive climate for people with disabilities.
- Another example is at HEC Paris. The business school employs “medical referents,” staff who work closely with SWDs to understand critical issues and provide support, as well as with the administrative offices focused on serving students. By ensuring compliance with General Data Protection Regulation guidelines, the school gains the trust of SWDs as well as consent to share their experiences in the spirit of spreading awareness about disability matters on campus.
- The University of Warwick’s main library has numerous rooms with different options for seating (bean bags, cushions, rocking chairs, etc.), lighting, music, and other facilities that are sensory accessible. Students can book these rooms through the university’s website.
- One last best practice comes from the University of Huddersfield, which offers widespread availability of recorded class lectures as well as an assistive technology support service, HudStudy. These resources help ease SWDs’ academic journeys through accommodations like sound amplification, access to speech-to-text and text-magnification software, accommodating testing rooms, sign language interpretations, note-taking services, and priority registration.
An important startup on the rise that is promoting accessibility in innovative ways is Wheely Wheel, which aims to accelerate the momentum toward an inclusive world. Wheely Wheel presents an accessibility solution that is unique in the Middle East region. It offers a map that ranks a variety of places (universities, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, etc.) based on their accessibility features. The map will cater to a number of disability types. Wheely Wheel plans to include university campuses in the ranking process, which will give students detailed information about accessibility features available at universities. Moreover, the startup will also consult with institutional leaders on how they can make their spaces more accessible to all.
It is up to aware and socially responsible individuals to combine efforts to diminish stigmas around disabilities.
Anyone can be susceptible to a disability; some might be born with it, and others might acquire it at some point in their lives. It is up to aware and socially responsible individuals to combine efforts to diminish stigmas around disabilities. While additional work toward more accessible education is still needed, it is worth taking the time to celebrate the landmarks reached so far.
Farah’s perspective on disabilities is vastly different than it was in 1992, when he received his diagnosis. Today reflects, “I may not have great eyesight, but I am certainly blessed with great vision.”
Carine Kordab, Layal Tannous, and Youssef Jaafar are cofounders of Wheely Wheel, and Bassam Farrah serves as a mentor to the organization.