Higher education in the United States undergoes change in response
to modifications in the perceived needs of the society, legislative
policies and social attitudes. As a result, the student pool has changed
considerably in higher educational institutions, which includes every
type of disability. Literature shows that students with disabilities
often faced additional challenges in their educational environment. As
the number of students with disabilities seeking to complete their
college education increases across the country, these additional issues
present problems to this emerging population. These students face both
physical and attitudinal barriers within the university environment.
This article presents a review of the literature about the status of
students with disabilities in higher education in the United States.
Individuals with disabilities constitute the largest minority in
the United States (McGuire, 1992). The National Council for Education
Statistics (1996) reported that in the fall of 1994, over 14.5 million
students were enrolled in the nation's higher educational
institutions and over 1.4 million of these students (10.3 percent)
reported having at least one disability. Forty percent of the 1,400,000
students have orthopedic and neurological related disabilities, and the
rest includes learning disabilities, visual impairments, and other
physical and psychiatric disabilities (Department of Health, Education,
and Welfare, 1995). The enrollment of students with disabilities is
increasing in higher education, due in part to strict federal laws such
as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regarding right to
accessibility, political support, work of disability groups, as well as
media coverage (Hirschhorn, 1992).
Students with disabilities have additional needs attributable to
those disabilities such as, living on their own and dealing with the
disability in an educational environment. The daily life tasks of those
of individuals with a disability are more complicated than students
without disabilities (Graham, Weingarden, & Murphy, 1991). For
example mobility impaired students face architectural obstacles within
the school's existing environment. Many of these students continue
to encounter problems during their late undergraduate and graduate years
(American Council on Education, 1995). Appleby (1994) found that nearly
one-half of college students with disabilities seek personal counseling
services and suggested that the types of issues related to their
transition and adjustment can be quite different from the problems
presented by the nondisabled population due to physical and attitudinal
Review of Literature
The review of related literature is presented in two parts. The
first part pertains to changes in higher education in America and
legislation related to students with disabilities and the second part
pertains to specific studies on university and college environments and
students with disabilities.
Higher Education, Students with Disabilities and Legislation
Until the early 1900s, higher education efforts in the United
States centered primarily on providing educated clergy and social
leaders (Malakpa, 1997). Time and circumstances have proven strong
modifiers of higher educational organizations, which now have become
more focused on extended educational opportunities and career
development issues. This expanded "vision" also has brought an
increasingly diverse student body, more extensive curricula, and a
greater range of education-related activities and services (Milani,
Students with disabilities represent one of the groups, which are
currently, more active in their pursuit of advanced learning
opportunities. Youths with disabilities who had graduated from secondary
institutions were three times as likely to enroll in higher education
programs compared to their nondisabled peers (Brown, 1992; Gartin,
Rumrill, & Serebreni, 1996). For example, a study by Bailey (1994)
surveyed 45 disabled and 33 nondisabled college students to assess
whether the way disabled students value college education differs from
that of nondisabled college students. The results showed that the
disabled students were more keen to improve their value to society
through successful involvement in college education than their
Prior to the 1970s, many students with disabilities were denied
admission to colleges and universities in the United States because of
their disabilities. For example, a 1962 survey of 92 Midwestern colleges
and universities revealed that 65 would not accept wheelchair using
students (Angel, 1969). Fonosch (1980) cited a 1974 survey of 1000
four-year institutions which found that 18% rejected blind applicants,
27% rejected applicants in wheelchairs, and 22% rejected deaf
Congressional legislation introduced in the early 1970s had as its
focus the improvement of conditions for Americans with disabilities.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1974, was
the first significant piece of federal legislation affecting students
with disabilities in higher educational institutions securing fund from
the federal government. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
regulations that implemented Section 504 are administered by the United
States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, and have several
implications for all institutions of higher learning. Section 504
outlines the responsibilities of higher education in providing equal
educational opportunity for "otherwise qualified handicapped
individuals" and imposes an "affirmative action
obligation" on higher educational institutions (Kaplan, 1985, p.
Another significant piece of federal legislation related to
students with disabilities is the Education for All Handicapped Children
Act (P.L. 94-142), signed into law by President Ford in 1975. The
resulting implementation of state mandates, in accordance with the
"least restrictive environment" concept, provided for the
participation of students with disabilities in the regular classroom
(Horne, 1985; Parker & West, 1996). This, in turn, enabled a new
pool of potential college students.
The most recent federal legislation is the Americans with
Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Two of the purposes of the ADA (P.L.
101-336) are to provide a "... national mandate for the elimination
of discrimination against individuals with disabilities" and to
provide strong "... enforceable standards addressing discrimination
against this population" (U.S. Code of Congressional &
Administrative News, 1990, p. 39). Essentially, the ADA prohibits
discrimination on the basis of disability in the areas of employment,
public accommodation, public services, transportation, and
telecommunications. This newest legislation also affects educational
settings because colleges and universities are considered as public
sites. These three major acts contributed greatly to the increasing
enrollment of students with disabilities on college campuses (Thompson,
Bethea, & Turner, 1997).
Research Studies on Student-life
There are numerous studies conducted in the area of higher
education and disabilities. This review is focused on the university
life experience of students with disabilities; studies about academic
and social integration; and studies related to awareness and attitudes
toward students with disabilities.
A qualitative case study by Synatschk (1994) examined the
experiences of 5 college students with learning disabilities who
successfully completed their studies at a major research university. The
purpose of the study was to determine what factors and processes were
perceived as influential in successful adjustment. Individual and group
interviews were conducted with these participants. Results indicated
that the interaction of the perceptions of life-event stressors,
individual abilities, and disabilities influenced the types of actions
taken by successful college students with learning disabilities. The
students expressed a conflict between their desire to be independent and
their desire to use services and accommodations available to them.
West, Kregel, Getzel, Zhu, Ipsen and Martin (1993) surveyed 40
college and university students with disabilities to determine their
levels of satisfaction with accessibility, special services, and
accommodations at their schools. Students were requested to identify
barriers to higher education and improvements in services. Respondents
generally expressed satisfaction with the services that they had
received in their schools. However, majority of the students indicated
that they had encountered barriers to their education, including a lack
of understanding and cooperation from administrators, faculty, staff,
and other students; lack of adaptive aids and other accommodations; and
inaccessibility of buildings and grounds.
English (1993) conducted a survey research study to determine the
role of institution's disability support services in the
integration and retention of 35 hearing impaired college students.
Participants indicated a higher level of academic integration compared
to social integration, and a very high commitment to their intention to
stay in school. Analysis of the survey results revealed that support
services had a direct effect on academic integration, and an indirect
effect upon intent to stay in school. However, there was no effect of
support services upon social integration. Students felt moderately
integrated into their academic systems. However, students did not feel
as integrated into their social systems, and institution's support
services did not contribute to social integration.
Zadra (1982) interviewed 52 mobility-impaired college freshmen at
11 higher educational institutions within the New York metropolitan area
at the beginning and at the end of the 1980-81 academic year to compare
anticipated with actual utilization of special college support services.
In general, these students were older than traditional college students,
had graduated from public or private high schools, and identified
getting a better job as the primary motivation for college attendance.
Forty-six percent of the students were wheelchair users; however, all
students had limitations in mobility.
The findings in the study indicated that entering freshmen most
often acquired information about college services through direct contact
with the institution or its staff and were most knowledgeable about
services which they anticipated needing. All students overestimated
their need for academic services. They all agreed upon the need for rest
areas and personal counseling. Ambulatory students underestimated their
need for architectural accommodations, particularly ramps, handrailings,
and curbcuts which were utilized regularly. However, wheelchair users
were accurate in anticipating services needed to attain mobility.
Evaluations of services were generally positive although elevators and
lavatory facilities received strong criticisms. Based on the findings
Zadra (1982) suggested recruitment strategies such as bringing potential
freshmen on campus to check facilities prior to enrollment. Also,
pre-registration interviews between college counselors and entering
freshmen was suggested as an effective process for obtaining accurate
information about needs of wheelchair users and mobility impaired
A mail survey study by Flowers (1993) investigated factors which
best predict academic achievement and academic persistence among
students with disabilities at a higher educational institution. The
sample for the study was composed of 167 students who self-reported
having a disability and had attended a large Midwestern university
between Fall, 1990 and Summer, 1992. Analysis of the data suggested that
academic achievement, measured by GPA, was the best predictor for
academic persistence, measured by number of semesters attended. Along
the same lines, academic persistence was found to be the best predictor
for academic achievement among the sample. Acceptance of disability was
found to be a significant predictor for either academic achievement or
academic persistence. Also, a significant positive correlation was found
between age (persons 18-25 years of age) and academic achievement and
academic persistence. Older students tended to have better GPA and had
attended more semesters than younger students.
Blake (1992) in a survey study examined whether variables
describing academic and social integration could discriminate
nonreturners from returners (academic persistence) among students with
disabilities at a large urban university. A survey was mailed to a
random sample of 59 students with reported disabilities who formerly
attended the university between August 1984 and August 1990, 78 students
with disabilities who were currently enrolled with the
institution's disability services office and 150 students with no
reported disabilities. The results of discriminant analysis using the
variables describing integration yielded no statistically significant
differences among the respective groups. The academic and social
integration variables did not discriminate between nonreturners and
returners or between students with disabilities and students with no
In a survey research intended to find any possible relationship
between academic success and university accommodation, Keim (1996)
examined the academic achievement and the use of various academic
support services among 125 university students with learning
disabilities. Independent variables, such as advisement contacts were
examined for their relationship with the dependent variable of academic
achievement. Results supported the effectiveness of university support
programs toward academic achievement for these students.
Anderson (1993) surveyed 26 students with disabilities and 66
non-disabled students regarding social support and barriers to higher
education. Results indicated students with disabilities on average had
more professionals within their personal support network. Both students
with and without disabilities described social support network as
important to successful adjustment to university. However, students with
disabilities expressed concerns related to physical barriers within the
university buildings, the need for emotional support and ongoing
adjustment to disability, which were not readily identified by the
Allison (1994) examined the utilization of reasonable
accommodations for university students with disabilities and their
relationship to graduation rates in a large suburban university.
Although there were no substantial differences between graduates and
disenrollees in terms of accommodation usefulness, there were
significant differences in terms of social support network. Drop outs
indicated lack of social support (family, friends and teachers) as one
In an effort to understand high-ability learning students who
successfully completed their education, Reis (1997) interviewed the
experiences of 12 successful college students with learning disabilities
who graduated from a large urban university. The participants reported
social problems, difficulty with teachers, and frustration with certain
academic areas, sometimes resulting from the interaction of their high
ability and learning disabilities. Participants however successfully
integrated specific personality traits, special compensation strategies,
and environmental modifications in the university setting.
A statewide survey by Guo (1993) investigated differences on locus
of control of students with disabilities between public and private
schools (type of school), and between freshman and senior students
(student level). In addition, the relationship among students'
satisfaction with campus life, school services and type of school,
student level and locus of control were studied. One hundred students
with disabilities from public schools and 100 students from private
schools were randomly selected. There were no statistically significant
differences on locus of control between public and private school
students with disabilities, although there were statistically
significant differences on locus of control between freshman and
seniors. Seniors had higher locus of control scores than freshmen. No
significant relationship was found among satisfaction, type of school,
and locus of control.
Mulcahey (1992) through a qualitative interview study documented
four adolescents' experiences when they returned to school after a
spinal cord injury and reported that both the adolescents with spinal
cord injury and the school environments to which they returned were
ill-prepared for school reentry. Mulcahey also found that returning to
preinjury school environments and peer groups were difficult for these
adolescents. In a qualitative study, Hurst (1991) studied the
experiences of three small cohorts of students, whose disabilities
affected their walking, as they attempted to secure places in various
higher educational institutions. The interviews suggested that most of
these students encountered negative discrimination when they tried to
enter higher education.
Denny and Carson (1994) in an effort to understand the perceptions
of students with disabilities about their college climate surveyed 41
students with disabilities from a large urban university. These students
were surveyed to obtain their perceptions about how other students,
faculty, and staff view-them and to collect data about the accessibility
features of the university campus. One-fourth of the students surveyed
felt that the university community responded to them in a supportive
manner. One-half believed that others did not react to their disability
in any negative manner. The researchers developed a social attitude
scale to measure these students' perceptions of their nondisabled
peers' interaction with them. The scale identified social behavior
as the strongest factor in explaining variance. Subjects who had a
positive perception of others perceived less resentment from others.
These subjects also made some recommendations to encourage acceptance
and increase social contact for students with disabilities. These
recommendations included, faculty modeling of positive behavior in
interacting with students with disabilities and increased use of
cooperative work in classrooms. These participants believed that
decreasing physical barriers could increase social interaction by way of
improved access to various university-wide activities.
In a similar study, Elacqua (1996) surveyed 37 college students
with various disabilities to assess their perceptions of the
accommodation process at a medium-sized Midwestern university. Students
were surveyed about particular accommodations requested and positive and
negative aspects of the accommodation process. The survey also gathered
descriptive information on perceptions of classroom accommodation
requests, perceived instrumentality of classroom accommodations to
enable students to achieve personal and academic objectives,
availability of information regarding support and referral services, and
the overall satisfaction with classroom accommodations. The majority of
students felt satisfied with the accommodations they received and felt
they were familiar with the referral procedures and support services
available, but they felt that professors were not familiar with their
disabilities or available services. The students felt that requesting a
classroom accommodation was often stressful. The study went on to
emphasize the need for inservice training about students with
disabilities in higher educational institutions.
In a qualitative study exploring the faculty experiences with
students with disabilities, Farbman (1983) explored the experiences of a
select group of science faculty members from a large urban university.
Analysis of in-depth interviews revealed that the faculty members had
contact with mostly mobility impaired or visually impaired students. The
approaches of the faculty members appeared to be polarized. Some faculty
were willing to modify their teaching styles, to give out copies of
their notes, and to spend extra time outside of class. Other professors
refused to do those things. These students with disabilities, with the
exception of Braille terminals rarely used special equipment. The
majority of academic accommodations involved logistical arrangements
such as more time or scheduling. Accommodations seemed to be related
directly to how the students approached the faculty members. The more
articulate and precise the student was about his or her needs, the
better he or she fared. Based on the findings the researcher concluded
that the degree of autonomy afforded to professors by academic freedom
may be detrimental to students with disabilities and preparing these
students with advocacy and negotiation skills would best enhance their
In a study of faculty awareness about students with disabilities,
Baggett (1994), surveyed 422 faculty of a large Northeastern
metropolitan university. The university had a large population of
students with disabilities which included learning disabilities,
mobility impairments, visual and hearing impairments. The survey
revealed that 77% of the faculty had taught five or fewer students with
disabilities during the last 4 years. Faculty indicated that they could
identify only students who disclosed their disability. Data analysis
indicated that the faculty lacked experience teaching students with
disabilities, were unfamiliar with the various disability rights and
laws, and were unfamiliar with the various university-wide services
available to these students with disabilities. Among the disability
groups, the faculty were more familiar with teaching learning
disabilities than the other groups of disabilities.
In an effort to understand the faculty attitudes and knowledge of
disability laws, Benham (1995) conducted a mail survey study of three
large universities in a Southern state. The purpose of the study was to
examine the faculty's attitude toward students with disabilities,
their knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), their
knowledge about various specific disabilities and how these three
factors related to faculty rank, gender, age of faculty, academic area,
years of teaching, prior experience with individuals with disabilities
before university teaching, prior experience in accommodating people
with disabilities, and the types of accommodations used. Data revealed
significant independent relationships between gender of faculty member,
and years of teaching experience in higher education and faculty
attitudes toward students with disabilities. Both males and faculty
members with more than 10 but less than 20 years of teaching experience
in higher education tended to have more negative attitudes toward
students with disabilities than females or faculty members with less
than 10 or more than 20 years of teaching experience. The results showed
that in general faculty members appeared to have some preliminary
knowledge about various disabilities.
Summary and Discussion
Congressional legislation and strict federal laws aimed at
eliminating discrimination against individuals with disabilities enabled
youths with disabilities who graduated from secondary institutions to
seek admission to higher educational institutions. However, literature
shows that these efforts alone may not be enough to provide adequate
integration into the educational community (Moore, 1995). According to
Collins (1995), a successful university life experience goes beyond the
university into the community. Collins (1995), went on to state that
building confidence and the necessary social skills of students with
disabilities were of equal priority to the necessary academic skills,
which prepare people to meet future challenges.
Literature indicates attitudes of faculty and student affairs
administrators toward students with disabilities are influenced by both
institutional and individual characteristics (Anderson, 1993). Strict
institutional regulations encourage faculty to increase their support
and services to students with disabilities. Faculty with positive
attitudes toward students with disabilities are more readily able to
accommodate to the students' needs (Barnes, 1994). Research
findings have indicated a positive connection between faculty awareness
and accommodation, their familiarity and experience with students with
disabilities and their knowledge about disability laws and rights
(Bowman & Marzonk, 1990).
According to Marchant (1990), the success of a college student with
a disability depends on a match between teacher and student. The success
of the student/teacher match includes consideration of the
teacher's attitude towards students with disabilities which is
determined, in part, by the teacher's knowledge of disabilities and
experience with teaching students with disabilities (Reed, 1994). Hart
and Williams (1995) contend that the rising number of college students
with disabilities makes it imperative for teachers to increase their own
as well as the nondisabled students' awareness of physical,
learning, and emotional disabilities. They also suggest course content
related to disability awareness and classroom techniques to achieve this
It is a legal responsibility of the faculty, administration, staff
and students to treat a student with a disability the same as anyone
else, without reservations (Benham, 1995). The university community
should facilitate access to an environment for students with
disabilities to achieve academic and social integration. The influence
of faculty, administration, staff and other students as socializing
agents shape the experiences of students with disabilities. A positive
influence can lead to a positive experience and a negative influence can
lead to a negative experience (Collins, 1995; Kawauchi, 1990).
This review focused on college environments, support services,
academic achievement, and adjustment to disability. Even though the
enactment of various disability laws have contributed to increasing
enrollment of students with disabilities in higher educational
institutions, these students constantly face various barriers in their
educational environment (Rumill, 1994). The nondisabled university
community needs to be aware of the presence of individuals with
disabilities in its environment. Respect and cooperation from faculty,
students, and administration can lead to a more effective educational
experience for students with disabilities. This process might call for
consultation and inclusion of students with disabilities in various
university-wide programs, services and activities, and provision of the
necessary support services in order to enable these students achieve
their academic as well as social goals.
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STANLEY PAUL, PH.D., OT
Assistant Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy, College of
Health and Human Services
Western Michigan University, Michigan 49008