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Students with disabilities in higher education: a review of the literature.
Education, Higher (Study and teaching)
Education, Higher (Research)
Education, Higher (Analysis)
Disabled students (Education)
Disabled students (Research)
Paul, Stanley
Pub Date:
Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2000 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: June, 2000 Source Volume: 34 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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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 barriers.

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, 1996).

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 nondisabled counterparts.

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 applicants.

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. 242).

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 students.

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 reported disabilities.

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 non-disabled students.

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 contributing factor.

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 educational opportunities.

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 goal.

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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Assistant Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy, College of Health and Human Services

Western Michigan University, Michigan 49008
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