Higher Education is Still Literally Out of Reach for Too Many People With Disabilities

Despite some progress, unnecessary barriers to higher education continue to keep people with disabilities from reaching their full academic potential.

The statistics are sobering. According to the research firm Disability Compendium, in 2021, only 12.3% of people in the U.S. age 25 and older with a disability had earned a four-year college degree. The rate for the general population was almost double that at 23.3%.

Similarly, just 7.8% of people with disabilities in the same age group had earned more than a four-year degree, compared to 15.1% of people in general.

In 2021, only 12.3% of people aged 25 and older with a disability had earned a four-year college degree.

The disparity in earning a college degree is especially alarming, given that college is essentially the new high school when it comes to landing many rewarding jobs that pay a living wage. It used to be that a four-year degree was just nice to have, but many employers now consider it essential, even if it really isn’t for a given position.

What accounts for the huge gaps in educational attainment between people with disabilities and the rest of society? Here are a few of the barriers facing anyone with a disability who seeks schooling beyond the 12th grade.

Inadequate Transition Services

The United Disabilities Services Foundation (UDSF) says one of the main barriers to higher education for people with disabilities is a lack of adequate transition services. 

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), any student with one or more disabilities must have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) by the time they turn 16.

Among other things, an IEP should include transition services. IDEA defines these as a “coordinated set of activities…focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities.”

“IEPs play an extremely important role when it comes to planning the transition between high school and college or the workforce,” the USDF says.

“IEPs play an extremely important role when it comes to planning the transition between high school and college or the workforce,” UDSF says. “Research shows that they significantly increase the odds of students with disabilities taking advantage of accommodations and other disability services.”

An IEP’s transition plan must have two parts. The first part should cover postsecondary education goals like vocational training, employment, and independent living. The second part should cover transition services like college/career counseling, accommodations, and independent living skills. 

While all of this is nice in theory, UDSF says IEPs often aren’t as comprehensive as they should be and thus fail to meet students’ needs. Among other things, this can keep people with disabilities from meeting their full academic potential.

Negative Stereotypes and Attitudes

The American Counseling Association (ACA) notes that full integration of students with disabilities into colleges and universities requires everyone in the academic community, including faculty, to be receptive and accommodating. Unfortunately, sometimes they aren’t.

“University faculty may be susceptible to frequently held stereotypes, which may in turn be a barrier for students’ success,” the ACA says.

It adds that some faculty may think they know more about students’ needs than the students themselves, question whether an accommodation is actually reasonable, or doubt that they can effectively teach students with disabilities at all.

On a more charitable note, the ACA says that some faculty simply may not understand the needs of students with disabilities or be familiar with campus services designed to meet them.

“University faculty may be susceptible to frequently held stereotypes, which may in turn be a barrier for students’ success,” the ACA says.

Able-bodied students also can buy into negative thinking about their peers with disabilities, says Mary Anne Ehlert, who has worked in various ways with people with disabilities for 30 years and founded Protected Tomorrows. Students with disabilities may feel emotional barriers “due to stigmas, stereotypes, discrimination, and ignorance from their peers,” she tells TwP.

She also points out that many students with disabilities are leaving their caregivers, loved ones, and other types of support for the first time when they go to college. Building a new support system from scratch is a tall order, especially in an unfriendly environment.

Physical Barriers

As always, physical barriers are a huge problem. Although the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act both require buildings to be accessible, these requirements haven’t always been met, especially on college campuses. 

“Providing this accessible environment across campuses… is restricted by architectural and budgetary constraints, and postsecondary institutions often implement this code within these constraints, which often do not consider the immediate individual needs of students with disabilities,” the ACA says. Thus, “Studies suggest that students with disabilities often encounter physical barriers in the postsecondary environment which remain an unaddressed concern by these institutions.”

Ehlert agrees. “The biggest barrier we have seen for students with physical disabilities in postsecondary education is the lack of accessibility of college campuses,” she says.

“The biggest barrier we have seen for students with physical disabilities in postsecondary education is the lack of accessibility of college campuses,” Ehlert says.

“Many college buildings are historical or very old, and thus are not forced to comply with the ADA to include elevators, ramps, wider hallways, etc.,” Ehlert continues. “The same goes for dorm buildings, which then forces those with disabilities to be grouped together in an ‘accessible dorm building,’ which can limit their exposure to their peers and the chance at a typical college experience.”

Even if a student with a disability can get into a building, actual classrooms may still be off limits. “Most lecture halls are created with able-bodied individuals in mind, so they often including stairs and cramped desks or tables,” Ehlert points out.

Accessibility issues extend beyond college buildings to streets without curb cuts, etc.

Inadequate Accommodations and School Services

Dr. Gwen Schilling-Dickey, an adjunct instructor at Grand Canyon University, says that many services for college students with disabilities are “administered in a one-size-fits-all approach” regardless of a particular student’s needs.

Some professors also are uncooperative, she says, writing for the U.S. Department of Education. For example, participants in some studies said they had instructors who “would not allow the accommodations, ignored their request for access to material, or were simply unresponsive.”

“While the ADA has lessened some barriers, barriers remain in using the laboratory space,” the NIH says.

The National Institutes of Health reached a similar conclusion. It found that, specifically regarding barriers to students with disabilities participating in academic labs, some instructors provided inappropriate accommodations or were unwilling to help students engage in lab activities. “These findings suggest that while [the ADA] has lessened some barriers, barriers remain in using the laboratory space,” it says.

So those are some of the problems. While they may seem overwhelming, the fact is that many people living with paralysis – including myself and others I know – have met the challenges and managed to graduate from institutes of higher learning. It can be done, but certain reforms would be much easier. I’ll discuss those in part two of this post. TwP

Scroll to Top