The Issues With the State of Disability in Higher Education


I nearly cried after a meeting. Not tears of pain, or despair, or grief – those usually need little explanation. No. I nearly cried because I met an active researcher, professor and librarian who was disabled.

Why did this affect me so profoundly? Perhaps it is time for a little bit of background on the state of disability in United States higher education.

10.3 percent of the U.S. population in their working years is disabled. 13.1 percent of students ages 3-21 receive accommodations, but only 7.6 percent of grad students are disabled. Only 42 U.S. schools offer a semblance of a disability studies program.

 

If only 7.6 percent of graduate students are disabled now, the number of tenured professors — some of whom may have finished their studies before the ADA was passed in 1990 — is probably equally slim. Since many with disabilities do not report them and tracking such data can be a
violation of employee privacy, no firm data is available. However, the National Science Foundation reported that as of 2008, “out of 269,400 science and engineering doctorate holders with appointments in higher education, from chancellors to teaching assistants, approximately 19,700 (or 7.3 percent) had a disability.”

For me, the statistics are a little more grim. I attend a large research university. In 2013, the campus enrollment was around 43,000. However, only 10 students had registered with the disability services office for wheelchairs, and only 500 students were registered with the disability services office. That’s 1.16 percent of the student body.

As of today, 60-80 percent of students “do not feel OK reporting their disability on campus,” according to the Electronic and Information Technology (EIT) Accessibility Program. Additionally, I am a graduate student, thus already part of a statistically smaller registered disabled population – and I am at a performing arts conservatory.

Now, over the eons of the arts, there have been many examples of successful disabled artists. For instance,  there was Ray Charles, a blind pianist, or Itzhak Perlman, a violinist who was struck by polio in his childhood. Ludwig van Beethoven and Bedrich Smetana composed while deaf. Vincent Van Gogh likely had epilepsy in the last years of his life and evidence suggests he struggled with mental illness. Frida Kahlo painted from her bed.

Still, the world of the arts may not be as inclusive as those few artists above make it seem. Male conductors still far outnumber female conductors, and its only in the last few decades that some predominantly male orchestras have even allowed female performers to become full members (in 1997, the Vienna orchestra famously finally allowed a female harpist membership). The university marching bands usually don’t have any members with obvious physical disabilities. At the professional level, physically disabled performers are virtually non-existent on Broadway, at the Met or the American Ballet Company. That is probably why my school, which focuses on preparing students for careers in just those sort of professional careers, does not seem to have any obviously physically disabled students.

But what of invisible illnesses? Of those, graduate students have plenty. There is no data on the number of students with, for instance, fibromyalgia, dysautonomia, chronic fatigue syndrome, etc. But there is some information on mental health and graduate studies, and the picture is bleak. In 2004, a survey of graduate students at the University of California Berkeley discovered that 45 percent of respondents had experienced an emotional or stress-related problem that had significantly impacted their well-being or academics. One in 10 had seriously considered suicide. In 2008, a new survey put the number of graduate students who had considered suicide at exactly 50 percent.

In comparison, only 6.7 percent of the adult population of the U.S.
experiences a major depressive disorder each year, and anxiety disorders
affect about 18 percent of the population. Of course, most of the data on mental health and graduate students comes from a single university – the University of California Berkeley – so perhaps it is just an exceptionally difficult program, and the situation isn’t really that bad – and everyone knows statistics can be manipulated.

Still.

Graduate students are about 20 percent more likely than the average US population to experience a mental health issue that affects their health or performance at school. Yet most of the time, this isn’t discussed. In fact, the same 2004 UC Berkeley survey found that nearly 25 percent of its graduate students weren’t even aware of on-campus mental health services.

I’d love to believe that someway, somehow, my school is simply far healthier than the norm. That’s not exactly a supportive, inclusive wish, but it is better than the alternative – realizing that the low numbers of students registering with disability services or feeling comfortable about admitting their disability is actually more indicative of a culture that hides “weakness” and disguises illness rather than accepting, supporting and healing those who are struggling. My hopeful wish withers in the face of the evidence I see every day of every week.

It’s the inaccessible grad carrels on the eighth floor of a library. It’s the Starbucks “cure all” drink named after the school that everyone slugs when they’re sick, but can’t stop to heal. It’s students sleeping everywhere, any chance they get, and not just during finals week. It’s classmates coming to seminar doubled over with the flu. It’s seeing bouts of crying and apathy at every corner.

The school, to its great credit, is aware there is a problem. On the campus level, the IT department is trying to ensure electronic universal design and bring the campus up to the 1990 ADA requirements (after a tangle with the Office of Civil Rights). On my own college’s level, there is a physical therapy office in the complex to treat dancers when they inevitably get injured (a more-or-less accepted occupational hazard).

There are now mindfulness classes offered, and the counseling office has decided the conservatory is a good location for an emergency drop-in office. The library is in the process of changing its layout to make all areas
more accessible – a massive venture. I do think the heads of the school are trying to change the culture, and for that, I am both grateful and proud.

On other campuses, the fight continues. At the University of Pittsburgh, complaints have been filed every year since 2010. Depressingly, the same article states that Pitt’s numbers are about average. The University of Santa Barbara California has a “Disabled Students Program … conveniently located on the second floor of the Student Resource Building”  – and separated from the elevator bank by a mesh walkway.

At the University of Virginia, students are battling to have an adequate number of disabled parking spaces, since the current need far outstrips the minimum standards.

This is why I was so overwhelmed when I, as a graduate student, met a professor in my field who was disabled, because it felt like there was hope. This is why advocacy is important. This is why awareness is important, because without it, students will continue to struggle on, alone and afraid to get help, and no positive changes will happen in higher education.

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Thinkstock photo via z80.

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