Disability, Higher Education, Inclusion, Oh My…

Why is the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion at universities invariably so wooden and dead one would rather succumb to the prolixity of self help manuals? Give me Leo Buscaglia over prose exhorting the building of individual competencies or better, let’s imagine collective talent and free students (and staff) of the corporatized idee fix of the happy happy individual. If we’re to be honest we should admit universities are competitive and structurally opposed to whatever is meant by inclusion. (I like Paolo Freire’s sense of it, grass roots, promoting literacy for all, but on the American campus the term seems to mean—“tag along” as if we’re all going for a nice walk and you’ve been invited, lucky you.)

Lucky you indeed. It’s estimated that almost three quarters of disabled college students fail to graduate. What was it? The food? Must have been the chow. Yes, inclusion stops at the classroom door; stops at the inaccessible website; stops when the disability services office posits there are just a few hoops you have to jump through to get accommodations and you better follow the procedures exactly or your semester will go down the drain faster than your costume jewelry. Structurally speaking disability is to inclusion as mice are to kitchens.

At most universities and colleges disability isn’t included under the rubric of diversity. As a former administrator once said in my presence: “we don’t want people to know we have learning disabled students, it will affect our rankings.”

Talk about “Typhoid Mary”—disability might be catching! But back to the rhetoric. Consider the following, a fairly typical “letter” which a prospective college student must give to a physician in order to receive accommodations on campus:

Please provide the following information under separate cover and on practice letterhead. The authorized release of information is to include but not be limited to the following:

1. Presenting diagnosis(es) utilizing diagnostic categorization or classification of the ICD or DSM IV. Diagnoses should indicate primary, secondary, etc., and significant findings, particularly in respect to presenting problems.

2. Date the examination/assessment/evaluation was performed for the presenting diagnosis, or if following the student for an extended time, date of onset and date of an evaluation of the condition that is recent enough to demonstrate the student’s current level of functioning.

3. Tests, methodology used to determine disability. PLEASE do not send copies of the student’s medical records.

4. Identify the current functional impact on the student’s physical, perceptual and cognitive performance in activities such as mobility, self-care, note taking, laboratory assignment, testing/examinations, housing conditions/arrangements. Is this condition temporary? If temporary, what is the expected length of time to recovery?

5. Describe any treatments, medications, assistive devices/services the student is currently using. Note their effectiveness and any side effects that may impact the student’s physical, perceptual or cognitive performance.

6. Recommendations for accommodations. Explain the relationship between the student’s functional limitations and the recommendations.

7. Credentials (certification, licensure and/or training) of the diagnosing professional(s).

This information is kept confidential except as required by law.


Again, the prose above is standard boilerplate. It’s what’s for breakfast. If you have a disability and want to go to college you’ll need to be medicalized and sanitized. This is what passes for accommodation language at matriculation for most university students. Get a doctor or a psychologist to affirm you are indeed disabled—moreover, ask a medical professional to articulate “for you” what you will need in order to succeed in higher education. The falsity of the claim—that a standard MD or Ph.D. knows much about disability and it’s circumstances is nearly laughable but not quite. Inclusion is in the balance. Let’s see your disability certificate kid. Let’s see what it says we “have to” do for you. Do you feel included? What’s that? Not quite? Perhaps you have a bad attitude.

A campus that’s inclusive is accommodating because it’s classrooms, it’s digital domains, it’s syllabi, it’s assignments, it’s library, all are “beyond compliance”—which in turn means no one should need a letter from a doctor or a specialized office with its reliance on “treatments” and “functional impacts” and “cognitive performance” and the like. This language by its very nature is not inclusive nor is it meant to be—it’s designed to weed out students who might be tempted to fake a disability, because lord knows, maybe extra time when taking a test will give certain underachievers an advantage. I know of no other area of diversity where one’s provenance and authenticity must be vetted and confirmed.

BTW, as a blind person I can attest that your average ophthalmologist knows next to nothing about how a person may live and function with a blinding eye condition. Hence question number 6 above is wholly inadmissible.

There is a distemper in higher education where disability is concerned, something that’s out of step with the best thinking in architecture, software, pedagogy, even environmentalism. Meanwhile, if you’re a student or faculty member with a disability you can be excused if you believe that being on campus is like attending a musical where the singers and musicians genuinely dislike you.