‘Disability’ Policy and Equity in Higher Education

Friday, June 24, 2011

Emily Hutcheon, University of Calgary
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of a collaborative series on disabilities between the Federation’s Equity Issues Portfolio and the Canadian Disability Studies Association/ Association Canadienne des Études sur l’Incapacité.

It is well known that disabled individuals face physical, social, and emotional barriers in their post-secondary education. These barriers include: lack of financial support, difficulty seeking accommodations, and outright discrimination such as lack of access to and within built structures. Some barriers represent more subtle obstructions to full participation, such as lack of awareness of faculty and peers, lack of participation in academic and lay discourse, and strain on time resources. These barriers are especially problematic given that post-secondary experiences (both educative and social) shape students’ beliefs, self-concept, and identity, and impact health and further opportunities.

There are practical occupational advantages for disabled individuals to complete post-secondary education, including more flexible employment and better income. Experiences in post-secondary education also provide a means for the disabled to participate in knowledge-production and policy development, which reflects their own perspectives.

Disabled students, however, are largely absent from discourse in the domains of higher education scholarship, research, creative activity and practice, and are under-represented in higher education faculty. 

This remains the case despite a growth in inclusive policies. Additionally, existing post-secondary services for those with perceived impairments, while usually addressing immediate concerns such as accessibility, do not provide this student group with mediums of positive expression, social outlets, or opportunities to embrace their identities. This is in part due to students’ obligation to identify as ‘impaired’ and in need of ‘special’ treatment.

Instead of using language which acknowledges a diversity of needs, existing policy tends to frame accommodations as compulsory allowances for those ‘outside of the norm.’ Accommodations are, as a consequence, not well integrated into social and institutional practice.  Currently, most Canadian universities provide what they term ‘accommodations’ (e.g. assignment extensions, extended exam time) and adaptive technologies (e.g. recorders). The provision of both accommodations and adaptive technologies assumes that both are sufficient to ‘level the playing field’ for those with disabilities.

As research in the area of critical disabilities study show, there is need for a balance between the university’s legal obligation to protect human rights and not to discriminate and the institution’s other interests (primarily fiscal). Indeed, equity for persons with disabilities within the academy often manifests as the ‘duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship.’

University policies often align with a biomedical understanding of disability, which is impactful in several ways. First, the university’s response to difference becomes individualized and thus may disregard other sources of disablement, including attitudinal barriers, barriers caused by institutional structure, among others.  Second, an individualized approach to disability places the onus on the student to initiate and maintain accommodations on their own behalf. The presumption of disability as biomedical in nature tends to shape the process such that ‘evidence’ of disability on an individual/biomedical/psychological level – e.g. documentation of diagnosis – is required to receive services. This may be problematic for individuals who cannot afford the required medical assessments, whose difference is consequential for their learning but unrecognized by the medical community, or for those who do not personally align with the medical model.

This precludes proactive practices on the part of the university, including considerations of equity, and adds to its reputation as rather passive and reactive. It also places the student in an ‘adversarial position’ in that their educational and vocational goals could be compromised if they do not self-identify as disabled (in the biomedical sense of the term) or provide the required medical documentation. As such, students are required to align with the institutionalized biomedical understanding regardless of the beliefs they hold about themselves. Within this framework, identity becomes a key determinant of the nature of the balance of power between the student and the institution. These power relations, and the conception of power as residing with the agent, are quite evident in students’ hesitancy to self-advocate, their tendency to self-regulate – for example to engage in particular behaviours, such as taking medications, in order to qualify for accommodations – and to engage in complicity through self-identification.

Ableism as an analytical tool
The concept of ableism, arising from the disabled people’s rights movement and further developed through the work of various scholars in the social sciences and humanities, treads previously unmet theoretical ground in understanding the sociocultural production of ability. Ableism as a concept reflects the reality that individuals and groups perceive certain abilities in oneself or others as ‘essential’. Ableism can be treated as both a hegemony which promotes ability preference and as an analytical tool used to understand these preferences and their impact. This concept has been applied to areas typically explored by disability studies (our understanding of the idealized and essentialized body and mind, the impact of rehabilitative technology and body modifications, for example). It is currently being expanded to other domains, including culturally valued abilities such as the ability to be productive.

These novel theoretical treatments enabled by ableism shift our scholarly gaze from the processes that produce and maintain disablism –  oppression of those with perceived impairments, including labelling them as such – to those that maintain ableism, that is the ability preferences which inaugurate the norm. This is particularly important given the pervasive and insidious impact of ableism in all domains of social life, and the ways in which ableism has been used to justify present and historic inequalities, in its rejection of ‘different’ or ‘peripheral’ ways of being and existing.

Ableism can be used as a conceptual tool to understand how the social and cultural production of ability and ableness impacts how we develop ability-related policy in post-secondary institutions, how those with differences are characterized (e.g. as exhibiting or ‘lacking’ certain abilities) and the types of responses proposed by policymakers in higher education. A disability policy which disempowers students, however inadvertently, may act as an additional barrier.

Policies may disempower students in several ways: the assumptions which underlie them (e.g. body ability variation as a biomedical deficit) and the resulting labelling process; their tendency to deepen the disjuncture between dominant and peripheral understandings of disability, and their promotion of institution-student power differentials. Given that experiences in post-secondary education are impactful for the student population as a whole, and are potentially a fruitful avenue for resiliency, empowerment, and knowledge-creation in the disabled population, these negative policy-related impacts are troubling and must be mitigated.

Toward charting a new policy direction
Existing policies not only presume a biomedical understanding of body/ability variations – they are also ableist. In other words, they presume a homosocial worldview that rejects difference. The disability studies research suggests that within policy documents differences are often conceptualized in relation to what is typical, and students are expected to conform to this normative standard. Current policy, in other words, is not based on questioning of what is ‘regular’ or ‘typical,’ or of the privilege attached to what is regular or typical.

It is essential to deconstruct this convention, with the goal of problematizing notions of ‘typical’ and  ‘normal,’ particularly evident in the language of many policy documents that describe the provision of accommodations as a ‘burden’ to the university or  as an ‘obligation’ of the university in its commitment to the principle of  ‘reasonable accommodation.’ This language generally is absent in university policies which address the needs of other equity-seeking groups (women, racialized minorities and Aboriginal people). Ableism, understood as a set of ideas which inaugurates body- and ability-norms, is particularly well-suited to galvanize this deconstruction.

What this analysis suggests is that it is incumbent upon all policymakers, educators, and students, disabled nondisabled alike, to critically examine their own assumptions regarding difference. Policymakers and those working in the area of disability services also need to examine several already existing initiatives (e.g. accommodations, awareness-raising), which currently are structured to reactively address the accessibility needs of students.

Emily Hutcheon is a student in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Calgary, a member of the Canadian Disability Studies Association and was elected student representative for the 2011-2012 term. Email: ejhutche [at] ucalgary [dot] ca 


Equity Matters


Ableism and disability