Accessibility, accommodations, and student attitudes toward a barrier-free campus

Ask almost anyone if they value accessibility at their school, and you’ll hear a resounding “yes!” But not everyone comes at accessibility issues from the same perspective, and people can have widely differing opinions on whether their schools are doing a good job of making sure that students with disabilities have the most fulfilling postsecondary experience possible. 

To learn more about accessibility on Canadian campuses, we asked our StudentVu panel a number of questions related to their day-to-day experience of—and thoughts on—accessibility at their schools. 

How many students identify as having a disability?

Overall, 34% of panelists indicated that they had some form of disability, with “mental health” issues being the most commonly cited by far (21% of respondents). This category was followed by vision impairment (6%), attention deficit disorder (5%), and learning disabilities (4%). 2% of respondents said that they had a mobility-based disability. 

“When we look at the sample, I think we see reflected a trend that's being felt across the post-secondary system,” says Dr. Jeff Preston, a disability rights advocate and author of the 2016 book, The Fantasy of Disability. Preston argues that “while we typically ‘think’ of disability as being physical in nature (mobility, auditory, vision) the bulk of the population identifying as ‘disabled’ place themselves (or are medically diagnosed) somewhere within the cognitive realm, with either a learning disability or a mental illness.” 

Preston adds that while the physical accessibility of campuses is essential, he notes that “this shifting demographic would indicate that we need to take cognitive accessibility much more seriously as our current accessibility spending (which tends to be focused on the build environment) may not be fully reflective of the population's actual needs.”

One of the most notable findings for this question was that responses varied by gender, with panelists who identified as men being significantly more likely than those who identified as women or other to say they did not have a disability (68% compared to 58% and 27%, respectively). Those who identified as women or other were also significantly more likely than men to say that they had a mental health disability (27% and 65% compared to 11%, respectively).

How does having a disability affect different students?

We asked students who identified as having a disability whether their disability had impacted their academic life, and a majority said yes.

68% of those who said that they had a disability reported having their academic life affected by the disability, while 27% said that their disability had not impacted their academic life. Those who identified as women or other were more likely than those who identified as men to say that their disability had affected their academic life (71% and 90% compared to 57%, respectively). 

Dr. Preston sees another significant trend in these findings, especially as they relate to gender: “It is possible that the under-reporting of disabilities by men, particularly mental illness which is historically associated with women is driven by the repression and disavowal of disablement because of what it could do to the individual's subject position of ‘man.’” 

In other words, Preston notes, the historical association between femininity, weakness, and disability could make the idea of having a disability particularly threatening for students who identify as men and, therefore, make them less likely to identify with and/or disclose this condition.

How perceptions of your school towards accommodations vary between groups.

Over half of students felt that their campus was tolerant toward disability accommodations (56% rated their school a 4 or 5 out of 5). Those who identified as men were significantly more likely to give their school a positive score for its tolerance than those who identified as women or other, not only with respect to accommodations for disabilities, but also for its environment with respect to racism or homophobia.

These differences by gender were also noted in panelists’ reactions to a series of statements around accommodations. Overall, panelists identifying as men were more likely than those identifying as women or other to agree with statements such as “Academic accommodations give students an unfair advantage over others,” and “Academic accommodations/accessibility aids should always require a doctor's or specialist's note” (See Notes). 

On the other hand, those who identified as women or other were more likely than those who identified as men to agree with “The institution should NOT require a full disclosure (all details) about a disability to grant accommodations / accessibility aids”; and that “Seeking accommodations for a disability / disadvantage is a reasonable thing to do” (See Notes).

How to name your department

Overall, “Accessibility Services” was the most popular name for a department that provides accessibility support to students.

Those aged 20 and older were significantly more likely to prefer “Accessibility Services” than those aged 19 and younger. University students were significantly more likely than college students to select “Accessibility Services,” while college students were significantly more likely to select “Student Aid Services.”

For Dr. Preston, this report’s findings on students’ preference of “Accessibility Services” are particularly exciting, because they signal a significant change in the public’s mindset toward disabilities over the past few decades. 

“‘Accessibility Services’ sounds like a ‘big tent’ place that's all about providing access for people (regardless of who they are or why they're there) to things that may not currently be accessible,” says Preston, “whereas ‘Disability services’ sounds like providing service specifically to those with disabilities.” Preston adds that “albeit small, I think this reflects a substantial evolution from how most people, both within and outside the disabled community, would have perceived this service only 20 years ago.”

Takeaways:

Overall, panelists who identified as men were less likely to say that they had a disability (particularly a mental health disability) than those who identified as women or other. Panelists identifying as men who also identified as having a disability were less likely than these other groups to say that the disability had affected their academic life, or that they had sought out resources or accommodations. 

Further, panelists identifying as men expressed stronger agreement with placing limitations on disability-related accommodations than those identifying as women or other, and with the notion that providing academic accommodations for those with disabilities constitutes an unfair advantage.  

Panelists identifying as men were also more likely to say that their school was tolerant toward disability-related accommodations, as well as tolerant with respect to race and sexual orientation. 


Notes:

1. This survey was conducted online between March 24 and April 3, 2017 with the StudentVu panel. 4232 students were invited to participate, and 1537 completed surveys were used in the final analysis. Data were weighted by gender and age, according to 2015 Statistics Canada PSIS data, in order to better reflect the Canadian student population. Analysis was conducted by gender, age, type of enrollment, and year.

2. This study found that 66% of panelists identifying their gender as “other” identified as having some form of disability. It should be noted, however, that the n-size for other respondents who responded to this study was very small (n=30). This small n-size was taken into account when conducting significance testing.

3. When asked to rate their level of agreement on a 1-5 Likert scale, respondents identifying as male expressed a higher level of agreement (2.4) than women (2.0) or those who identified as other (1.8) with the statement: “Academic accommodations give students an unfair advantage over others.” It should be noted, however, that the 2.4 result for men still falls within the zone of general disagreement, with a 3.0 indicating a neutral response. 

Those who identified as male also expressed stronger agreement with the statement: “Academic accommodations/accessibility aids should always require a doctor's or specialist's note,” registering a 3.6 compared to respondents who identified as women (3.2) or other (2.7). 

4. Students identifying as women or other expressed higher levels of agreement than those identifying as men with the statement: “The institution should NOT require a full disclosure (all details) about a disability to grant accommodations / accessibility aids,” with women registering a 3.1, other registering a 3.6, and men registering a 2.7.

With respect to the statement, “Seeking accommodations for a disability / disadvantage is a reasonable thing to do,” those who identified as women registered a 4.4, while those who identified as other registered a 4.5 and those who identified as men registered a 4.3.

It all starts with a deep understanding of the sector, the institution and the stakeholder groups. We’ll bring our two decades of applicant and student survey data and combine it with custom research that is specific to the challenge you’re facing or strategy you’re considering.

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