Why disabled people have a rocky history with academia

Unfortunately, when it comes to education, academic institutions often fail even the most basic tests in accessibility. Learning how to make education accessible for students (and educators) with a whole range of disabilities should be an ongoing priority for schools, colleges and universities, but it seems many still have serious lessons to be learnt.

Isn’t disability access protected by law?

There are many reasons why accessing an education with a disability can be difficult, with both obvious and often hidden dynamics at play. Many people think that because there are disability laws in place there are no issues, but the problem is these laws are rarely enforced. Look at the statistics if you need proof of this: disabled people are 2.5 times less likely to have academic qualifications, this includes basic ones and becomes more prominent when you look at higher education.

Often, institutions believe that attending to physical access issues – such as installing ramps – ticks the box of accessibility, while ignoring less visible barriers to education like fluctuating health impacting attendance, which can have just as big an impact on someone’s grades.

The COVID pandemic massively highlighted these issues when online learning was magically possible for all students, despite disabled people campaigning for this for years and being rebuffed on grounds like cost and it being supposedly too difficult to integrate with standard teaching methods.

However, even if we removed these kinds of issues and places of learning became more accessible, there are still other more subtle issues that stop disabled people from engaging in education. Disabled students often face ableism, microaggressions and the expectation of both being the face of disability and educating everyone around them on it. Couple this with long battles just to get even the most basic support and it’s clear why disabled students feel discouraged, or don’t even get as far as enrolling as students in the first place.

Real representation matters

This then becomes a vicious cycle because where disabled people are less likely to receive a higher education, it means there are fewer disabled people in academic fields, so disabled voices are often not included in faculty decision making regarding accessibility. Academic institutions are always keen to show how diverse they are in the photos chosen for their websites, brochures and prospectuses, but dig a little deeper and the chances are their disabled faculty staff and students will not paint such a polished picture if asked to discuss their everyday experiences.

Qualifications and employment choices

These barriers to education therefore create missed opportunities for qualifications, which has a direct impact on earning potential and means that disabled people are a third less likely to be employed.

Interestingly, these complex factors combine to make it far more likely that a disabled person will become self-employed, as it means they can create a job that works around their needs. After being told ‘no’, changes cannot be made at school, at college, at university, at work to accommodate specific needs, many disabled people tell themselves ‘yes’, I can work for myself my way instead.