Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Disability, Diversity, and Higher Education

  • Lauren Shallish
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_450



The discourse of diversity is frequently used in higher education and is today “Embraced as a holy mantra across different sites” (Puwar 2004, p. 1). Yet, disagreement persists in how diversity is defined, what it represents, and what it is supposed to accomplish. For some, diversity refers to the social categories of race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and sexuality, while others assume diversity denotes all differences. Others believe that the term is a remedy for social injustice and the basis for affirmative action policies. There is also the view that diversity is a means to prepare students for life in a pluralistic society without any reference to social justice. Across these debates, the question of whether or not disability is considered part of what is referred to as diversity is hardly mentioned. Some scholars argue this is reflective of disability’s position as the last civil rights movement, citing better known groups have long(er) established legal statues, fields of study, scholarship, and histories of activism. The field of disability studies contends, however, that “Rather than an issue of timing, the issue is in fact structural” (Davis 2015, p. 42). Movements for racial and gender justice moved from a focus on antidiscrimination to incorporate the examination of cultures and practices that addressed heritage, diverse bodies of knowledge, standpoint theory, structural inequality, and intersectionality. The framing of disability in higher education, by contrast, has largely been one of legally mandated, individualized, biomedical interpretation.

One argument for this difference is that scholars, practitioners, faculty, and administrators do not identify those labeled as disabled as a social group. In Iris Marion Young’s Five Faces of Oppression (1990), a social group is defined as a “special kind of collectivity” whose affinity is shaped by similar experiences. Difference from a privileged norm constitutes association rather than any inherent feature of the individuals who make up the collective. Members thereby affiliate with one another because of this shared experience more than with those who do not identify as such. Guldvik and Helge (2014) argued that disability should be considered a social collective given that persons with disability are defined not by any inherent feature but rather their difference from able-bodied and able-minded norms. Studies find that professionals in higher education do not see disability constructed this way and diversity and disability thereby remain separate concerns.

Entrenched preferences for normativity also serve as one reason for this division. Siebers (2011) argued “Disability marks the last frontier of unquestioned inferiority because the preference for able-bodiedness makes it extremely difficult to embrace disabled people and to recognize their unnecessary and violent exclusion from society” (p. 6). These entrenched practices of exclusion are upheld by ableism, an institutionalized system of discrimination and exclusion that oppresses people who have mental, emotional, and physical disabilities (Hehir 2002). Ableism also constructs the status of other identities as inferior by assigning the label of disability to justify discrimination anew: “When categories of citizenship [are] questioned, challenged, and disrupted, disability [is] called on to clarify and define who deserve[s], and who was deservedly excluded from, citizenship” (Baynton 2013, p. 33). Therefore nondominant groups are framed as biologically inferior and intellectually substandard while the construct of normalcy upholds white, middle-class, European, able-bodied standards (Davis 2015). Even as biological characteristics of inferior intelligence and embodiment for racial, ethnical, sexual, and gendered minorities have been disproven, disability is still tethered to this concept. Civil rights movements dismantled the false applications of normalcy but many remnants of scientific interpretations of ability continue to be used to segregate people with disabilities.

A second argument for the existing division between disability and diversity is the singular focus on legal interpretation. By in large, colleges and universities maintain a strict focus on compliance with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The dominant view of disability as interpreted by case law is one of an individualized, biomedical condition. There is little sense that disability-related accommodations would “benefit more than the individual who requests them” (Emens 2013, p. 43). In higher education, there is the added requirement of confidentiality, student initiated disclosure, and letters of accommodation, which are not mandated requirements for other social groups. This hyperindividualization moves the construction of disability away from a social group status and outside of the purview of diversity work.

The institutional shifts resulting from changing demographics of college-going students, faculty, and staff fostered identity centers, fields of study, resources, admissions and recruitment practices, and scholarships for social groups connect at race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Disability, however, is not regarded as a similar cultural or social identity due to the highly individualized, biomedical, legal framework. This is not to say that legal protection is entirely purposeless knowing that disability civil rights statutes have made important inroads for the world’s largest minority group. However, an institution’s singular focus on legal interpretation reinforces constructs of ability difference that have proven unhelpful, and compound the exclusion of disability from diversity work.

Diversity and Higher Education

Efforts to achieve greater diversity in higher education largely began in the mid-nineteenth century. The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 allocated land so colleges and universities could serve African Americans students in Southern States where they were not allowed to enroll in State institutions. Diversity, predominately understood as access, was dominated by race for centuries but this shifted dramatically after World War II with the introduction of the GI Bill of 1944, making higher education accessible to wider demographics. The federal regulations and social movements that followed challenged institutionalized discrimination and opened pathways for marginalized groups. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided federally mandated antidiscrimination statutes, Title IX provided protections on the basis of sex, an applicant’s race could be considered in the college admissions process, and executive orders for affirmative action worked to redress past discrimination in admissions, employment, and hiring. There was also parallel growth in different types of postsecondary institutions including minority serving institutions (MSIs), women’s colleges, community colleges, and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Diversity, specifically in terms of race and the black/white binary, was also shaped by Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action. Affirmative action endeavored to at least partially remedy racial inequality, first as a presidential executive order. The evolution of court cases from the 1970s to present day debated the use of quotas, strict scrutiny, and compelling government interests as they pertained to establishing more representative college-going populations. The argument that diversity benefited all students became the leading claim for the continuation of affirmative action, even as the procedures by which it was enacted continue to be contested in the courts of legal and public opinion. Throughout this trajectory and in court cases on school desegregation, social science research underscored the value of affirmative action by demonstrating how the benefits of diversity had the potential to positively influence societal culture and practice (Orfield 2001). In his ruling in University of California v. Bakke (1978), US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote “The atmosphere of speculation, experiment and creation – so essential to the quality of higher education – is widely believed to be promoted by a diverse student body… It is not too much to say that the nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and more of students as diverse as this nation of many peoples” (p. 2760).

Yet the 1990s brought a surge of backlash against affirmative action even as college populations began to reflect the economic and racial demographics of society. Affirmative action was enacted with the hope of redressing past racial inequality but has since evolved into two camps who believe college admissions should be based on merit and another who acknowledge the benchmarks of merit cannot be achieved equally based on structural injustices in the United States (Gosh 2012). Scholarship on demographic and enrollment changes initially described diverse student backgrounds as “risk” factors. This has since moved to an understanding of ecological perspectives about inhospitable campus climates and academic departments. The social and academic integration of students has been the recent focus of efforts to address retention and persistence. Part of bridging academic success and social supports included the establishment of cultural or identity centers, learning communities, and academic fields of study. The interactions fostered by these arrangements have been found to promote positive attitudes toward literacy, critical thinking, socially responsible leadership, intercultural effectiveness, and psychological well-being. Such outcomes were further maximized by positive campus climate features involving the inclusion of diverse students, faculty, and administrators, a curriculum reflecting historical and contemporary experiences of underrepresented groups, programs that supported the retention of diverse students, and a mission that reinforced institutional commitments.

Altogether postsecondary diversity efforts intended to dismantle colorblind policies, acknowledge widespread discrimination of women and people of color, and disrupt the status quo of institutions that worked to maintain social inequality. As this trajectory of diversity work demonstrated, disability was largely omitted from these frameworks. There is little sense that the inclusion of disability provides any “larger benefit,” for example, While ecological perspectives have been employed to address academic and cocurricular supports for historically underrepresented groups, persons labeled with a disability are all too often addressed on a case-by-case basis by an office that administers services and accommodations in accordance with disability law.

Disability and Higher Education

Prior to 1973, the only federal law that granted extensive protection for persons with disability was the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This required equal protection of citizens in life, liberty, and property, yet failed to administer specific protection for persons with disabilities in legislation that addressed discrimination on race and gender. Before the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, colleges and universities could legally deny admission and hiring based on a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Repeated efforts in the 1970s attempted to include the category of disability in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but disability-specific regulations were eventually established in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.

The protections established by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 made institutions that received federal funding accountable for providing equal access and opportunity for persons with disabilities. This was later extended to all public and private educational institutions in Title II and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The ADA of 1990 incorporated verbatim regulations of Section 504 and went even further to establish reasonable accommodations in such areas as academic programming, examinations and evaluations, housing, and recreational facilities on college campuses. Together Section 504 and the ADA granted students, faculty, and staff who qualified as disabled the right of equal access to participation, essential information, and avenues of communication in public and private sectors.

In legal terms, disconnects between the spirit of antidiscrimination law and social and cultural acceptance are not unfamiliar to other groups. As such, scholars have asked if Section 504 and the ADA attempt to do something different from the rest of antidiscrimination law: Emens (2013) argued that “United States antidiscrimination statutes covering classifications like race and sex – such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – involved costs to the employer and changes to policies and practices that operated like an accommodation (e.g., putting women’s restrooms in a formerly all-male work place may cost money)” (p. 45). In this sense, both Title VII and the ADA required employers to “absorb costs and make structural changes” (Emens 2013, p. 45). On the other hand, “The ADA obliges employers to respond to individual requests, supported by medical documentation, initiated by the students and employees themselves, thereby requiring a different kind of interaction” (Emens 2013, p. 45). Here, situated among the landscape of diversity work, antidiscrimination statutes, and identity-based programming, the requirement of medical documentation to secure an accommodation makes the category of disability stand apart from other group identities who are more commonly understood as collective social, cultural, and political groups. Even as scholars challenged wholesale assumptions about identity and essentialism in higher education, disability remains constructed as an individual request with generalized beliefs about capability attached to one’s label.

For persons with disabilities to access rights afforded by Section 504 and the ADA, they must first meet the legal definition of disability as defined in the statutes. This requires proof of a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities. The reliance on individualized inquiry and medical documentation constructs categories of disability apart from those employed in diversity work and affirmative action policies. This medical model is especially influential in shaping interpretations of disability on college campuses. By definition, the medical model predominately focuses on an individual’s diagnosis and functional limitations.

Outside of a campus’s office of disability services, there is little awareness of ability difference and diversity. Faculty and administrators are not mandated to address disability or participate in related trainings. Disparities between IDEA’s Part B Child Find mandate (IDEA 2004) and the ADA’s individual mandate (ADA 2008) also make transition to higher education challenging. Under the ADA, college students must seek out services and accommodations. In K-12 schools, students meet annually with a multidisciplinary team to review and assess Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). The differences between K-12 and higher education represent a point of difference that other racial and gendered social groups do not have to account for in their civil rights statutes. This point of difference is compounded by discourses about “reasonable accommodations” to meet an individual’s needs. In K-12 settings, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are legal documents that provide services and accommodations to students and involve a multidisciplinary team, parental and student involvement, and annual review of goals. Accommodations in higher education are incumbent on a person’s self-disclosure and the administration of letters of accommodation to faculty and staff. College students must also bear the cost of medical documentation of their disability. The means by which this documentation is interpreted also varies greatly as there are no degree or licensure systems to serve as a case manager in a college’s disability services office. Altogether this positioning portrays disability as an individual problem in need of “reasonable accommodations” rather than a symptom of systemic and institutionalized structures supporting able-bodied and able-minded norms.

The institutional shifts resulting from changing demographics of students, faculty, and staff fostered identity centers, fields of study, resources, admissions and recruitment practices, and scholarships for categories of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. Disability, however, is not regarded as a cultural or social identity on par with ethnicity, race, gender, and socioeconomic status because of the highly individualized, biomedical framework. The field of disability studies contends, however, that the experience of being labeled as disabled functions similar to other social group identities and that the presence of disability can altogether create a different picture of identity and competence. Emerging research on diversity in postsecondary settings speaks to the necessity of intersectional analyses, but this work is almost impossible when disability is not considered part of the constellations of identity on college campuses.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The College of New JerseyEwingUSA