In recent years, the landscape of higher education has witnessed a profound transformation in its approach to supporting students and employees with disabilities, extending far beyond compliance with legal requirements. As institutions strive to cultivate more DEI-focused environments, the inclusion of students, faculty, and staff with disabilities has emerged as a critical component of this broader effort. People with disabilities are the largest underrepresented group in the U.S. — comprising 50 million individuals — and colleges and universities are actively reviewing their services, facilities, and policies to ensure everyone has access to education and opportunities to thrive within the community. 

Disability support services include providing students with accommodations for testing, assistive technology to help with notetaking, priority registration, and accessible building design. These efforts, while vital to supporting individuals with disabilities, only address the legal requirements that schools must meet. As institutions invest more in DEI, they are examining ways in which they can foster a greater sense of belonging for constituents.

HEED winners, including Adelphi University, Cornell University, and The University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), have implemented innovative programs and initiatives to create a more inclusive and equitable space for individuals with disabilities.

Within its larger commitment to DEI, Adelphi University has invested heavily in support systems for students with disabilities through its Student Access Office (SAO). Due to a rise in accommodation requests, the SAO recently opened a new state-of-the-art testing center that features soundproof walls, accessible seating options, assistive technology, and private rooms. Since its launch, nearly 2,000 exams have been administered in the center. 

In addition, Adelphi has bolstered accessibility throughout physical spaces on campus. These efforts include the installation of talking kiosks in dining areas for those with sensory disabilities and lift systems in restrooms for individuals with limited mobility. The university also launched an events accessibility web page as a resource for university partners when planning events on campus to ensure they adhere to universal design and accessibility standards. Additionally, Bridges to Adelphi is a multifaceted campus resource that supports neurodiverse students in overcoming academic, social, and vocational challenges through mentorship, community support, and training opportunities.

Cornell University supports neurodiverse students through a number of vital initiatives and programs. The institution recently appointed a specialized advisor who has created workshops and programs to assist this group of students, including an intra-campus partnership to organize the inaugural Neurodiversity Celebration Week in 2023, the goal of which was to raise awareness. 

Cornell also offers tailored programs to help neurodiverse students leverage their strengths while addressing potential obstacles to their well-being and academic success. These inclusive efforts are integrated across various campus units, providing resources, one-on-one support, and engagement opportunities through initiatives like the weekly Autism Social Group, the monthly Neurodiversity Dialogues, and discussions with neurodiversity ambassadors.

As part of its efforts to support students with disabilities, the UTA Student Access & Resource Center and Career Development Center have partnered with Texas Working Off-Campus: Reinforcing Knowledge and Skills Internship Program, a statewide initiative that matches college students with paid internships. Lasting a minimum of eight weeks, the internships help them gain career readiness skills, increase their confidence in career decisions, and establish professional networks. Through this collaboration, UTA is developing a Reverse Job Fair for the coming years in which students with disabilities will sit at tables displaying their professional information while employers
visit and engage with them directly. 

In addition to its support of students with disabilities, UTA hosts Mavericks with Disabilities, an employee resource group that works to advance disability-focused DEI on campus. The group advocates for accessibility and disability reform at the school, creates a sense of community among employees with disabilities, and organizes and supports campus events to raise awareness and understanding surrounding disability.

This article was published in our November/December 2023 issue.