This October marks the 34th annual observance of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM), a federally designated month honoring the achievements and contributions of U.S. workers with disabilities. The 2022 theme is “Disability: Part of the Equity Equation,” to reinforce the fact that people with disabilities play a critical role in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) across the workforce.
In celebration of NDEAM, Erik Cliburn, senior staff writer for INSIGHT, recently spoke with several experts in higher education who advocate for people with disabilities, both in the classroom and in the workplace. They shared the importance of NDEAM, the challenges that people with disabilities still face, and their visions for a more equitable future in higher education.
Our experts are heavily involved with the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), an INSIGHT Into Diversity partner and a membership association of college and university employees who work to improve disability rights and accessibility through networking, research promotion, professional development conferences, and other initiatives.
Editor’s note: The following responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Meet the Roundtable
Tammy Berberi, PhD, is associate professor of French and disability studies at the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMN Morris). Berberi has served as a board member for the Society of Disability Studies, a member of the AHEAD Board of Directors, and a member of the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Disability.
Zebadiah Hall is the director of Student Disability Services at Cornell Health, Cornell University. Hall serves as equity officer for the AHEAD Board of Directors.
Allen Sheffield is associate director of Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services at the University of Michigan (U-M). Sheffield also oversees the Services for Students with Disabilities and Testing Accommodation Centers at U-M and is a member of the AHEAD Board of Directors.
Katy Washington, JD, PhD, is director of the Office of Disability Access at the University of North Texas. Washington is president of the AHEAD Board of Directors.
Why is it important to observe and recognize NDEAM in higher education?
People see disability’s accoutrements, such as wheelchairs and canes, but our experiences remain mostly invisible and unknown to others. People continue to use a lot of deficit thinking in understanding disability, meaning we continue to be understood according to what we cannot do, rather than our talents, dreams, or promise. Disability is a creative challenge to architectural, educational, and cultural norms that should be changing more quickly than they are. I want to nudge the bar up a bit. Colleges and universities must aim to surpass accessibility as a technical standard and to be hospitable toward disabled students, staff, and faculty.
It is important to observe and recognize NDEAM to educate our communities about disability employment and celebrate the contributions disabled people make to the workforce. NDEAM serves as a vessel through which to recruit and retain disabled employees. It is also an important component of our ongoing work to deconstruct ableism and break down barriers for disabled people in the workforce. This work is vital to our community every month, not just during the month of October.
At its core, higher education is about creating opportunity for individuals. U-M’s mission is to develop leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future. As higher education professionals, we have to recognize and be focused beyond the classroom at what comes next for a student. A sad reality is that the numbers for disabled individuals when it comes to employment are not where they need to be, so we need to both recognize and work toward addressing this.
Just like other awareness months, observing NDEAM gives us the opportunity to be reflective about both the contributions made as well as the work that still needs to be done to ensure equity for disabled people in the workplace. It is also a chance for colleges and universities to examine how welcoming and inclusive their workplace culture and practices are. Although these efforts and examinations should happen throughout the year, October serves as an opportunity to refocus the conversation to disability in hopes that it will continue well past the conclusion of the month.
How does your campus and/or department observe NDEAM?
We are ramping back up from the constraints of the pandemic, but we often host a disabled guest for a large event and then a smaller get-together with that speaker for connecting with disabled students. Career services is also hosting a brainstorming session with disabled students to advocate for accessible career fairs.
Cornell University regularly hosts and sponsors several related events. We partner with outside companies to bring awareness about how and when to disclose a disability within the interview process. Student Disability Services (SDS) also works closely with campus career services, and we collaborate on training to bring awareness about barriers disabled people encounter in our workforce.
The U-M Career Center is hosting a session on disability and disclosure, has created a tool kit for individuals who identify as having a disability, and facilitates the Workforce Recruitment Program. The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and the Council for Disability Concerns put together an amazing monthlong event in October, entitled “Toward an Anti-Ableist Academy,” about creating a welcoming university climate that actively works toward embracing disability culture and experiences.
Our department partners with the career services office on campus and sponsors workshops on topics such as disability disclosure and job search tips. We also collaborate each year with a workforce recruitment program, which launches its interview session in October. Both events are designed to prepare students for postgraduation careers.
What can colleges and universities do to better support students, faculty, and staff with disabilities?
Show us some love. Take us to lunch and cultivate community and warm connections around disabled experiences on your campus.
Conduct an accessibility audit each October and make a public commitment to improve accessibility in the short term in specific and meaningful ways. On my campus, for example, signage can definitely be improved. Disabled visitors to our campus have been known to get lost looking for accessible routes and entrances.
Educate your partners, such as marketing and architectural firms. They need to understand that access should be both effective and inviting. It is no longer reasonable to think that we, as people with disabilities, should arrive and explain our access needs in order for those needs to be met. Videos should always be captioned and audio described, elevators and accessible restrooms should be clearly indicated in logical places, electronic buttons should work, and accurate braille should be all around us.
We need to examine the environmental barriers that prevent disabled people from having access. Higher education was not designed with disabled people in mind, so we must think critically and creatively about how to build in access at this time.
Disability access, identity, and inclusion needs to be prominent in conversations about DEI. Moving beyond conversation and awareness, accessibility needs to be the commitment and responsibility of all members of the university community.
In the commitment to providing access to students who have a disability, staff and faculty who identify as disabled are often not considered in the same breadth. In my experience, services for staff and faculty access are often underfunded, decentralized, and understaffed when compared to resources for students. For example, building plans that incorporate accessibility for students into the planning might not consider accessibility needs of staff and faculty.— or centralized funds set up for accommodations for students might not apply to faculty and staff.
Campuses can invest in workshops and professional development by utilizing organizations like AHEAD to inform faculty about best practices and responsibilities in providing an inclusive, accessible learning experience for students. It is an excellent resource that offers a myriad of inexpensive professional development options.
What innovative programs or initiatives has your school or department instituted to support people with disabilities?
The UMN Morris Campus Student Association has endorsed campus accessibility as one of its areas of focus this year. They are effective stewards, so I feel hopeful about that.
I was recently part of a UMN systemwide task force that recommended professional development for all instructors about developing disability-related accommodations and designing our courses with accessibility and inclusivity in mind. That learning module is due to be released next spring.
Student Disability Services de-medicalized our process for students seeking accommodations. Rather than relying solely on medical documentation as proof of disability, we started to engage with disabled students around their intersecting identities and lived experience to determine appropriate accommodations. SDS changed the title of its “disability counselors” to “disability access consultants” to reframe the staff role and help de-medicalize its processes. Our programming focuses on disability identity and creating formal opportunities for both students and faculty to learn how to engage with one another around accommodations.
There is a push to bring disability to the forefront at the institution. U-M Student Life, over the past two years, has invested money and resources in services for disabled students. Services for Students with Disabilities grew from a single office, with nine full-time professionals working on accommodations, academic coaching, and creating accessible materials, to a unit of multiple departments with a staff of 26 who are also overseeing adaptive sports and fitness and accommodations testing.
Since their recent inception, Adaptive Sports and Fitness has become a leader in the field in their mission to increase opportunities for students, staff, faculty, and community members to increase awareness about, knowledge of, access to, and participation in adaptive sports and fitness among people with and without disabilities.
Our department sponsors several connect groups for disabled students who are affiliated with our office to encourage camaraderie between those with shared experiences and increase their connectedness to the university. Our office also supports accommodation provisions, such as interpreters, for student endeavors outside of class so they can enjoy the full campus experience by participating in campus organizations, attending school events, and utilizing academic support programs.
What challenges do people with disabilities face at higher education institutions?
One important challenge is convincing people that access is more than an end in and of itself. There is the complex challenge of convincing others not just that we belong in higher education and among diversity concerns but that we contribute something important to campus life, both as a diverse group and as individuals. In the end, we disabled people are not so different from everyone else.
While institutions of higher education are now investing in services and programs to recognize and support diversity and identity, they often overlook disability as one of the salient identities of students and employees. I am hopeful that this will change as the field of disability studies continues to inform our community and enhance our understanding of the lived experiences of disabled people.
Another challenge institutions face is getting the chief diversity officers to ensure that the campus initiatives related to diversity include disability. At Cornell, SDS strongly believes that deconstructing ableism needs to be a part of the conversation around diversity, just like any other identity that faces barriers to access or participation.
For many students, higher education is an overwhelming experience unlike anything they have ever experienced. As with other intersectional identities, students who encounter barriers because of how their bodies or minds function face additional challenges and stresses beyond navigating an environment that was, generally, not designed with them in mind. Individual perception of disability varies widely, so a disabled student may not know what they can share and may be left trying to hide a piece of their identity rather than being their authentic selves.
The first is inaccessible online course materials. The second encompasses attitudinal barriers.●
This article was published in our October 2022 issue.