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Disability is a Human Experience

Disability is a broad and wide-ranging part of our lives. Some people are born with a disability; others acquire one or more during their lifetime — such as needing crutches for a broken leg or having a mental health crisis. 

Some disabilities are apparent to a casual observer, teacher, or employer; others are non-apparent unless disclosed, such as:
  • Autism
  • Mental health disorders
  • Learning disabilities

Studies show many young people with disabilities experience high levels of bullying and stigma, including high levels of cyberbullying — one of the key reasons that students do not disclose their disabilities to institutions. Another key reason they don’t disclose? They don’t know their disability, such as ADHD, is a disability that can receive accommodations.

What are the effects of a lack of accommodations, accessibility, or inclusion?

Studies show disabled college students are less likely than their typical peers to persist in their studies, graduate with degrees, and achieve their career goals.

By the Numbers

Because of the lack of disclosure and awareness, the actual number of disabled college students is hard to determine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates:

Up to

(or 27 percent) of adults over the age of 18 have at least one type of disability

That CDC estimate means


college students in the U.S. have a disability

(more than the population of the entire city of Los Angeles)

The total number of K-12 students in special education went from

in the 1976-77 school year to almost

in 2021-22

These students now make up


of the K-12 student population across the country, according to a recent report.

Language and Identity

Identity-first Language
For many people, especially in younger generations, disability is an identity, and they use identity-first language, which emphasizes embracing the disability.
Examples of identity-first language:

  • Deaf people
  • Disabled professionals
  • Autistic community
person-first language
On the other hand, person-first language emphasizes the person, not the disability. Person-first language is common in research, reporting, and other more formal uses.
Examples of person-first language:

  • A person who is blind
  • A person who uses a wheelchair
  • A student who is living with depression and anxiety

This language shows that you recognize the person as an individual, not as a label or a condition. Person-first language also avoids negative or outdated terms, such as “handicapped,” “crippled,” or “suffering from.” Instead, it uses neutral or positive terms, such as “accessible,” “independent,” or “living with.”

Language and identity around disability are nuanced and evolving. The National Disability Center will include both identity-first and person-first descriptors of disability, with special attention paid to personal preferences and activity audiences.

Which language should you use?

The best thing you can do is ask. But do not assume that all disabled people prefer to be called “people with disabilities.”

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