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Townhalls Debuted in April; Reducing Ableism is Top Issue

By May 23, 2024May 29th, 2024No Comments


Learn more about the National Disability Center’s first Townhall, survey results, and panel discussion.

Caption: Missed the April 2024 Townhall? Watch it online. [Complete transcript.]

The National Disability Center for Student Success was thrilled to launch its Townhall series on April 25, 2024 — a reflection of its commitment to community engagement and translating research into practices that can immediately improve disabled student outcomes in higher education. 

The April 2024 Townhall was also an opportunity to learn more about what’s on the minds of stakeholders involved with educating, researching, or serving disabled students in postsecondary settings — or, in the case of a few attendees — being disabled students themselves. 

Reducing Ableism is a Top Concern

In a survey conducted during the event, attendees were asked what issue is most important to them when it comes to supporting disabled student success — issues that are all on the research agenda for the National Disability Center. 

Among 38% of respondents, the top issue was reducing ableism, or the attitudes and biases that people without disabilities are more valued than those with disabilities. 

It was followed by improving accessibility (21%), embracing intersectionality and instructing inclusively (tied at 14% each), and addressing the mental health crisis and understanding disabled student experiences (tied at 7% each). 

“The priority our stakeholders place on reducing ableism is highly illuminating, because it’s at the heart of everything they — and we — do for disabled students on campuses,” said Dr. Stephanie W. Cawthon, Executive Director of the National Disability Center and moderator of the Townhall. 

The Prevalence of Disability in Higher Education

Nearly 90 people from around the nation registered for the April 2024 Townhall, a quick one-hour online forum held on Zoom. Attendees were given a warm welcome by Dr. Cawthon, who explained the mission of the newly-launched research center and its unique collaborative model. 

“We really engage with students, especially disabled students, about their perspectives and about their experiences and their insights about what makes higher education successful,” said Dr. Cawthon. 

What motivates the Center and its teams? The fact that disability touches so many people in our higher education population.

“When I first saw this statistic from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, that one in four people have a disability at any given time, it kind of took me aback as someone with disabilities myself. I didn’t know that I had such a large peer group. That “one in four” statistic gets you to more than four million college students in the U.S. It’s a lot,” said Dr. Cawthon. 

She then reviewed how the Center plans to build an actionable research foundation, with plans for 10 studies in just five years, and the importance of each of the Center’s stakeholders in those plans. Later in the Townhall, when Dr. Cawthon shared what to expect in the coming year at the National Disability Center, attendees were surveyed again about which initiative most interested them. The top response? “All the above” — including online classes and resources, survey results and focus group insights, new research measures, and teaching strategies and case studies. 

Preliminary Findings Show a Lack of Disability Disclosure

Dr. Cawthon then took the Townhall on a deep dive into the preliminary findings from one of the Center’s early studies, the new Campus Accessibility Measure (or “CAM”) and its development process.

Why develop a new research measurement? 

“One thing that we really want to make sure that we do is really engage with disabled students to make sure we measure things that matter to get the best possible evidence and outcomes,” said Dr. Cawthon. 

She shared the first data finding from early interactions with students, which was about disclosure, or when a person reveals their disability to another person or institution. 

A graphical representation from April 2024 Townhall of what disabled college students say about disclosure. It features three circular charts with the following information: 65% disclose to friends, 57.5% disclose to instructors, and 55% disclose to their college. The background is a dark blue, and the charts are depicted with a combination of green and off-white colors.

“When we talk about disclosure of a disability, It’s a sensitive thing. Sometimes there’s some vulnerability involved. There’s a lot of stigma of disability in some places. Making that disclosure is a decision that disabled students take seriously. It can sometimes weigh heavily, but it’s also how you gain access to supports, flexibility, and sometimes to accommodations. Knowing more about what students think about the disclosure process is one of the early topic areas we’re going to be addressing,” said Dr. Cawthon. 

Of the participants in the Center’s early research, some shared information about their disability with their friends, with their peer groups, but some kept it private. Not much more than half of them shared it with their institution or instructors. 

“We were kind of surprised at how low that was, but also not surprised because we know the disclosure rates go down significantly when students move from high school to college, into a totally different educational system,” said Dr. Cawthon. 

She then shared a participant quote with the April 2024 Townhall that captures some of these underlying issues happening with students.

“When I first came to college, I did not know that my mental health disorder was considered a disability. I also had no idea I was able to qualify for accommodations. The accommodation to help me out tremendously with my coursework.” 

Dr. Cawthon explained the key insights those early findings reveal to National Disability Center researchers: 

  • Not all students who arrive on campus may know they have a disability. 
  • That transition period from high school to college can be a challenging time to maintain the support and accommodations students may have had before arriving on campus.
  • The mental health crisis on campuses, especially since the Covid pandemic, has started discussions about providing mental health resources. But there is a gap between understanding that mental illness is a disability and where to go for help — not just for mental health services, but also academic support and accommodations.

Student/Faculty Panel Illuminates Key Issues in April 2024 Townhall

Next on the Townhall agenda was to learn from National Disability Center team members themselves. Dr. Cawthon introduced Student Fellow Desirée Lama, a doctoral student at UT Austin, and Leadership Team member Dr. Andrew Dillon from UT Austin’s the School of Information. 

They were asked about their experiences with disability on campus.

“I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2016, but I experienced my first symptoms around 2013 or 2104,” said Desirée. “So, I’ve been living with this condition for well over 10 years. but it wasn’t brought to my attention that MS is considered a disability until two or three years ago, when I was filling out a job application. I never knew that there were resources out there to further support me in my personal life and as a student. That was a really pivotal moment in my life.” 

What can the National Disability Center and other stakeholders do? 

“I think when we’re talking about higher education, we need to let students know all of the disability categories, everything that falls under them, and what accommodations they can receive. They can get support to succeed in college and beyond that,” said Desirée. 

“There's a gap between ADA-compliant and true access. We need the ADA, but we also need true access.”

Townhall Chat Comment

For Dr. Dillon, it was a disabled student in one of his classes. He realized the lack of access the student experienced in everything from the iSchool building elevator to the screen reader on his computer. 

“The intent of all of us is to provide a successful learning environment, and we believe the university offers the opportunities for people of all kinds to learn. Yet the obstacles that we continue to place in people’s way are invisible to many of us, but they’re very, very visible and very real to anybody with a disability,” said Dr. Dillon. “We have to really stand back and redesign the whole learner experience for student success. If all student success is our goal, I think we have to do some serious soul searching, some serious research, and make some serious commitments to improving the world.” 

Both agreed they joined the National Disability Center because they couldn’t do it alone, and they could have a greater impact working together to make change. 

In conclusion, the National Disability Center is excited to launch the Townhall series that will continue to provide a platform to delve into pressing accessibility challenges, analyze critical research, and foster dialogue for positive change.

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