Disability is far more common than many Americans think. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that up to 1 in 4 (or 27 percent) of adults have at least one type of disability.
That means over 4 million college students in the U.S. have a disability — including visible disabilities, such as a person using crutches, and ones that are not readily apparent, such as autism or depression — and studies show disabled college students face barriers that make them less likely to persist in their studies, graduate with degrees, and achieve their career goals.
But an actionable research foundation to support their success in higher education doesn’t exist — until now.
Breaking New Ground
A new national center at The University of Texas at Austin has been established to provide the first comprehensive and actionable research to support disabled student experiences and achievement after high school.
In the next five years, the National Disability Center for Student Success will create rigorous research measures, share its study findings, and provide actionable strategies to help build support capacity at U.S. colleges, universities, and training centers — to improve the inclusion of disabled students in higher education programs, boost their degree completion efforts, and increase their readiness for the workforce.
The National Disability Center’s research team — an innovative collaboration between UT Austin faculty members and disabled students, along with national partners — will study topics such as disability disclosure, instructor attitudes, and institutional factors.
ADA is the Floor, Not the Ceiling
The $5 million grant (Cooperative Agreement #R324C230008) from the Institute of Education Sciences was awarded to principal investigator Stephanie W. Cawthon, professor in UT Austin’s College of Education, where the Center is housed at the Texas Center for Equity Promotion.
Cawthon, who is deaf, is building upon her decades of research into how disabled students learn and thrive, as well as her experience developing innovative research models that use collaboration to achieve student-centered insights and findings.
While many people cite legal compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as the means to provide basic accommodations and classroom accessibility for disabled students, Dr. Cawthon reminds colleges and colleagues that the ADA is the floor, not the ceiling, for true access and inclusion.
“In higher education, much of the current research and services focus on the deficiencies of disabled students. That approach doesn’t consider the lack of accessibility or the non-inclusive natures of our college campuses, both inside and outside the classroom,” said Cawthon. “We must go beyond ADA compliance to shift our systems and create a culture among all campus stakeholders that includes disability as part of a diverse and vibrant student body.”
The National Disability Center draws upon three fundamental ideas to drive its research and activities:
- Student engagement is a critical predictor of student success.
- Instructors need more support to build their accessibility knowledge base, mindset, and skills.
- The success of students with disabilities requires a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach across all administrative units at an institution.
The Disabled Student Experience After High School
Studies show disabled college students find universities to be unwelcoming and unaccommodating places.
Compared to their peers without disabilities, they are half as likely to enroll in a 4-year college, graduate at lower rates, and have fewer employment opportunities.
Disabled students report encountering high levels of ableism, discrimination, and bullying. These experiences are one of the key reasons they do not disclose their disabilities, making it harder for higher education to understand the true scope of the issue and provide the necessary support.
Career and technical training programs, such as those focused on certifications for plumbing, computers, or culinary arts, also serve as an important pathway to opportunities after high school. And yet, employment discrepancies for disabled people continue, with workforce participation rates at only half of their peers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
UT Students and Faculty Members to Collaborate
The National Disability Center uses a collaborative, student-centered, asset-based approach to promote a greater understanding of disabled people’s experiences and obstacles. It is an innovative model focused on access and equity successfully piloted by Cawthon in 2022 and can be replicated on campuses nationwide.
The Center’s interdisciplinary Leadership Team, Student Fellows, and Faculty Cadre are people with disabilities or people deeply connected with the disability community. All but one person is based at UT Austin.
The Leadership Team is led by Cawthon as Executive Director and includes:
- Andrew Dillon, Director of Research Dissemination and Co-Investigator (School of Information)
- Greg Roberts, Director of Evaluation and Co-Investigator (Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk)
- Shavonne Coleman, Director of Training (University of Michigan)
- Tracey Bradnan, Director of Communications
- Ryan Mata, Coordinator of Student Partnerships
The Faculty Cadre comes from five different colleges at UT Austin:
- Maura Borrego (Cockrell School of Engineering)
- North Cooc (College of Education)
- Denisa Gàndara (College of Education)
- Earl Huff, Jr. (School of Information)
- Alison Kafer (College of Liberal Arts)
- Jen Moon (College of Natural Sciences)
The Student Fellows will receive interdisciplinary training experience, assist with research, and collaborate with the Leadership Team and the Faculty Cadre. They are:
- Soren Aldaco (College of Liberal Arts)
- Lily Alvarez (College of Education)
- Desirée Lama (College of Education)
The Center’s national town halls will launch online in 2024 to engage higher education stakeholders and leaders in disability services and advocacy. Free and open to all, the town halls will bring together disabled students, faculty, administrators, and researchers to discuss critical topics and study findings.
Ten Studies in Five Years
Over the five years of the grant, the National Disability Center plans ten studies that seek to provide a robust understanding of the postsecondary experiences of disabled students.
The studies will focus on core issues of accessibility, disclosure, student supports, institutional culture, and student outcomes organized around insights from three key groups in higher education:
- Disabled students
- Faculty members and instructors
- Administrators and staff
The first two studies will create a new measure of perceived campus accessibility, a critical first step to help determine demographic predictors and the relationship to disabled student outcomes.
To create the measure, the research team will analyze essential aspects of the student experience at 2-year and 4-year colleges using data findings from two of the Center’s national research partners, the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) and the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), and work with a group of sites around the country.
Another set of studies will examine student success initiatives and their accessibility for disabled students.
These initiatives, such as career development programs and summer internship opportunities, are expanding on campuses to support all students from enrollment through graduation. As higher education leaders increase their investment in these initiatives, they need data-driven decision-making to improve outcomes and quality — which, for disabled students, hinge on accessibility.
The Center will pilot the design study process at UT Austin, then expand to a diverse set of higher education and postsecondary institutions across the U.S.
As the research team shifts into the second phase of research, it will explore critical factors of disabled student success in greater depth using a mixed methods approach. These survey and focus group studies will fill gaps in the research literature on topics such as:
- Disability disclosure to peers, instructors, and the institution
- Accessible learning environments, both online and in-person
- Transition out of school and readiness for the workforce
- Support for disabled students in their postsecondary settings
Importantly, this series of studies includes research to understand college instructors’ knowledge and mindset about accessibility and its relationship to how they teach, design courses, and address accommodations and inclusion with their students.
Finally, the Center research program will seek insights from disabled students enrolled in colleges, universities, or training programs within the last five years (completers and non-completers) to examine their transition experiences into the workplace.
Tracey Bradnan, Director of Communications
National Disability Center for Student Success