December 18, 2023

Note: The full report will be released in January at neurodivergentu.com. This article contains excerpts from the full report.

Disabled students struggling with the many barriers, stigmas, and discrimination we encounter in academia can become an isolating experience, especially when we lack information to contextualize and process those experiences. This project was an attempt to identify those barriers, and recognize those universities working to remove them.

Between March 2022 and June 2023, I surveyed students at 106 universities and asked respondents to answer questions about accessibility (Pillar I), inclusion (Pillar II), safety (Pillar III), and critical pedagogy (Pillar IV) on their campuses. My target sample was 80 universities representing the top public (or flagship) and private universities in each state, plus District of Columbia.

This convenience sample was based on U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges 2021 rankings. After accounting for universities with missing data (15 universities), the final sample was 65 universities comprising 238 individual survey responses and representing 47 states (including District of Columbia), 44 public universities, and 21 private universities.

RESULTS

The two highest scoring universities in this sample (Yale University, 137.5; and Harvard University, 136.3) still only achieved scores less than 35% of the total possible 400 points. While both Yale and Harvard are private universities, the next two highest scoring universities in this sample (University of Idaho, 135.8; and University of Wisconsin–Madison, 129.6) are public universities. Harvard University scored above the national average on all four Pillars, while Yale University tied University of Minnesota Twin Cities for the highest score (75.0) on Pillar II, and University of Idaho scored well on Pillar IV (62.5). The mean national scores for each of the four Pillars were 16.0 (SD = 10.4), 13.5 (SD = 19.2), 5.1 (SD = 12.1), and 39.0 (SD = 18.7), respectively.

The full rankings will be published at neurodivergentu.com.

KEY FINDINGS

Pillar I: Support & Accessibility

“Experiences with both campus counseling and accommodations office required lengthy wait times and lots of paperwork, among other things — all what I was not in a state to do at the time and was part of exactly what I needed help with at the time. Students are assumed ‘normal’ and ‘functional’ and need to ‘prove’ otherwise, and that burden can feel very heavy.”

Stanford University student
  • Only three universities (Rutgers University-New Brunswick, The University of Tennessee Knoxville, and Duke University) were reported to have scheduled time between classes of 20 minutes or longer. Thirty-nine of the 65 universities surveyed (60%) allowed only 10 minutes between classes. Some students reported having less than 5 minutes scheduled between classes.
  • Only one university (University of Arkansas) was reported to have wait times of 1-2 days for an initial counseling appointment. Five universities had wait times of less than one week: Brown University, Dartmouth College, Duke University, The University of Chicago, and University of Miami. Fifty-two of the 65 universities surveyed had wait times of more than two weeks. It was not uncommon for students to report wait times of several months in order to get an initial meeting with a counselor.
  • Only four universities (Columbia University, Princeton University, Vanderbilt University, and Yale University) had five or more counselors on staff per thousand students, yet it’s notable that three of those four universities still had reported wait times of more than two weeks for an initial counseling appointment.
  • Only three campuses (University of Colorado Boulder, University of Mississippi, and University of Maine) were reported to be fully accessible.
  • Students reported that hybrid and remote learning options have been increasingly pulled back this year. Only two universities (University of Alaska Fairbanks and Brown University) are still reportedly offering remote learning options for large lecture classes, although twelve universities were reported to have remote options, including lecture recordings, available as accommodations.
  • Currently, only four universities are reported to offer provisional accommodations: Tulane University, University of Idaho, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and University of Oregon.

Update: The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper of Princeton University, reported in October, 2023 that the university is considering increasing the time between classes to 20 minutes. Princeton University currently allows only ten minutes in between classes, which they acknowledge causes difficulty “for injured students, students with a disability, or students who are partaking in interdisciplinary courses which may take place all around campus.”

Update: The California Aggie, the student newspaper of the University of California, Davis, reports that the student government is conducting a survey to gauge student and faculty attitudes on mandatory lecture recordings. In addition to providing more accessible options for disabled students, the newspaper reports that recorded lectures can benefit the entire student population by allowing more flexibility for students when they’re having “bad mental health days” or don’t have transportation to campus.

Pillar II: Inclusion

“I have accommodations but because my disability is a mood disorder it’s hard for teachers to sometimes understand what I go through. Teaching Staff should be trained to better understand what the different disabilities are their students may have.”

University of California, Berkeley student
  • Only five universities were reported to have mandatory DEI training that includes disability and/or neurodiversity in their content. Those universities are Johns Hopkins University, The University of Chicago, University of Idaho, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, and Yale University.
  • 18 Disability Cultural Centers have now been established at university and college campuses across the US, according to the University of Illinois Chicago, and thirteen more are currently in the planning stages, including at University of Maryland and Yale University.

Update: The Georgetown University student newspaper reports that a new Disability Cultural Center was opened on campus in the fall of 2023.

Pillar III: Safety

“I personally was taken from my dorm room by the police and forced to go to the counseling center. I missed classes and it did far more harm than good for my wellbeing.”

College of William & Mary student
  • Instances of ableism and discrimination were experienced at every university, either reported in survey responses or in student newspapers.
  • 100% of universities still rely on police to respond to students in crisis, despite that students have repeatedly informed administrations about the harms that these interactions cause.
  • 55 of the 65 universities surveyed were using Students of Concern (SoC) and CARE reporting, which utilizes faculty, staff, students, and other members of the community to help administrations monitor student behaviors.

Update: The Daily Californian, the student newspaper of UC Berkeley, reported in September, 2023, that a new Campus Mobile Crisis Response team is set to be fully operational by March, 2024, and will be staffed with EMT and clinicians who can provide round-the-clock service to the Berkeley community. It’s not clear yet if the Campus Mobile Crisis Response team will be independent of UCPD, as currently they work in conjunction.

Update: Since the time of data collection for this report, more universities have implemented Students of Concern reporting. For the most up-to-date information, please visit StudentsofConcern.com.

Pillar IV: Critical Pedagogy

“Unfortunately, when I think of my personal, adverse experiences with Harvard University, racism comes to mind before ableism, although the organization has its fair share of both.”

Harvard University student
  • 21 of the 65 universities surveyed issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter. None of the universities surveyed issued statements in support of Land Back.
  • Only two universities in this sample offer full-fledged Disability Studies programs: University of Washington-Seattle and University of Kentucky. However, seventeen of the universities surveyed offer minors or certificates in Disability Studies.
  • 34 of the 65 universities surveyed offer courses in Critical Theory.
  • Only two of the universities surveyed (University of Denver and Rice University) were found not to be engaging in ethically dubious research.

Update: UCLA began offering a BA in Disability Studies in the fall of 2023, according to The Daily Bruin.

CONCLUSION

The national average total score was 73.60 out of 400, and no university scored higher than 35% of the total possible 400 points. Though this and other recent analyses suggest that issues of accessibility and inclusion in higher education are finally receiving overdue attention, this analysis suggests many areas for improvement. For example, universities scored particularly poorly on Pillar III: Safety. However, these metrics are not exhaustive in representing the many types of barriers and discrimination that disabled people experience in higher education, and more work needs to be done for scholarship to reflect the wide-ranging diversity of disabled students’ needs and experiences.


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