December 10, 2023

This week, I conducted a review of all disability-related coverage in student newspapers at the top 100 liberal arts colleges in the US.

This convenience sample included 107 colleges ranked in the top 100 of US News 2024 rankings of “best” liberal arts colleges. Twelve colleges were dropped for having inactive campus newspapers, reducing the sample size to 95 colleges. The Claremont Colleges (Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer, Pomona, Scripps) were counted as a unit, reducing the sample size to 90. This decision was reasonable given that the student newspaper, The Student Life, serves all five undergraduate colleges of Claremont College. The College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University (MN) were also counted as a unit since they share a common newspaper, The Record. This reduced the sample to 89 colleges.

I searched student newspapers for articles published between January 1, 2023 and November 31, 2023 that contained the word “disabled” or “disability” in their texts. I read every article, and included only those that contained substantial content about disability. I excluded articles that objectified disability, whether for research, charity, or inspiration. Only articles that centered the voices of disabled members of the campus community were included, which means that articles about guest speakers were generally excluded. However, satisfying these initial criteria for inclusion should not be interpreted as to imply endorsement of an article’s contents.

Here are the results.

BEST DISABILITY COVERAGE

Red brick church on the Amherst College campus.

The Amherst Student,
Amherst College

Amherst College had the most and the best disability coverage of any college newspaper this year. A majority of the nine disability-centered articles were written by Willow Delp, a second-year student at Amherst College, whose column, “Anti-Ableist Amherst,” is runner-up for Best Column. This column demonstrates the power of every student to create awareness and change on their campuses. Delp began writing the column to create “a space where often-marginalized voices within the Amherst community are foregrounded and uplifted, and disabled/neurodivergent people are no longer pushed to the sidelines.”

BEST FEATURE ARTICLE

Although some of the quotes from faculty who dismissively framed issues of student mental health as a “choice” were appalling, this article was overall a solid work of journalism that provided important insights into how the various parts of the campus community differentially view the student mental health crisis. An interesting observation from the associate dean of students is that many students have started ghosting, i.e. “just stopped attending class and responding to faculty altogether.” If this is happening at small liberal arts colleges, where students have traditionally benefited from closer attention from faculty, it signals a potentially much wider problem in higher education.

BEST NEWS ARTICLE

Buildings along Bushnell Park, downtown Hartford.

Ableism at Trinity: Disabled Students Share Their Harrowing On-Campus Experiences
By Caitlin Doherty
The Trinity Tripod,
Trinity College

Sometimes the best journalism is just allowing people the space to share their stories. This article centers diverse voices of the disabled community on campus, and the stories are indeed harrowing. One of the most disturbing reports is of students finding other students working at the Student Accessibility Resource Center, because of staffing shortages, which presents a privacy concern, especially at a small campus. As one student asks, rhetorically, “Is it really appropriate for me to go in there to have my accommodations and see a peer?”

BEST OP-ED (TIE)

Historical homes along Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ableist society: perspectives from a disabled student
By Audrey Milk
The Mac Weekly,
Macalester College

A view of Walla Walla in eastern Washington.

Perceptions of diabetes and health: addressing the stereotypes
By Sara Marshall
The Whitman Wire,
Whitman College

I appreciated the ways that these authors grappled with complexity. Milk’s essay grapples with a bevy of complex topics including language, dependence, and objectification, and describes the ways in which disabled people are discriminated against no matter what — whether we have accommodations or not, and whether our disabilities are apparent or not.

I really appreciated the introspection in Marshall’s essay, the way that the author laid bare her thought processes, embracing Imani Barbarin’s call to “learn out loud,” rather than giving in to the temptation to reduce her story to a pat, easily digestible vignette. Marshall poignantly communicates the “dilemma of striving for invisibility of the illness while simultaneously conforming to the ideal of an exemplar diabetic,” grappling with ideas of privilege, identity, and internalized ableism.

BEST COLUMN

View of Colorado Springs in autumn.

Kole Petersen
The Catalyst,
Colorado College

The author, a disabled student-athlete, wrote three articles for The Catalyst, which provided compelling punditry on a range of important topics often missing in mainstream discourse, including a defense of viral marketing strategies for the Paralympics, and a critique of individual education programs. Of the latter, the author writes that, “while children with disabilities are technically allowed to be at school, the flawed creation and implementation of the programs have reinforced the divide between disabled students and their neurotypical peers.”

BEST QUOTE

“Mental health crises that are happening right now can’t be solved by therapy, or medicine or things like that. What it’s showing is not that the people are sick, but that the society is sick.” (Disabled student at Occidental College)

KEY FINDINGS

The Amherst Student published nine disability-centered articles this year, the most of any college newspaper. Macalester College published the second highest amount (6 articles). Forty-one college newspapers published zero articles covering disability. The mean number of articles published was 1.1 and the median was 1.

There was no correlation between US News rank and the number of disability-centered articles published by the college newspaper (tau = -0.09, p = 0.25). There was also no correlation between the number of undergraduate students enrolled and the number of articles published (r = 0.02, p = 0.83). Pooling the enrollment data from the university survey with the college survey (minimum undergraduate enrollment: 127; maximum enrollment: 57,512) only produced a weak association (r = 0.37, p < 0.001) between enrollment and the number of articles published.

The top six college newspapers with the most disability coverage are listed in the table below. You can access the entire dataset for the survey here.

In total, 101 disability-centered articles were published between January 1 and November 31, 2023. Accessibility (22 articles) and advocacy (13 articles) were the most common topics.

Chart description: A bar plot showing the number of disability-centered articles published by month. The greatest number of disability-related articles was published in April.

CONCLUSION

Because of their smaller size, liberal arts colleges are traditionally known to provide greater individualized support for students compared to larger universities. However, forty-one of the 89 liberal arts colleges surveyed (46%) published no disability-focused articles this year. This may suggest a problem of visibility and representation for disabled students at small liberal arts campuses.


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