Viewing the work of disability services differently



What is current practice?

Advocacy is a process by an individual or group that aims to influence policy and resource allocation decisions within institutions. It may be motivated by moral, ethical, or faith principles or simply to protect an asset of interest.

Advocacy by service professionals is often reactive and focused on the limitations of an individual student, fear of potential legal action, and a charity/deficit frame of disability.


  • It is the beginning of the semester and already staff has not been able to keep up with the requests for alternate print formats. The Director schedules a meeting with the division Vice President. In an exasperated tone, he/she commiserates with the administrator about how frustrating and hard it is for the institution to ensure access for everyone. That said, he/she weaves in stories about a blind student who is so bright and capable, but on the brink of failure; about a staff member who is literally leaving the disability service office at 6 PM and then working from home until midnight converting print documents to electronic format; and finally about a sister institution who recently went through an OCR complaint, and it wasn't pretty.
  • The Director discovers that the design of a new building that is ready to break ground includes steps at the main entrance and a ramp to the side. He/she immediately sends out an urgent message to disabled students and disabled community members suggesting that they organize and respond to this travesty.
  • The Director notes that a video on the President's website is not captioned nor is there a linked transcript. He/she fires off an email to the President explaining the problem in legal jargon and warning about Deaf activism.
  • Disability service professionals discuss their role on campus as "advocates for students with disabilities."

What are the implicit messages?

This focus reinforces the dominant disability narratives of compliance, cost, charity, and the individual as the problem, rather than identifying the institution as lacking in its ability to ensure access and participation for everyone. Professionals inadvertently teach their campus community that:

  • Disabled people are included because it's legally required.
  • Disabled students are expensive.
  • Disabled students are demanding and overwhelm the service office with their needs.
  • Campus colleagues can't understand how complicated disability is or how difficult and time-consuming disability service work is.
  • Disability service professionals are alone—fighting the good fight for disadvantaged students against the power structure with little or no support.

How could this Be different?

Disability resource professionals recognize that prevailing disability narratives are compliance, cost, charity and the individual as the problem and that access is regularly forgotten. They know that accommodations are unpredictable and uncontrollable no matter how well the numbers are crunched and that inclusive design is still emerging. Therefore, a major component of their work must be advocacy that is thoughtful, consistent, regular, and proactive.


  • Develop and be able to articulate clear philosophy, mission and vision. Clarifying values, rationale, activities, and desired outcomes will provide a context and improve the image of disability resource offices.
  • Evaluate internal practices and align them with values relative to diversity, social justice, and equity.
  • Frame discussions for additional funding in terms of the experiences the disabled student will have relative to a non-disabled student rather than in legal terms: i.e., don't ask whether the institution must send an interpreter on a study abroad experience; ask what barriers exist, how to remove them and how the student can have a valuable experience.
  • Help campus administrators appreciate that current beliefs and behaviors are problematic, such as:
    • Wrongs can be righted through public policy alone.
    • Disability access consists of only making reasonable accommodations for individuals rather than also changing environments.
    • Critical decision-making committees or groups seldom consider disability access.
    • Discussions about lawsuits, accountability, who is and isn't disabled, and necessary funding for civil rights are common.
    • Demand for access is stagnant and resources are sufficient.
  • Build the capacity of the campus community, ie., the combined influence of a community’s commitment, resources, and skills
  • Build capacity by developing effort, will, initiative and leadership. Develop your technique and continually ask these key questions:
    • Where do we see increased commitment, resources, and skills?
    • What more needs to be done to garner and deploy resources and to galvanize community support, skills, and action?
  • Remain flexible and passionate – maintain "wiggle room" with the agenda, foster allies in strategic campus locations, and demonstrate the excitement of re-framing disability and re-designing environments.

What is the potential impact of this change?

As a result of advocacy that is thoughtful, consistent, regular, and proactive:

  • Disability resource offices are respected when they question the way policy is administered; participate in institutional agenda setting; target systems and structures that are not advancing an inclusive community; and initiate public debate and discussion.
  • Financial resources and ways for administering these resources are identified.
  • Campus faculty/staff are organized, develop skills, and manage sustained efforts that can improve campus accessibility and climate.
  • The campus disability narrative is re-framed and considered a matter of diversity, social justice, and equity.
  • The campus is evaluated in regard to its effectiveness in improving disability access and inclusion.
  • Good design models are identified, recognized, and replicated.
  • Strong leadership from the top and from talented disability resource staff is cultivated.

Related Resources

Strauss, A. and Sales, A. (2010). “Bridging the Gap Between Disability Studies and Disability Services in Higher Education” A Model Center on Disability.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. Association on Higher Education and Disability: 23 (1), 81-86.

Loewen, G and Pollard, W. (2010). “ The Social Justice Perspective”. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. Association on Higher Education and Disability: 23 (1), 5 - 18.