Viewing the work of disability services differently


Student Development

What is Current Practice?

Colleges and universities, in addition to providing academic programs, address student needs by creating and designing developmental opportunities to encourage learning and growth outside the classroom. These opportunities include workshops, clubs and organizations, programs, service on committees, and student government. Disability service professionals, counseling centers, or learning centers offer developmental programs for disabled students that typically only focus on helping them learn to cope, manage, or accept their disability.


  • Support groups for students with specific impairments
  • Workshops on disability management
  • Presentations on how to disclose disability
  • Training on how to self-advocate, describe disability, and manage reasonable accommodations

What are the implicit messages?

  • Disability identities are those that have been reinforced over time by societal stereotypes.
  • Disabled people have to behave as normally as possible so as to be acceptable (assimilation and conformity).
  • Impairment is a basis for setting someone apart, or a characteristic that diminishes one's humanness.
  • Oppression and discrimination are not important or relevant.

How Could This Be Different?

Disability service professionals understand that they must play a role in college student development and that disability studies and activism should inform the development of specific disability-focused opportunities as well as all student development programs and activities. Disabled students should be key players in this work.


Guided by disability studies and good design, develop opportunities that could include:

  • Leadership Training – Infuse disability-related content into existing leadership development programs or develop leadership and advocacy training programs for disabled students.
  • Committees – Nominate or promote disabled student participation on all types of institutional committees and mentor them to ensure that access and disability appreciation are infused.
  • Major/Course Selection – Encourage disabled students to consider the design professions and to enroll in design-related coursework.
  • Clubs & Organizations – Encourage disabled student participation in campus clubs and organizations and mentor them to ensure accessibility and inclusion; establish and mentor a disabled student organization that primarily focuses on reframing disability and re-designing environments.
  • Community Service – Encourage disabled students to participate in community service projects and mentor them to ensure accessibility and inclusion; establish and mentor disability-related service projects that focus on reframing disability and redesigning environments.
  • Cultural Programming – Offer opportunities for disabled students to explore disability culture (i.e., book clubs, movies, sports, the arts).

What is the potential impact of this change?

Students may develop:

  • A sense of identification with the disability community and an understanding of the impact that has on their thinking, perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.
  • A clear and truthful understanding of disability and disability identity.
  • An appreciation of the existence of oppression and discrimination with a focus on the importance of citizenship and activism.
  • A view of impairment as part of the human condition.
  • Experience in confronting barriers and engaging in activities that develop leadership and advocacy skills.
  • An appreciation of the power of design and how it can both include an exclude.

Related Resources

Cory, R; White, J; and Stuckey, Z. (2010). “Using Disability Studies Theory to Change Disability Services: A Case Study in Student Activism.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. Association on Higher Education and Disability: 23 (1), 29 - 38.