Raising the Bar on the College Experience

Group photo of disabled and able-bodied men and women in professional dress.
Attendees at the "Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance" retreat included organizer Jay Ruckelshaus (second from right, seated) and MIUSA presenter Ashley Holben (back row, standing at left).
The “go to class, take your exam, get your degree” path to graduation misses out on some of the richest experiences of college life. Students with disabilities need to move beyond this path, and even beyond U.S. borders, to set themselves up for post-college success.

When I was a college student at the University of Oregon, I spent a lot of extra time on campus outside of class, whether working at one of my part-time jobs or internships (hello, MIUSA!), meeting advisors, studying at my favorite café, or snoozing in the international student lounge (hello, comfy couches!) My roommates rarely saw me. I always thought it was funny how one my friends would prefer to walk home between classes rather than linger on campus, even if there was no time to actually spend at home before it was time to walk to his next class. Though he did eventually get his diploma (and plenty of cardio), it seemed like he was missing out on a big chunk of the college experience. “Why not just take online courses” I asked him, “and save yourself the trip?”

While the “go to class, take your exam, get your degree” approach to college was my friend’s choice, it is not everyone’s. But for many college students with disabilities, this is the path that is expected of them.

“Too often, there’s this expectation that students with disabilities should just do the bare minimum to get through college,” Jay Ruckelshaus, a student at Duke University, told me as I interviewed him about his time studying abroad in Oxford. “Things like study abroad don't even come up. The bar is set pretty low.”

That’s the attitude that Jay and his allies are working to change. Last year, he had approached Duke’s administration and staff from its Disability Management System with an idea to bring together leaders from diverse institutions and organizations, then take the discussion about students with disabilities in higher education to the next level. “We know what the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] requirements are. Can we talk beyond that?”

In other words, how can higher education professionals create an environment for students to not just succeed in college, but one that sets them up for successful post-college experiences? That was the question at the heart of Duke’s “Beyond Disability, Beyond Compliance” national retreat, where presenters showcased innovative ideas for greater inclusion, from creating a centralized mechanism for funding accommodations to setting up an adaptive rock climbing clinic to advising on studying abroad with a disability (that’s where I came in!)

Of course students need to be able to access their classrooms, homework assignments, and exams, but what about access to other elements that make up the college experience: joining Greek life, getting involved in student government, cheering on your team at the game, staying active and in shape, and yes, studying abroad. For students with disabilities to be part of these experiences, there needs to be an expectation – among higher education professionals, among parents, among students themselves – that they should.

On the anniversary of the ADA this July, we’ll celebrate all that this civil rights law has made possible over the last 25 years. But for the next foreseeable 25, let’s seize opportunities to go beyond mere compliance…and beyond the classroom.

For best practices in promoting access to the college experience for students with disabilities, including a chapter from MIUSA staff on study abroad, pick up a copy of Beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act: Inclusive Policy and Practice for Higher Education.



Ashley Holben