Ensuring Equal Access


When I was first asked to write a case study about inclusive education practices at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), where I am both an alum (Ed.M. 2010) and a current doctoral student, I was hesitant. I had written case studies before, and while educational equity is at the heart of my work and studies, I didn’t spend much time thinking about students with disabilities. 

Virtually all of my own schooling, for better or worse, had taken place at selective institutions—from the private international school I attended in elementary school, the college preparatory school I went to for high school, as well as the university I attended for my bachelor’s degree. While I know there were students with disabilities at each of these schools, they were neither very visible on campus, nor was the tone on campus inclusive. Instead, these schools—like so many institutions with competitive admissions—extolled their selectivity and the exceptionalism of their students. I don’t mean to paint these wonderful schools in a negative light, but simply to point out that we were told over and over again that we were special, smart, and that we were lucky to be there. 

This sort of discourse is not unusual at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, either. However, it was only in researching and writing this case study that I came to understand that one of the things that any institution can do well—including selective schools like the ones I have attended—is to make the educational experiences of students with disabilities as seamless and typical as possible—to make being a student with a disability virtually no different from being a student without a disability. 

In my research, I was shocked to learn that 10-15% of students each year at HGSE have disabilities, and that this figure actually reflects the national prevalence (12.4% of U.S. population has a disability). This is especially surprising since while there are an estimated over 49 million people with disabilities in the United States, fewer than 12% ever obtain a college degree, and even fewer receive graduate degrees. In fact, according to the National Education Association, an estimated 15% of students with disabilities don’t even receive a high school diploma. 

Moreover, as not only a student, but also a member of the graduate teaching staff—who would presumably know more than the typical student about the needs of the learners on campus—I had no idea that there were so many students with a diagnosed disability on campus. Of course, there are students with visible disabilities, but they number only a handful each year. Instead, I learned that one of the most important things that any institution—selective or not—can do is to make learning not only possible for all types of learners, but to make equal access to learning opportunities commonplace, given, and even invisible.

Even though HGSE has by no means perfected this, it aims to provide seamless accommodation, privacy, and individualized support in such a way that it is possible for students with disabilities on campus to have real equality of access—equality to such a degree that their experiences really are not materially different from other students. Instead, they are just students who fall somewhere on the spectrum of human variation, just like those who don’t have a diagnosed disability.

This was my second major learning from this process: that we are all “disabled” in one way or another, but that some “disabilities” are already accounted for in our environments. For example, I wear glasses since—on the range of human sight—I fall towards the “nearsighted” end of the spectrum. My disability causes me no problems since I have an accommodation (glasses). What if we treated all disabilities in this way: not as a binary (disabled or not disabled), but instead to simply make sure to accommodate all human variation as needed.

This mindset is especially important in a field like education, where practitioners need to be sensitive to the needs of all different kinds of learners. Institutions of higher education—including those like HGSE that train educators—need to work with policymakers to do a better job of ensuring equal access to the opportunities and advantages afforded by a college degree. With fewer than 35% of all Americans with disabilities employed (compared with 76% of all Americans, disabled or not), and those Americans with disabilities earning on average 85 cents for every dollar earned by a non-disabled adult, we need to do more to provide Americans with disabilities access to the greater employability and earnings afforded by tertiary degrees. 

Eleanor (Nell) O'Donnell is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research interests include educational equity, parent-focused or home-based early childhood programs, emergent literacy and numeracy, and culturally-relevant research. 

©Rodrigo Mendes Institute. Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.5. The copying, distribution and transmission of this work are free, under the following conditions: You must credit the work as authored by Eleanor (Nell) O´Donell and licensed by Rodrigo Mendes Institute; the use for commercial purposes is forbidden; the change, transformation or building upon this work is forbidden, except with express permission of the licensor.

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