November 9, 2023

Creating Inclusive Classrooms: Addressing Ableism and Barriers in Higher Education

Written by Holly Eva Allen, Ph.D. Candidate in English. School of Arts and Humanities. Claremont Graduate University.

Historical Context

Colleges have student services offices, sometimes called disabled student services or disability services, that exist to accommodate disabled students. For this reason alone, it might be tempting to think that higher education as a whole is one area of life where disabled, chronically ill, and neurodivergent individuals might feel welcomed. However, personal experience, contemporary statistics, and history have all shown that this is not necessarily the case. 

Beginning with history, for example, one finds that institutions associated with higher education have frequently challenged the requested accommodations of active or prospective students. Often times these challenges are in no small part due to a complete lack of understanding on the part of the college administration, college faculty, and even the judge and jury handling such qualms once they reach the courts. Perhaps one of the most detrimental rulings in the history of disabled justice and higher education came from the 1979 Southeastern Community College v. Davis case. Davis had been denied entry in the nursing program at said college as she was hard of hearing and Southeastern believed that it could not reasonably accommodate her should she attend. The case was ultimately ruled in favor of the college as the college, jury, and judge all seemed to have no understanding of the difference between modifications and accommodations; while the college argued that Davis could not attend the program without making drastic and costly modifications to the entire program while, in truth, a sign language interpreter, an accommodation, would have sufficed. The ruling itself set an ableist and confused precedent by which institutions might baselessly deny admission to select students. Furthermore, in an article reviewing the case, Leslie Francis explains that the ruling also had a deleterious effect on the legal and social perception of accommodations and modifications alike as “confusing accommodations and modifications risks construing individuals as either demanding unjustified modifications in policies or requesting special accommodations that are personal privileges for themselves” (Francis 183). To make matters worse, a professor who argued in favor of the college denying admission to Davis presented various stereotypes before the court, including the idea that individuals with hearing impairments and d/Deaf individuals are incapable of completing a variety of tasks safely and predictably (Francis 189).

Lack of Disability Studies in Academia

Perhaps this blatant lack of familiarity with disabilities and individuals within the d/Deaf community is unsurprising when one considers the fact that disability studies, disability justice, mad studies, and associated subjects are rarely taught or even discussed in academia. A thorough study composed in 2009 found that only twenty-one colleges in the United States offered degrees, minors, or concentrations in Disability Studies and the majority of these were offered as minors only (Cushing and Smith). While the numbers have grown slightly since then, they remain rather small when one considers the fact that the CDC reports that one in four Americans is currently living with a disability, effectively making the disabled community the largest minority group in America (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 

Incorporating Disability Studies and Justice in Courses

It may feel intimidating if not impossible to foster understanding and inclusion when historically academia has not demonstrated a willingness to welcome disabled students nor the study of disability with open arms. While amending the law is a lengthy process, there are a few changes that the individual educator can make to their own courses that will demonstrate support for those in the disabled community. The majority of these changes can be separated into two distinct categories.

The first category of changes are adjustments made to required input material and information shared in your course that add information on disability studies and/or disability justice. For example, a women’s studies class focused on histories of feminism and intersectionality would be severely lacking depth were it omit disability in the feminist movement. Even discussions of major figures in women’s history and queer studies would be severely lacking were it to overlook mentioning disability and associated identifiers. Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, and Cherríe Moraga are only a few examples of activists and writers whose work would likely be covered in such a course and yet removing direct discussion of their disabilities or chronic conditions would drastically limit context and relevance when critically analyzing their works. Similarly, if an educator teaches an art history class covering Frida Kahlo and fails to note her disabilities or a literature class reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter without exploring the evolution of disabled characters in the American novel then they have left out crucial factors that would undoubtedly aid students in a nuanced understanding of the topics at hand. 

Attendance Policies

The second of these changes involves amending course policies and guidelines to increase accessibility. Some instructors might employ a syllabus that strictly caps absences at two or three before the grade of said student is decreased by an entire letter grade or more. While various alternative grading structures might be beneficial, even letter grading systems can be more accessible and forgiving if such strict attendance policies are not applied. For those with chronic illnesses or chronic pain conditions, attending a course in person might prove difficult during bouts of nausea, pain, dizziness, fatigue, etc. While some educators might believe that requiring a doctor’s note or medical slip of sorts solves this problem quite nicely, this is not the case. In the United States, visiting a medical professional can come with a price tag, even for those with insurance. Therefore, a student who suffers from a fairly regular chronic condition might find frequent doctor’s visits inconvenient, costly, and time-consuming. 

Additionally, the following question bears asking—if a student is too ill to attend an in-person class, what makes one think they can so easily manage a visit to a medical office? A person with a vestibular disorder or neurological condition, for example, might find themselves far too dizzy to drive to a medical office and if they have no caregiver, spouse, friend, or acquaintance to drive them then obtaining a medical note might simply be out of the question. Even if said individual were to take public transportation one must consider the fact that such travel presents additional costs and that simply riding in a moving vehicle of any kind might worsen the symptoms associated with vestibular or neurological conditions such as chronic migraines or Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. For a student with such a condition, a punitive attendance policy may bar them from completing your course with a grade that accurately reflects their efforts. Instead of punishing them for a lack of effort or attentiveness, such a policy punishes them for the conditions or symptoms that they already struggle with.

Call to Action

Augmenting attendance policies to be accessible provides students with a space where they are not penalized for their chronic conditions. Prioritizing disability studies and disabled voices in input material will allow for disabled studies to feel that their experiences are valid. While such changes require an instructor to make changes to their course planning and syllabi, such efforts communicate to students what kind of environment you hope to foster. An educator that continues the ableist trajectory of traditional academic environments will not lead chronically ill and disabled students to success. An educator that works towards change, towards accessibility and progress, does.


“Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 Jan. 2023,

Cushing, Pamela and Smith, Tyler. “Table 2: Schools with Disability Studies Degrees.” A Multinational Review of English-language Disability Studies Degrees and Courses, Vol. 29, No. 3, 2009.

Francis, Leslie. “Debilitating Southeastern Community College v. Davis: Achieving The Promise Of Disability Civil Rights.” University of the District of Columbia Law Review, Vol. 23, Issue 1, 2020, 207.