Disability and education: a community perspective


A common stereotype is that people with disabilities are less educated due to accessibility barriers. While there is some truth to this statement, the more prevalent narrative is that many people with disabilities achieve high educational attainment in spite of accessibility barriers. That said, success despite limited accessibility is something to be addressed and fixed, not used as an excuse for inaction. 

To better understand how accessibility impacts educational access, attainment, and individuals going through the process, Fable surveyed our community of assistive technology users to collect their sentiments and thoughts on this topic.

This article presents some of the qualitative and quantitative data uncovered in the hopes that it will aid educational institutions to better understand accessibility from the perspective of students who need it.

A Filipinx woman with a filtering face mask sits outside a cafe and writes in a notebook. She is wearing headphones and in front of a window, with potted plants all around.

Photo Credit: Disabled and Here

Accessibility offices do not guarantee accessibility

Education is particularly critical for people with disabilities because many career paths are not open to them. For example, someone with vision or mobility issues will not be a fit for working in construction or in a kitchen. As a result, people with disabilities almost always need to look toward tech and computer-based work, which typically requires a higher level of formal education than other career paths. 

Many traditional educational institutions have accessibility offices that are intended to provide accommodation to any student who needs it. However, the lived experience of Fable’s community suggests that accessibility offices do not provide all the accommodation one may need. Further, community members indicate a concern that many accessibility officers in universities or colleges do not understand all types of disability, meaning they inadvertently discriminate against those who need the most assistance. 

Some of the resources and data websites that I needed to visit regularly were not fully accessible. The accessibility office team were not familiar with my needs. I expected them to be more educated in students with a disability and special needs.  – Sam N.

I mostly experienced delays in receiving books in alternate formats, and sometimes not receiving them at all. Other times issues came up that involved me being unable to read PowerPoint slides or illustrations presented in class, or not being able to understand video clips that were presented. I overcame all of the above barriers by doing my own research and finding other more accessible materials that would still allow me to learn the same material and concepts. – Charmaine C.

Despite these barriers though, most people (66%) who attended college or university say they completed their degrees despite accessibility barriers. Only a small minority (5.6%) say they did not face accessibility barriers.

Chart: University and College Completion Rates from Fable Community survey respondents. 65% of responses were "Finished in spite of accessibility barriers", followed by nearly 20% responding "Failed to finish due to accessibility barriers", just over 10% responding "Failed to finish due to another reason", and the smallest percentage, approximately 5%, responded "Did not experience accessibility barriers."

While people finishing education despite barriers is heartening, many members indicated they had to self-advocate, sometimes aggressively. This happened even in instances where there was a disability or accessibility office at the school. 

During my first attempt at college, I encountered a great deal of prejudice from the head of the Disability Services office. She withheld housing from me, wouldn’t give me a waiver for the physical education requirement, and told me I didn’t belong there. My neuromuscular disease worsened due to all the stress until I had to drop out. A few years ago I applied again, and though I require more accommodations than ever I’ve only had a few problems getting them.  – Michelle B. 

Forced self-advocacy is an additional burden 

While self-advocacy is an important skill, it’s also a burden when you are forced to self-advocate for every needed accommodation. Regardless of whether someone completed or did not complete formal education, people indicated that constant self-advocacy was exhausting and demeaning to them as people. 

A lot of my struggles in college was all the required reading. Because I am “only visually impaired”, I did not get a reader and there was so much reading that it was a strain. I tried to record the class. While that helped, it was also a big pain to have to go through parts of lectures again because of not having access to the same information. I had to spend so much more time than my peers and that was incredibly frustrating. – Carrie M. 

Some people took educational matters into their own hands, such as recording lectures by themselves to avoid needing to go to the accessibility office. While this meant they were able to avoid prejudice, they ended up with significant additional work to understand the core concepts that other classmates were learning quickly. 

There are so many activities that are designed for visual learners and hard for us to participate [in] fully without an assistant. Some platforms such as launchpad etc. [are] not fully accessible with the screen readers also, as I mentioned they are designed for sighted students and their learning style.
– Sam N.

Chart: Overcoming Barriers in Education. 19% of respondents selected "Unique arrangements with professors", 13% "Recording lectures", 10.5% "Support from peers/family", 8% "Purchasing new technology", 4% "Using alternative learning materials".