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Advocacy is a process in which an individual or group aims to influence policy and resource allocation decisions within institutions. It may be motivated by moral, ethical, or faith principles or simply to protect an asset of interest.

What is current practice?

Advocacy by service professionals is often reactive and focused on the limitations of an individual student, fear of potential legal action, and a charity or deficit frame of disability.

Traditional approaches:

  • Disability resource directors often:
    • Talk about a specific student and the expenses of providing access for that student
      • For example, we have our first Deaf student and it will cost x dollars to provide him with an interpreter this semester.
      • We have a Blind student who has decided to become a music major and it will cost x dollars to convert his materials.
    • Talk about the threat of OCR complaints or law suits.
    • Rely on students to be the voice of advocacy because of fear of angering administrators.
    • Discuss their role on campus as “advocates for students with disabilities.”
    • Share stories of struggling students to influence opinion.
    • Share stories of staff going above and beyond to help students.

What are the implicit messages?

This focus reinforces the dominant disability narratives of compliance, cost, charity, and the individual as the problem, rather than identifying the institution as lacking in its ability to ensure access and participation for everyone. Professionals inadvertently teach their campus community that: 

  • Disabled people are included because it’s legally required.
  • Disabled students are expensive.
  • Disabled students are demanding and overwhelm the service office with their needs.
  • Disability service professionals are alone—fighting the good fight for disadvantaged students with little or no support.

How could this Be different?

Disability resource professionals recognize that prevailing disability narratives are compliance, cost, charity and the individual as the problem and that access is regularly forgotten. They know that accommodations are unpredictable and uncontrollable no matter how well the numbers are crunched and that inclusive design is still emerging. Therefore, a major component of their work must be advocacy that is thoughtful, consistent, regular, and proactive. 

Refocused Approaches

  • Develop and be able to clearly articulate a philosophy, mission and vision. Clarifying values, rationale, activities, and desired outcomes will provide a context and improve the image of disability resource offices.
  • Evaluate internal practices and align them with values relative to diversity, social justice, and equity.
  • Frame discussions for additional funding in terms of the experiences the disabled student will have relative to a non-disabled student rather than in legal terms ( i.e., don’t ask whether the institution must send an interpreter on a study abroad experience; ask what barriers exist, how to remove them and how the student can have a valuable experience.)
  • Help campus administrators appreciate that current beliefs and behaviors are problematic, such as:
    • Disability access consists of only making reasonable accommodations for individuals rather than also changing environments.
    • Critical decision-making committees or groups seldom consider disability access.
    • Disability is often left out of conversations about diversity.
    • Access is framed only as a compliance issue.
    • The disability resource office is framed and funded the same as other student affairs offices.
  • Build the capacity of the campus community by increasing commitment, resources, skills and leadership.
  • Develop your technique and continually ask these key questions:
    • Where do we see increased commitment, resources, and skills?
    • What are the positive impacts of these changes on students and other stakeholders and how can I capture those and communicate them to administrators?
    • What more needs to be done to garner and deploy resources and to galvanize community support, skills, and action?
  • Remain flexible and passionate 
  • Foster allies in strategic campus locations
  • Demonstrate the excitement of re-framing disability and re-designing environments.

What is the potential impact of this change?

As a result of advocacy that is thoughtful, consistent, regular, and proactive: 

  • Disability resource offices are respected when they question the way policy is administered, participate in institutional agenda setting, target systems and structures that are not advancing an inclusive community, and initiate public debate and discussion.
  • Financial resources and ways for administering these resources are identified.
  • Campus employees are organized, develop skills, and manage sustained efforts that can improve campus accessibility and climate.
  • The campus disability narrative is re-framed and considered a matter of diversity, social justice, and equity.
  • The campus is evaluated in regard to its effectiveness in improving disability access and inclusion.
  • Good design models are identified, recognized, and replicated.
  • Strong leadership from the top and from talented disability resource staff is cultivated.

Next Page: Procedures and Accommodations