Core Value: Social Justice
The role of the disability resource professional in higher education would not exist if not for the activism and advocacy of disabled people. Our profession and other similar professions, such as rehabilitation counseling, are founded upon the idea that disabled people deserve the opportunity to be equal members of society—which is by definition social justice. Laws that protect individual civil rights are passed based on the idea that all people deserve the opportunity to participate fully in society and to pursue opportunities offered to all members of that society—which is, again, by definition, based upon a value of social justice. If we are not guided by and grounded in this value, then our work can only maintain the status quo and will not challenge systems of oppression, marginalization and segregation to continue.
The Need for An International Conversation
The profession of people who work to promote and provide disability access in higher education spans the globe. Our professional organization—Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)—is an international organization. It includes members from countries both with and without laws that protect the civil rights of disabled people. As such, a values-based approach to our work allows us to have an international conversation about practices that support full inclusion of disabled people in higher education, regardless of different legal requirements across those countries. For that and other reasons, our conversation about access, inclusion and equity must rise above the U.S. context.
The following core beliefs lay a foundation for guiding the work of disability resource professionals in designing services, policies and programs. They keep us focused on the ultimate goal of creating campuses that value disability and actively foster equity of opportunity.
- Disability is natural part of human variation and an aspect of diversity.
- Access and inclusion are a matter of social justice.
- Creating accessible, and inclusive environments is a shared responsibility.
Disability is a natural part of human variation and an aspect of diversity.
At the root a society’s response to disabled people is the way disability is perceived. Historically, disability has been viewed as a deficit and responses to it have focused on elimination, cure, prevention, help, support, and protection. Such perceptions and responses remain and are dominant in many spaces. Even as we shift our perception of disability, vestiges of these historic responses can be seen in service design and the ways access is provided. If we do not work to challenge traditional perceptions of disability and examine our own processes and biases, we will falter in making progress toward institutionalizing access and inclusion on our campuses.
Just as with other markers of diversity, disability is a social and political category that includes people with a variety of conditions who are bound together by common experiences. These common experiences include discrimination, marginalization, exclusion and bias. They also include activism, art, culture, Disability pride, Deaf pride, and celebration. As we promote and support the view of disability as an aspect of diversity, we are called to question our language and our practices and to consider the messages they send about disability. We also must ask ourselves if our response to disability is consistent with our response to other traditionally marginalized groups or if it is grounded in traditional, biased views of disability.
Access and inclusion are a matter of social justice.
Two narratives have traditionally dominated conversations about disability access in higher education—a helping narrative and a compliance narrative. The helping narrative emphasizes service providers as helping professionals whose role is to increase the likelihood that disabled students will be successful by providing support and giving them opportunities to learn self-advocacy skills. This narrative portrays disabled students as less capable than their peers and in need of additional support. And professionals are portrayed as heroes to these “unfortunate students.”
The compliance narrative, on the other hand, emphasizes that postsecondary institutions are at risk of lawsuits without someone to intercede on the behalf of the institution. This narrative focuses on doing what is absolutely necessary to avoid being sued by potentially litigious students. The underlying message is that without the presence of civil rights laws, the institution would not be obligated to provide access.
Neither of these narratives is grounded in the idea that disabled students deserve access, the value that underlies social justice. Both, in their own way, otherize disabled people. They send the message that disabled people are “different” and their rights are based on their special needs or the law, not on the principles that guide access for non-disabled students. Focusing on a compliance-based narrative keeps professionals dependent on the courts and OCR (U.S. Office of Civil Rights) for guidance regarding “what’s right,” rather than encouraging a more fluent understanding of values and principles. It places the expertise and responsibility in the courts or OCR’s hands, rather than acknowledging the professional judgement and skills of the higher education professional. It is a matter of the legal tail wagging the equity dog.
Shifting the narrative to one that emphasizes access and inclusion as a matter of social justice changes the landscape considerably. Within the U.S. context, this is consistent with disability law but emphasizes the law’s intent: non-discrimination, equity and access. The very language of the Americans with Disabilities Act, in the section titled Purpose, states that “…the Nation’s proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals…” Adopting a stance of access as a matter of social justice recognizes that with or without existing laws, we value equity and inclusion. Instead of asking, “What does the law require us to do?” or “What does OCR say about this?”, we instead ask:
- “What does it mean to provide an equitable experience for disabled students?”
- “What does equal access look like in this situation?”
- “How different is a disabled student’s experience from the experience of a non-disabled student?”
- “How could we be more proactive in reducing barriers to access and inclusion?”
This final question brings us to the discussion of the third core belief.
Creating accessible and inclusive environments is a shared responsibility…
…and this responsibility is central to the work of the disability resource professional.
Design is powerful in terms of its ability to promote or limit full participation and inclusion. Typical approaches to design differentially impact and often exclude disabled people. This includes the design of physical environments, instruction, course materials, web resources, policies, and services. While providing accommodations can result in access, changing the way these environments are designed is the only way to truly achieve equity of opportunity and experience. Accommodations provide a separate and segregated pathway to access. Changes in design can, on the other hand, provide a more integrated, inclusive experience. Therefore, an important part of our work must be proactive and systemic—working with others on our campuses to influence their approach to design. When we are involved in conversations about the design of campus systems and environments, we have the opportunity to change disabled students’ experiences. We can accomplish this through professional development and through individual conversations with faculty and other stakeholders that focus on their role in creating a more inclusive and accessible campus.
While it is impossible to eliminate the need for all individualized adjustments, there is much room for improvement. The efforts of the disability resource professional should include a focus, or a refocus, if you will, on improved design—of our own processes and services as well as on the design of other environments on our campus.
If these values and beliefs resonate with you, we hope you will utilize Refocus 2.0 to reflect on these questions:
- What does this mean for me?
- What does this mean for our office and our practice?
- What does this mean for collaboration with faculty and others?
A note about civil rights law: We in no way want to send the message that we are not in support of disability civil rights laws being enacted. We recognize that many people would not have the access they have without those laws. But as Mary Johnson, disability activist, so aptly stated, “A law cannot guarantee what a culture will not give.” Refocus 2.0 aims to provide tools to help you change the cultures of both your office and your campus.