The invisible constituency Serving the growing population of students with disabilities means we must go beyond what is required

If you were a student with a learning disability in the early 1990s, you were often simply seen as stupid or, at best, intellectually inferior to your peers.

In those days, the University of Michigan’s Office of Services for Students with Disabilities served fewer than 100 students annually.

But over the last quarter century, due in large part to two pieces of landmark legislation – the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, both signed into law in the 1990s – our society’s collective understanding and attitude toward those with disabilities has shifted.

Serving students with disabilities

Stigmas, while still present, have weakened. Educators are much more attuned to both the capabilities and needs of students with disabilities. And students themselves, funneled through a K-12 experience that included legally mandated and individualized educational accommodations, arrive on college campuses with a greater awareness of what interventions they need to be successful.

We know that students with disabilities, when given access to support aligned with their individual needs, graduate at approximately the same rate as those without disabilities. Their GPAs are on par, as are their postgraduate employment rates.

In order to foster the academic potential of all our students, universities must go beyond what is required by law, be proactive in identifying and supporting students with disabilities, and incorporate disability status as a key pillar in building a more diverse, more inclusive, and more equitable campus community.

Last year, U-M’s Office of Services for Students with Disabilities advocated for more than 60,000 academic accommodations on behalf of more than 2,200 students with a variety of disabilities, from mobility impairments to blindness. So-called “invisible disabilities” – learning, mental health, and chronic health disorders – make up a large percentage of the students the office serves.

That’s one in every 20 students and more than any other university in the Big Ten.

In May, the university was named the top disability-friendly college or university in the nation in the College Choice 2016 rankings. The rankings are based on programming and support services provided by each institution. College Choice specifically cited U-M’s Services for Students with Disabilities as an instrumental resource.

With the support of engaged administrators and faculty, we continue to make progress. The university recently hired its first accessibility-focused librarian. A new collaboration with the National Federation of the Blind and the HathiTrust Digital Library at U-M will make more than 14 million digital books available to people who are blind or print-disabled over the next year. Academic coaching services give interested students the opportunity to examine their learning styles, working habits, and barriers to success, and create a strategic plan that meets their needs.

We’re moving in the right direction, but there is still much more that needs to be done. New technology to serve students across a spectrum of disabilities is constantly improving, and we must be diligent in keeping up to speed. More staff is needed to serve the growing constituency, especially as students become more and more sophisticated about their disabilities and what they need. Logistical hurdles, like finding quiet testing and study locations for students with attention disorders, are always present.

And while we serve a much greater number of students than we did a generation ago, odds are that the number still doesn’t accurately reflect the true size of the population.

Lingering stigmas still stop some from seeking assistance. Some disabilities go undiagnosed. Those with known disabilities often aren’t aware of the university resources available to them.

Our goal is, and must continue to be, going beyond the standards outlined in the ADA to maximize every student’s ability to learn and be successful.

There’s a large population that has been excluded for too long. We must engage them and ensure they have access to those same experiences that prepare all our students for life after graduation. When we get it right, it makes so many other possibilities a reality.

Stuart Segal is the director of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities and coordinator of services for students with learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, traumatic brain injuries, mental health disorders, and autistic spectrum disorders.