Who are Students with Disabilities in Your Courses?

When more than 55 million Americans—18% of the population—have physical or mental disabilities, you can expect to have students with disabilities in your courses (US Department of Justice, 2015). In fact, students with disabilities comprised about 12% of the undergraduate enrollment in community colleges (American Association of Community Colleges, 2015). Among this 12%, some were eligible for special education services and had an Individualized Education Program (IEP) before entering college. Others did not receive special education services but did have documented conditions that required special accommodations, and still others, including veterans, might have acquired a disability in their adult life. In all instances, it is up to the college or university student to disclose the disability. For a variety of reasons—particularly fear of disability stereotypes—students may be reluctant to self-identify.

Types of Disabilities

Those disabilities most commonly reported among community college students include

  • learning disabilities,
  • emotional or psychiatric conditions,
  • orthopedic or mobility impairments,
  • attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, and
  • health impairments (Barnett & Jeandron, 2009; Raue & Lewis, 2011).

Other disabilities reported in smaller numbers include hearing loss, low vision or blindness, traumatic brain injury, autism spectrum disorders, and speech-language disorders (American Association of Community Colleges, 2015). Check out these resources for more information about specific disabilities.

Some disabilities, like cerebral palsy, are life-long; others, like post-traumatic stress disorder, emerge later in life; and some, like broken bones, are temporary in nature. Some disabilities are visible and readily apparent. Others, like learning disabilities or diabetes, are "invisible" disabilities, though limitations may become evident in certain circumstances. Many individuals have dual or multiple disabilities. Some are recognized as "twice exceptional" because they have been identified as gifted in certain areas while also demonstrating specific disabilities in other areas. Students who are English language learners or first-generation college students may also have disabilities that warrant consideration.

Although students with intellectual disabilities have not traditionally attended college, in 2015, there were over 200 programs at colleges and universities specifically designed to accommodate students with intellectual disabilities on their campuses.

Think College provides first-person videos to build public awareness of college as an option for all students, including students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The videos give students with disabilities the opportunity to say what going to college means to them and inspire others to do the same.

Why this matters...

Regardless of the disability, each individual has a unique set of strengths, talents and needs. Using person-first language is a small but important step toward accepting, respecting, and including people with disabilities. Focusing on the person rather than the disability encourages an asset-based rather than a deficit-based approach. We talk about an "individual with a disability" rather than a "disabled individual," or a "woman who is blind" rather than "a blind woman."

A new and fundamentally different way of thinking about these conditions that have been traditionally pathologized is the neurodiversity approach. From this perspective, neurological differences such as autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variations in the human genome that confer gifts, disabilities, or most often, a combination of both (Robison, 2013).

Dan Spencer (2014), a conservation biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote a piece about overcoming his disability to become a happy and productive scientist and professional. This is a great example to share with students who may not think they belong in the Earth sciences because they have a disability.

Similarly, the video STEM and People with Disabilities (n.d.) introduces a number of other students and practicing professionals with disabilities who explain some of the challenges they have faced and the successes they have enjoyed.


American Association of Community Colleges. (2015). Fast facts from our fact sheet. Retrieved from https://www.aacc.nche.edu/research-trends/fast-facts/

Barnett, L., & Jeandron, C. (2009). Enriched & inspired: Service pathways to college success. Washington, DC: American Association of Community Colleges.

DO-IT. (n.d.) [Video file]. STEM and people with disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.washington.edu/doit/videos/index.php?vid=53&s=STEM+and+People+with+Disabilities

Raue, K., & Lewis, L. (2011). Students with disabilities at degree-granting postsecondary institutions (NCES 2011–018). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Robison, J. E. (2013, October 7). What is Neurodiversity? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/my-life-aspergers/201310/what-is-neurodiversity

Spencer, D. (2014). Outsmarting my disability: From struggling student to conservation educator. Retrieved from http://usfwspacific.tumblr.com/post/98738774305/outsmarting-my-disability-from-struggling-student

Think College. (n.d.) [Video file]. Who is thinking college? Retrieved from http://www.thinkcollege.net/who-is-thinking-college

U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. (June, 2015). ADA update: A primer for state and local governments. Retrieved from http://www.ada.gov/regs2010/titleII_2010/title_ii_primer.html