In a major student win, the Ford Foundation’s US Disability Policy portfolio announced a $1 million grant to the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). Sub-grants (not yet mentioned) will help disabled students and employees on campus to assert their rights and quell the prejudice many say they face when asking for equal rights for distance and on-campus education . In a joint statement from both organizations, leaders pointed out that the pandemic is full of examples of disabled workers and students facing “immense discrimination and impossible choices.”
The grant gets to the heart of the problem few know about: Covid-19 is disproportionately disproportionately disproportionately disproportionate to negative health outcomes in the disabled, who make up 22% of all Americans. As many Americans celebrate the return to work and school and watch as pandemic restrictions ease across the country, disabled students and workers worry that higher education has bottomed out when it comes to protecting their health.
The $1 million also aligns with both organizations’ focus on disability rights, youth advocacy and social justice. It emphasizes the importance of taking positive actions led by colleagues and disabled communities for the disabled community, be it students, staff or teachers. They won’t be the first to support these efforts, but the partnership of these two high-profile organizations is exciting as it creates much-needed awareness of the challenges plaguing post-secondary education.
“A million dollars goes a long way in creating peer-based programs, the data of which already exists to show they are more successful than professionals contacting students directly,” said Allilsa Fernandez, a mental health advocate. health and disability, aspiring attorney, peer specialist, who is part of NCCSD’s DREAM program, and on the board of the International Student Peer Support Program in the United States.
I asked Fernandez and others with experience what they see as the most effective strategies for helping students with disabilities. I also asked professors, researchers, graduates with a diagnosis of serious mental illness, and faculty disability departments to share their advice. Many offered wisdom and resources that could benefit all businesses, not just higher education. This is what they said:
Don’t reinvent the resource wheel
Many people I spoke to warned that if you are not closely involved with the issue, disability accommodations can seem like a foreign country full of legalese and paperwork. (Imagine not only being a freshman or faculty member but also learning a new language called post-secondary accommodations.) Even the terms you may know from the K-12 institutions don’t apply. The key difference: Post-secondary accommodations are designed for entry, not success. A good place to start is the National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD), which is based on the Association on Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD). They provide comprehensive online resources for students of all backgrounds and education levels (from incoming freshmen to graduate students). NCCSD’s student and teacher database, funded by the federal government since 2015, is easy to understand and available in a variety of formats. Academic scholars can find information about navigating academia with disabilities by joining scientific community groups that offer hands-on Google Docs guides to inclusivity. Some are more niche than others, but if that doesn’t suit you, there are plenty of disabled hashtags on Twitter to follow.
While the subject of masking, ventilation, masking and distance learning is well known, they are also fraught with disagreement. The pandemic is far from over — and the battle over Covid protection protocols is just about to end, making the Ford Foundation grant incredibly topical. Advocacy and understanding of everyone’s needs is complicated. Health protocols designed to ensure the safety of people with disabilities usually keep everyone safe. But disability is not a monolith. So the masks one person wears and the distance they stand may be correct for someone with a compromised immune system, but incredibly difficult for someone who lip-reads or has difficulty with language processing. These debates rage among public health experts and those with experience, and will continue to do so at the American Public Health Association’s meeting in Boston this fall.
Negativity and bias often reign, because that’s what most school boards have focused on: measuring grievances. When the NCCSD surveyed colleges and universities about the top seven policies and procedures they were aware of on campus, their findings showed that 95% of participants could identify formal grievance policies and procedures with disability accessibility complaints. Only 43% could identify faculty diversity initiatives or efforts to recruit and retain teachers with disabilities. The need for positive, disabled academic role models is huge, but incredibly hard to find. Fearing repercussions and bias, many academics are silent about their disability, whether it be a cancer diagnosis or problems related to Lung Covid.
Connect and collaborate for greater reach
Research on peer support with disabilities is one of those good places – there are positive lessons in almost any research you turn to. “Research shows that students with disabilities are the ideal link between students and professionals, sharing information and resources and supporting training,” says Fernandez. By training student-led organizations to help students speak up for themselves and organizing conferences about disabilities, we can connect students in cities and across the country.” But that doesn’t exclude professionals, who also need training in listening to the experiences of students with disabilities. Fernandez said policies usually fail when created without those most affected, people with experience, or when informed policies are not shared across networks. Money spent on setting up disability conferences connecting students in cities, states and across the country would fill a huge void. “One of the biggest problems with universities is that they know that most students with disabilities are a small group on campus and have less power,” Fernandez says. “If a network were created, imagine the changes that would actually take place.
Clarify Covid risks for people with disabilities
The disproportionality of Covid-19 is leading to negative health outcomes among people with disabilities on campus, including students, faculty and staff. Research shows that those effects aren’t just physical. According to the American Psychological Association website, there are unique stressors and challenges that can worsen the mental health of people with disabilities during the COVID-19 crisis. The US now has a strategy to end these health disparities, but it may not be enough.
Often, these disabilities are invisible and may not be at the forefront of creating higher education safety policies, despite the higher risk in this group, according to Karen L. Fortuna, PhD LICSW, assistant professor of psychology at Geisel School of Medicine in Dartmond. She doesn’t mince words when it comes to Covid protocols. “Do I go to school or work and risk getting sick and even dying?” – those kinds of questions keep people, according to Dr. Fortune busy.
Studies by Dr. Fortuna and her colleagues show that peer support can span multiple arenas and support people’s mental health, physical health and social health. “Digital peer support for the disability community lagging behind in higher education policy can support advocacy efforts to make their voices heard on campus,” said Dr. Fortuna. “To challenge the status quo about living with Covid, students with disabilities, teachers and staff, whose numbers may be small, need funding that can amplify their voices.
Be realistic but ruthless
Researchers who tracked prejudice in different groups found that “Sexuality prejudice has decreased by 64% in 14 years, but it has not changed at all for prejudices about disability, age or body weight,” according to Phys.org. Implicit bias tracking at Harvard’s Department of Psychology found only a 3% change in the implicit disability bias. Using their forecasts, neutralizing bias could take more than 200 years. That’s amazing. In my opinion, Americans should spend a lot more time opening their minds than opening their wallets. Of course, sometimes the two go hand in hand: to get an open mind, you have to educate people about the prejudices they can’t see or have divided into thinking it’s other people’s problems, not theirs. .
Inclusion requires action when it is most effective. What gives me hope – even more hope that $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation? If you see a leader who also happens to be disabled, advocate for the community on social media.
Erin C. Sanders is a disabled mother, wife, nurse and clinical scientist at MIT who: wrote on Twitter this week exactly what I thought, in words more forceful than I had succeeded in my frustration at a high risk of Covid-19: “Those who are resistant to offering reasonable accommodations (such as virtual presence) because they are different from what you are used to, require creativity and are sometimes expensive. Welcome to being disabled – every aspect of our lives is this.” She goes on to say that this is the bare minimum that other able-bodied people can do. If you’d like to hear a different take on disability in Higher Ed, I’ll give you another example of a student with experience telling it like it is. This one comes from disabled scientist Krystal Vasquez, who has a PhD in atmospheric chemistry and wrote that she was banned from her lab in Chemistry World. The lack of disabled teachers is a troubling one that the AAPD will address through their new funding. The White House has plans to protect high-risk communities on campus during the fall. The more votes — at every level of Higher Ed, in government and in public health organizations — the faster prospective students will see change on campus as Americans learn to live with Covid.