ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2019


Tech support for students with disabilities needs improvement.

To help organizations understand the difference between diversity and inclusion, leadership and management expert Jaye Goosby Smith uses the metaphor of a garden. She explains that diversity can be thought of as the varying types of plants in a garden, or people in an organization, and inclusion as the soil, which relates to the "conditions that make people willing and able to bring their best to the organization to achieve its goals."1  With accessibility and universal design ranking in the top 10 in the ELI Key Issues in Teaching and Learning the past four years in a row,2  higher education professionals continue to recognize the importance of an inclusive college education and the challenges and opportunities that come with cultivating accessible learning environments. Our findings related to accessibility provide insights into the tech experiences of students with disabilities, as well as suggestions for how those experiences can be enriched to encourage their academic success.

11% of students with disabilities said their institution was not aware of their need for the technologies required for their coursework.

Six percent of our respondents identified as having physical disabilities, learning disabilities, or both physical and learning disabilities that require accessible technologies or accommodations for their coursework, and these students were less satisfied with their overall technology experiences at their institutions than their peers.3  Among those who identified as having a disability, only half (53%) rated the support their institutions provided for their technology needs positively; these results were consistent across Carnegie class and enrollment size. Similarly, half of students with disabilities told us their institution's awareness of their needs for accessible technologies was good or excellent. However, our findings suggest that the academic needs of a significant portion of this population are not being met. Among those with disabilities, about a quarter rated their institutional support (21%) and awareness (24%) as poor or fair. Especially concerning is the 11% of students with any disability who reported that their college or university was not aware at all of their need for accessible technology, and this number was slightly higher for students with physical disabilities (figure 6).

Stacked bar graph showing student perspectives of institutional awareness of accessible technology needs, by disability. X-axis represents the percentage of respondents from 0% to 100%. Y-axis represents the categories of disabilities. All data given is approximate. All students with a disability: My institution is not aware of my accessible technology needs = 10%; Poor or fair = 25%; Neutral = 15%; Good or excellent = 50% One or more physical disabilities: My institution is not aware of my accessible technology needs = 15%; Poor or fair = 25%; Neutral = 10%; Good or excellent = 50% One or more learning disabilities: My institution is not aware of my accessible technology needs = 10%; Poor or fair = 25%; Neutral = 15%; Good or excellent = 50% Both physical and learning disabilities: My institution is not aware of my accessible technology needs = 5%; Poor or fair = 30%; Neutral = 15%; Good or excellent = 50%
Figure 6. Student perspectives of institutional awareness of accessible technology needs, by disability

Students with disabilities may not even be on their institution's radar and consequently could slip through the cracks. As we reported in the 2018 student study, many students choose not to disclose their disabilities to their institution4  and as a result do not receive the necessary accommodations available to them. There are various reasons for failing to register with their campus' Office of Disability Services (ODS) and/or not using their accommodations to the fullest extent. Students may want to feel more self-sufficient and avoid the stigma of "disability" they experienced in K–12 settings so as not to feel singled out. Disability research also suggests that negative experiences with faculty who question their need for certain accommodations or penalize them are additional reasons some choose not to disclose, along with the desire to avoid similar experiences with peers. Some students are also unaware of the available services and don't know how to navigate the postsecondary system (which requires strong self-advocacy) in order to use them. In addition, some individuals may perceive the services they do receive as lacking in quality or utility.5  These barriers, like rocky or impacted garden soil, can prevent students with disabilities from taking root in their college community and can hinder their success.

Lack of disclosure can often catch both institutions and students in an unproductive loop: many students don't share their need for accommodations, and institutions can't meet these needs if they don't know about them. Cultivating an inclusive environment where students feel comfortable disclosing their disability requires cultural and behavioral change, which is no small feat. But creating a campus tech accessibility community and recruiting "accessibility evangelists"—colleagues who have firsthand experience with disability6 —can be a good way to start sowing the seeds of change. Inviting members from across campus, including students themselves, to participate in such a community offers listening opportunities to better understand accessibility and the barriers and challenges individuals with disabilities face and to develop plans and guidelines for providing and adapting technology to encourage disclosure and better meet their needs.

Through orientation and advisement sessions from the time students enroll, a college or university can educate them about self-advocacy, the technology services available to them, and how to navigate the campus disability system to make their school aware of their needs. Training faculty on universal design for learning and best practices for meeting the needs of all students—regardless of their learning differences—is also key to providing conditions that promote cultural change.7  Designing services and resources from the ground up with all learners in mind would ideally remove the need for disclosure and accommodation and reduce learning barriers across the board. IT units should work proactively with disability services and advocates, as well as assistive technology centers and faculty developers, to weed out the perception that accommodations provide an unfair advantage, when they are in fact designed to help level the playing field so that students with disabilities have equal opportunities to succeed and grow alongside their peers.


  1. Video: Dr. Jaye Goosby Smith on the Difference Between Diversity and Inclusion, Charleston CEO, December 5, 2016.

  2. See the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative's 2019 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning, 2018 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning, 2017 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning, and 2016 Key Issues in Teaching and Learning.

  3. Ratings of good and excellent for overall technology experience were lower for students with physical disabilities (70%), learning disabilities (69%), and both physical and learning disabilities (71%) compared with ratings for their peers who do not have a disability (80%).

  4. In a sub-study of the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, it was found that only 40% of postsecondary students who had previously received disability services in secondary school chose not to disclose their disability to their college or university. See Lynn Newman, "Postsecondary Education Participation of Youth with Disabilities," in After High School: A First Look at the Post-School Experiences of Youth with Disabilities, A Report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2), eds. Mary Wagner, Lynn Newman, Renée Cameto, Nicolle Garza, and Phyllis Levine (Menlo Park, CA: SRI International, 2005).

  5. Derrick Kranke, Sarah E. Jackson, Debbie A. Taylor, Eileen Anderson-Fye, and Jerry Floersch, "College Student Disclosure of Non-Apparent Disabilities to Receive Classroom Accommodations," Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 26, no. 1 (2013), 35–51; Laura Marshak, Todd Van Wieren, Dianne Raeke Ferrell, Lindsay Swiss, and Catherine Dugan, "Exploring Barriers to College Student Use of Disability Services and Accommodations," Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 22, no. 3 (2010), 151–165; Julie R. Alexandrin, Ilana Lyn Schreiber, and Elizabeth Henry, "Why Not Disclose?" in Pedagogy and Student Services for Institutional Transformation: Implementing Universal Design in Higher Education, eds. Jeanne L. Higbee and Emily Goff (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008), 377.

  6. Yvonne Tevis, "Adapting Technology and Building an Accessibility Community at the University of California," EDUCAUSE Review, March 25, 2019.

  7. Phillips, "5 Tips for Accessibility and Universal Design for Learning."