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Ableism: Post-Secondary Education

Higher Education

"Academia powerfully mandates able-bodiedness and able-mindedness, as well as other forms of social and communicative hyperability, and this demand can best be defined as ableism. In fact, few cultural institutions do a better or more comprehensive job of promoting ableism" Dolmage, J. (2017).

There are four main areas where ableism appears in postsecondary education.

  1. Disclosure and Accommodation

“Disclosure is understood in connection with ‘disclosing’ something that people are ashamed of, keep secret and then feel obliged to open up about. If we reject ableism, then we should be comfortable with illness or disability, and so should not feel the need to ‘disclose’.” (Brown, N. and Leigh, J., 2018)

In order to receive accommodation, postsecondary students must disclose and prove their disability. Not only do they have to have a physician or other medical professional state what their disability is, it has to detail the severity and prognosis, including any educational impact.

A person who does not have a formal diagnosis or does not have a doctor who is willing to provide the details needed for accommodation is unable to be helped through the accessibility or disability department. Accommodation requires the student to do all the work: to ask for help, to know where to ask, to disclosure their disability, to know what accommodations they will need, and then communicate those accommodations once identified to their instructor. Accommodations are also usually only for each individual class each semester and the process of communicating accommodations to their instructor must happen each semester again.

Accommodations puts the emphasis on students changing the way they interact with the classroom or learning environments. The learning materials and manner they are taught are a barrier (Wideman, M. &Seale, A., 2015).


Participation can take two forms; the class participation/engagement and the overall participation academic and lay discourse (Jung, 2001). Although participation in class allows faculty to ensure students are learning and actively listening, those marks can cause anxiety for anyone who may participate in ways beyond what is typical. Whether in an online or physical classroom some students do not engage by speaking up or jumping into discussions which is the most common way to get participation marks. Some students need time to process and come back to a discussion, or may only feel comfortable contributing to smaller groups.

It is important to understand that participation and engagement can be different things, and one doesn't always equal the other.

3. Representation

In the 2017/18 academic year, UFV had 1032 registered students with the Disability Centre (UFV, 2018) with an estimated 1, 000 other students with disabilities who were not.. Registered disabled students are only 6.73% of the student population (University of the Fraser Valley, 2018) so it is understandable that faculty and students may have little familiarity with people with disabilities, or misunderstandings about the fairness of accommodation. However, this means that faculty need to work to educate themselves on accommodation and the options available to students with disabilities, so those students don’t need to; ask for accommodation, explain what accommodations are, and possibly fight the stigma that goes along with it.

If ableism is eliminated, it is possible that more faculty and students will feel comfortable including disability in their identity (Brown, N. & Leigh, J., 2018). Especially as academia is an environment that prides itself on multi-tasking, overachieving, overworking and competition, all which create a fear of appearing less than capable.

4. Attitudes/ Stereotypes  

Universities are often run like a business and people with disabilities are not the ideal customer. Often by being non-typical they cost more in resources and support, and they may take longer to graduate.

There is a reoccurring belief that faculty do not have people with disabilities in their classrooms so they don’t need to change or accommodate. Accommodation is usually misunderstood as giving unfair advantage to students with disability. When actually “accommodations are put into place to provide equal access to educational opportunities, rather than to give anyone an advantage over others” (Wideman, M. & Seale, S., 2014-15).



The University of the Fraser Valley is situated on the traditional territory of the Stó:lō peoples. The Stó:lō have an intrinsic relationship with what they refer to as S’olh Temexw (Our Sacred Land), therefore we express our gratitude and respect for the honour of living and working in this territory.

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