Prioritizing Educational Equity for Students with Disabilities

Institutions do not always give students with disabilities the tools to succeed in college. Discover why prioritizing educational equity is essential.

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by Sydney Clark

Published on February 25, 2022 · Updated on March 1, 2022

Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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Prioritizing Educational Equity for Students with Disabilities

There are clear disparities between the way students with disabilities and those without disabilities get to learn. Advocates for educational equity aim to bridge the gap between these learners and ensure all students can succeed. By examining how academia fails students with disabilities, higher education institutions can liberate an entire demographic from systemic inequity.

What Does Educational Equity Look Like?

Educational equity can look different at each level of an institution:

Actions Students Can Take

To achieve educational equity, institutions must also ensure students can identify and further understand their disabilities. Once the administration, counselors, and professors make resources available to learners, students should test out their accommodations and check in with their counselors. They may also find additional resources, like assistive technologies, that they can implement independently.

Equity Gaps for Students With Disabilities

The reality of educational inequity is that disabled students are underserved in the classroom. Additionally, students' disabilities often receive the blame for academic failures, rather than the lack of accommodations or the instruction. But equity gaps don't stem from students' "inability" to do as well as their peers. Gaps occur when the instruction and course material do not take students' disabilities — and other circumstances — into account.

A University of Pennsylvania study from 2020 found that academic achievement is strongly linked to race and disability status. Students of color with disabilities are more likely to be clustered into large urban school districts, which often lack the resources to address the individual learning needs of all their students. The long-standing history of racism in the education system is an additional factor that impacts students of color.

Most teachers aren't taught how to produce inclusive course materials, let alone adapt existing materials for students with disabilities. Those who know how to modify their class instruction are often overworked and cannot provide the extensive time and effort necessary to create effective individual accommodations. The curricula they are given rarely incorporate inclusive learning.

This cycle continues via the systemic inequality of the education system, furthering the equity gap for disabled students.

Rethinking Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities often go unnoticed in the classroom for several reasons. Educational racism, as previously stated, is a factor. In addition, many people do not recognize different forms of learning disabilities. For instance, dyscalculia (a learning disability that strongly affects one's ability to do math) is often diluted to a student not "being a math person."

Intellectual capacity is also frequently understood as stagnant. Yet, students with learning disabilities can easily communicate sophisticated learning concepts when given the appropriate support. Instead of accommodating a person who learns differently, instructors often leave students to struggle with traditional teaching methods. Instructors who revise their strategies to accommodate students with disabilities can help them thrive when they previously struggled.

Some teachers implement this framework into a practice called "scaffolding," an important component of educational equity. When teaching students new material, an instructor can use scaffolding to cater to different learning abilities. Scaffolding methods can look like:

As the popularity of scaffolding increases, students can receive instruction that caters to their needs.

Universal Design for Learning

There are different schools of thought concerning the execution and design of inclusive learning frameworks. However, the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) has become a standard for best practices. The UDL guidelines map out different cognitive strategies to help students learn most effectively. The framework focuses on three distinct modes of learning.

First is engagement, or a student's motivation to learn content. The next mode is representation, which focuses on understanding and processing. Finally, the UDL guidelines conclude with action and expression — the way students communicate and express their knowledge. Each mode consists of checkpoints that measure milestones in the learning process. These checkpoints ensure that each student meets specific goals that result in positive learning outcomes.

Specific examples of classroom application can give a more in-depth understanding of how the UDL framework encourages equity in the classroom. Teachers employ the following methods:

By creating a comprehensive framework for the learning process, the UDL guidelines can help all students learn successfully. Students with learning disabilities typically slip through the cracks, but the UDL framework promotes educational equity by enforcing tangible markers of the learning process.

How Can Colleges and Universities Support Students With Disabilities?

Colleges must be intentional about how they serve students with disabilities. Adherence to national disability guidelines like Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is nonnegotiable. University administrations must provide assistive technology — such as hearing aids and text-to-speech technologies — for students who disclose their disability status.

However, institutions should make sure that their accommodations are easily accessible. For instance, the University of South Carolina lists all their available accommodations in their Student Disability Resource Center.

Colleges also must recognize that students with physical disabilities are restricted to specific courses because they cannot access certain buildings. Their access to education is blocked. The University of New Orleans' Office of Disabilities publicly displays its classroom relocation policy for students who cannot physically enter a classroom.


The higher education system is a longtime perpetrator of educational inequity — especially in the case of disabled students. Failing to provide equal learning opportunities for an entire demographic is inexcusable. But, as awareness of equity gaps in education continues to grow and institutions enact inclusive practices, students with disabilities will be able to access the education they deserve.

Feature Image: Peter Muller / Image Source / Getty Images

If colleges work to boost educational outcomes for people of color, their livelihoods and society as a whole will benefit, according to a new report. Society often marginalizes students with disabilities. Read this guide to learn inclusive practices for working with disabled college students. Learn how to gain access to college disability services to get the support you need to thrive.