Feature Issue on Inclusive Higher Education for People with Intellectual, Developmental, and Other Disabilities

Critical Considerations for Academic Accessibility in Inclusive Higher Education


Beth Myers is executive director of the Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education at Syracuse University. She may be reached at bemyers@syr.edu.

Phillandra Smith is a fourth-year PhD candidate in special education at Syracuse University. She may be reached at psmith06@syr.edu.

Beginning with this issue, Overview articles will include a clear-language summary for readers who prefer a concise description of the article's main points. We value your feedback and welcome any questions at stew0390@umn.edu

It is important for all college students to get a high-quality education, even if they have disabilities or other challenges that make it difficult to do well in school. College programs for people with intellectual disability (ID) need to make inclusive education a top priority.

Sometimes, teachers do not take students seriously if they are not taking a course for a grade. This includes many students with disabilities. Even when colleges allow students with disabilities to use supports to help them in class, some teachers don’t allow them to be used. Conversations about learning needs can go poorly for students if they don’t have support from the college leaders or the ability to advocate for themselves.

Classes should include some challenges, but not be watered down. When teachers and students talk to each other freely about what is needed to be successful in class, students perform better and teachers are more comfortable. Colleges need to make sure this communication happens every time a student with disabilities takes a class. Many colleges already have disability resource centers, but most centers are not used to providing the kinds of supports that students with ID need.

College programs for people with ID are truly inclusive when these students are seen as part of the campus community. Instructors must make sure students receive a quality education.

Higher education programs for students with intellectual disability (ID) have grown substantially in the last decade, and vary widely in cost, structure, and level of inclusion. In a recent report of the Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disability (TPSID) project, 62 percent of courses were taken in inclusive classrooms alongside fully matriculated undergraduate students, while others took segregated classes on the college campus. (Grigal et al., 2021). Among the 62 percent, some students with ID audited their classes, some enrolled as non-credit students, some took courses for credit, and others enrolled for specialized credential credits. Inclusive classes spanned a range of course offerings for students, from anthropology to zoology.

Inclusive education can be defined as an educational approach that ensures all students participate and are embraced as citizens (and not squatters) in educational communities and institutions (Kliewer, 1988). Inclusive educators insist that all students regardless of their perceived abilities, race, ethnicity, gender, or social and cultural status benefit from quality learning experiences (Moriña, 2017). Despite their value, influence, and impact, higher education programs for students with ID are not without challenge. It takes tremendous team effort to run an academically inclusive program. Institutions must be willing to place the inclusion of students with ID at the center of their core values and be ready to attend to these values in many ways, including financially, through professional development, in university systems, and in campus access. Throughout the institution, faculty and staff must commit to and operationalize inclusive ideals. Further, faculty and staff must be willing to unlearn antiquated (but often entrenched and conditioned) beliefs and practices around belonging, segregation, and normalcy as it relates to who should have access to higher education. The entire campus community must be flexible and intuitive in their ability to respond to the needs of students with ID.

Two women smile straight into the camera. One of them is wearing glasses and a blue, zippered jacket. The other is wearing an army green jacket.

Meghan Brozaitis, left, the first Syracuse University InclusiveU program participant to live in an on-campus dorm, with author Phillandra Smith, before a class.

Students with disabilities in higher education are usually responsible for self-identifying, registering with the disability resource office on campus, and requesting and utilizing accommodations. A common theme in research has been that students with disabilities often encounter faculty who are reportedly unsure, unprepared, or unwilling to provide the accommodations students have been granted (Beilke & Yssel, 1999; Dowrick et al., 2005). For students with ID, this negotiation is often more complicated. Many of them enroll in classes for audit or non-credit, so instructors may perceive the students’ role in the class as different from that of students taking the class for a traditional grade. In addition, interaction between the student and the course instructor sometimes deviates from formal registration protocol. Instead of formally registering for a course, the student or their mentor may contact the instructor directly about enrolling in a class. As a result, conversations about accessibility, accommodations, and learning needs can be left to happenstance or the discretion of the instructor if the student does not advocate for themselves. Instructors may also view the accommodations for students in inclusive higher education programs as less significant if they are not taking the course for credit. This mindset can deny the student an equitable opportunity for academic success, something that may be perceived as unimportant in a competitive higher education institution if traditional grades are not involved.

In our own research, we have found that faculty and staff are often accustomed to and comfortable with accommodating students along a very standard set of accommodations (ie. extra time, quiet testing spaces, use of assistive technology, etc). It is further helpful that an outline of student accommodations is often provided to course instructors without direct student to instructor advocacy, as many institutions rely on disability resource centers communicating student needs to instructors. Conversely, students with ID often require these accommodations (which instructors are accustomed to providing) along with modifications that might push instructors to change their course expectations for these students entirely. This can look like alternative formats for assessments, simplification, clarification, and or explanation of tasks, readings, and other activities. We acknowledge that for some courses, particularly large or theoretical lecture-based classes, modifying course content might present a challenge, but this often means it requires more intentionality and forethought.

The entire campus community must be flexible and intuitive… to respond to the needs of students with ID

As an example, the instructor and teaching assistants in one case, upon learning that a student with ID would be auditing their course, scheduled time to meet with the student and their advisor/peer support team. The teaching team emailed the course syllabus ahead of the meeting to allow the student and their support team to review it so they could come to the course meeting with ideas about how the course might best be modified to meet the needs of the student. During this meeting, the teaching team listened to the student as she shared her strengths, struggles, and ideas on how she learned best. The teaching team, prioritizing what the student had shared, modified the syllabus for this student. They decreased the daily reading load, the number of questions the student had to answer on midterm exams, and the length of weekly writing assignments. Additional scaffolds were built in by having the student alternate between the two teaching assistants each week for support on the writing assignments and providing graphic organizers that helped the student plan for her final exams. Essentially, the teaching team engaged in differentiated instruction to meet the needs of the student. The course was adjusted so the student was challenged, but the modifications supported the student to succeed. The teaching team adapted the course requirements to target the student’s zone of proximal development.

In thinking through reasonable accommodations, accessibility, and what faculty can do to support students and increase access to higher education for students with ID, we recommend that clear communication of the goals of the program be prioritized across institutions. Faculty and staff who understand the objective of the program and what students hope to achieve from the courses they take are more likely to accommodate and modify instruction to meet the needs of the students. Supports should be made available for both faculty and students to ask questions and seek solutions. Some faculty will be new to inclusion, which is a good reminder of the importance of this work. Initial support and professional development in universal design for learning and differentiated instruction concepts can help instructors meet the needs of not only students with disabilities, but all students. Lastly, we highly recommend that programs share their success stories. Amplifying the voices of students who have successfully completed inclusive higher education programs will provide tangible evidence of results and increase community support. Programs do not, and should not, have to be presented as simple or flawless, but all stakeholders need to be reminded of why we must stay committed to inclusive ideals. The opportunity for full college inclusion has arrived, and it is our responsibility to ensure that equitable access to academic success is paired with membership in the college community for students with ID.

What is Academic Inclusion? | This site offers videos and other resources on academic inclusion, hiring someone with an intellectual disability, and more.


Anabel Moriña (2017). Inclusive education in higher education: challenges and opportunities. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 32(1), 3-17, DOI: 10.1080/08856257.2016.1254964

Beilke, J. R., & Yssel, N. (1999). The chilly climate for students with disabilities in higher education. College Student Journal, 33(3), 364-371.

Dowrick, P.W., Anderson, J., Heyer, K.C., & Acosta, J.D. (2005). Postsecondary education across the USA: Experiences of adults with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 22, 41-47.

Grigal, M., Hart, D., Papay, C., Wu, X., Lazo, R., Smith, F., & Domin, D. (2021). Annual Report of the Cohort 2 TPSID Model Demonstration Projects (Year 5, 2019–2020). Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion.

Kliewer, C. (1998). Schooling children with down syndrome: Toward an understanding of possibility. Teachers College Press.