Creating a Culture of Inclusion: Listening to the Voices of People with Disabilities

Creating a Culture of Inclusion: Listening to the Voices of People with Disabilities

Karen A. Myers
Saint Louis University

The use of Universal Design (UD) within higher education has primarily been directed towards students with disabilities. In recent years, research has proposed that UD is beneficial to a wide range of students, including, but not limited to, students with disabilities. Students not speaking English as their first language, students who are non-traditional in age, and students with varied learning styles may all benefit from the infusion of UD within higher education. In light of the far reaching potential for access and inclusion that is associated with UD, the ACPA Standing Committee on Disability (SCD) has proposed that UD become a standard framework for designing learning environments within ACPA and for individual member use. Over the course of the next several months, the SCD will be spotlighting the use of UD from various perspectives within higher education including: (a) a disability resource provider, (b) an individual with a disability, (c) a faculty member, and (d) a student affairs professional. This second article is from the perspective of a person with a disability.


The Inclusion Judge


Who should be the judge of inclusion? Who should determine if inclusion has been attempted and carried out successfully? This question has been on my mind lately. In higher education, departments of disability resources, multicultural education, LGBTA, women, men, spirituality, and community engagement (among others), strive to include all members of the campus community, continually bringing to life Schlossberg’s (1989) theory of marginality and mattering. Some recent examples of such intentional educational programs and events include campus celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, such as Allies for Inclusion: The Ability Exhibit , the 2011 Developments Spirituality article series, “Working on Our Inner Lives: Meaning-Making in Colleges and Universities,” and the current Everyone Matters, six-month global social media campaign led by Archbishop Emeritus Desmund Tutu to foster inclusiveness and reduce intolerance. These and other inclusion initiatives are admirable and will potentially increase awareness and fair-treatment and decrease intolerance and exclusion.

However, going back to my original question about the success of these programs: who will be the judge of inclusion? Will marginalized populations feel included as a result of these efforts? Have their teachers, employers, and co-workers been kinder, more understanding, accommodating, and more inclusive after attending a disability awareness session or reading a disability awareness article? How will we know? My answer is simple: ask them.

Asking people with disabilities, for example, how they feel about their treatment, their perceptions, their accommodations, their access, and the laws pertaining to their equity seems logical, however, it is common for people with disabilities to report they themselves never have been asked. In three separate studies I conducted involving students with disabilities (Myers, 2009; Myers, Jenkins, & Pousson, 2009), many reported it was the first time anyone ever asked them how they felt or what they preferred. And although there are some excellent first-person accounts of higher education professionals in recent literature, such as Job One (see chapter by Deborah McCarthy) and Making Good on the Promise and in Building Pedagogical Curb Cuts (see entries by Nancy Badger, Barbara Palombi, Christopher McDonnell Dennis, Terri Masse-Burrell, Shelly Neal and others), such first-person accounts are limited.

My Personal Story

I am honored to write an article in this series from the perspective of a person with a disability. I seem to have a lifetime of inclusion and exclusion stories, being one of over 20 people in my family with a congenital visual disability resulting in extreme light sensitivity, low visual acuity, and legal blindness. It is liberating for me to be able to write from the perspective of a woman who has been a student, a teacher, an academic administrator, and a student affairs professional—and who is legally blind. I learned from my older siblings that, as a high school student, I needed to ask my teachers for accommodations in order to see the math problem on the board or the conjugation in the Spanish textbook. In an all-female Catholic high school in the late 1960s, there were very few of us who required (or acknowledged we required) academic accommodations, or as they called it at that time, “special treatment.” As my career in higher education progressed, I realized that I needed to be my own advocate for accommodations. Without realizing it, I became an expert at self-advocacy and encouraged my fellow students and co-workers to do the same. From large-print exams and meeting agendas to oversized computer monitors and low-lit office spaces, many items allowed me to do my job efficiently, effectively, and be on a level playing field with my colleagues.

Self-Advocacy, Accommodations, and Universal Design

Truth be told, being a self-advocate for disability-related accommodations can be exhausting. Although it can be extremely rewarding and worth every second of those “educable moments” of reminding teachers to repeat aloud what they have written on a board and reminding supervisors to use a bold high-contrast font in their print materials, it does take time and effort on the part of the person with a disability. For years I thought, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of these accommodations became a natural part of how we (as educators) communicated, interacted, and did business?” Then, about 15 years ago, my answer arrived in the form of Universal Design (UD)—the concept of making goods, environments, and services accessible to all people “to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptable or specialized design” (Center for Universal Design, 1997, p. 1). I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Jeanne Higbee from the University of Minnesota, hearing her speak about Universal Instructional Design (UID), and reading her book, Curriculum Transformation and Disability: Implementing Universal Design in Higher Education. Since then, we have been good friends and colleagues who work together in spreading the “UID message,” moving universal design principles for architecture to curriculum to student services and beyond.

In Pedagogy and Student Services for Institutional Transformation: Implementing Universal Design in Higher Education, Higbee and Goff (2010) address UD and UID principles based on Chickering and Gamson’s (1991) best practices for undergraduate education. These adaptations include the following seven principles: a) creating respectful welcoming environments; b) determining the essential components of a course or program; c) communicating class/program expectations; d) providing constructive feedback; e) exploring the use of natural supports for learning, including technology, to enhance opportunities for all learners; f) designing teaching/instructional methods that consider diverse learning styles, abilities, ways of knowing, and previous experience and background knowledge; g) creating multiple ways for students/employees to demonstrate their knowledge; and h) promoting interaction among and between faculty and students, employers and employees. All of these principles are essential for UD of instruction and student development, and I have used each in my various positions in higher education (i.e., student, faculty, staff, and administrator). For example, as Director of New Student Programs and Director of Disability Services at four distinctly different institutions, I used these principles to promote cohesiveness among my staff and enhance their professional development. Bringing bagels to an early morning meeting, offering chocolates during a one-on-one, providing clear expectations of job responsibilities, and offering timely constructive feedback via multiple modes of communication were just a few ways UID was utilized to attain successful outcomes.

As a person with a disability, I would like to emphasize two principles in particular that, to me, are vital in my own growth and development: 1) creating respectful welcoming environments, and 2) promoting interaction among and between faculty and students/employers and employees. Personally, these go hand-in-hand and allow me to feel valued as a person. A warm welcoming environment that promotes interaction, whether it is a department or faculty office, a classroom, a campus dining facility, a Web site, a department chair/director, or a receptionist on the other end of a telephone, all will determine how I feel about the host and about myself. Does that person/environment respect and value me? Do they sincerely believe that I matter? Examples of creating respectful welcoming environments that promote interaction include: sending welcome e-mails to students, staff, and faculty, learning people’s names, greeting people when passing them in the hall or on campus, being open to meeting with people, encouraging students/faculty/staff to develop peer learning communities, being available to encourage conversation and assistance via email, phone, discussion board, chat rooms, and in person, and encouraging participation and input when developing materials, curriculum, programs, and events. A warm welcoming environment that encourages interaction will open doors for conversations about the additional UID principles, such as natural supports for learning and possible ways to demonstrate knowledge.


I usually begin my disability awareness training sessions with the question, “Have you excluded anyone today?” It is fairly easy for us to say we have included people, but when asked to stop and think if we excluded anyone through our words, our behaviors, or our environments, most of us recall barriers we unintentionally construct that prevent others from entering our world. These barriers might include: small print signage, low-contrast serif fonts on Web sites, e-mails and handouts, curbs with inaccessible walkways, classrooms and meeting rooms with stationary seating and narrow aisles, and videos with no captions. So, what does it mean to you to be included? How do you feel when you are marginalized or excluded? Asking people with disabilities to be the judge of inclusion may be the answer to our questions regarding the success of our inclusion programs, services, and communication techniques. Are our inclusion efforts a success? Is UID working? Let’s ask the people who know.


The Center for Universal Design. (1997). The principles of universal design (Version 2.0). Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University. Retrieved October 2, 2009, from

Higbee, J. L. (Ed.). (2003). Curriculum transformation and disability: Implementing Universal Design in higher education. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy, General College, University of Minnesota.

Higbee, J. L., & Goff, E. (2008). Pedagogy and student services for institutional transformation: Implementing Universal Design in higher education. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Center for Research on Developmental Education and Urban Literacy.

Higbee, J. L., & Mitchell, Alice A. (2009). Making good on the promise: Student affairs professionals with disabilities. Washington, DC: American College Personnel Association and University Press of America.

Magolda, P. & Carnaghi, J. (2004 ). Job One: Experiences of new professionals in student affairs. Washington, D.C: University Press Of America.

Myers, K. (2009). College students with visual disabilities: Preferences for effective interaction. Germany: VDM Verlag Publications. ISBN# 3639166000

Myers, K., Jenkins, J., Pousson, M. (2009). Social Norms and Disability. ACPA Developments.

Schlossberg, N. K. (1989). Marginality and mattering: Key issues in building community. In D.C. Roberts (ed.), Designing campus activities to foster a sense of community. New Directions for Student Services, 48. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

About the Author

Karen Myers is an Associate Professor of Higher Education at Saint Louis University. She is the Co-founder, former Chair, and current Directorate Member and Faculty Liaison of ACPA’s Standing Committee on Disability. Myers is also the 2005 Disability Leadership Award recipient (presented by ACPA’s Standing Committee on Disability).

Please e-mail inquiries to Karen Myers.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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