Beyond accommodations: Perceptions of students with disabilities in a Hispanic serving institution

Neelam Agarwal, University of Texas at El Paso


The purpose of this mixed method study was to explore perceptions of students with disabilities in a predominantly Hispanic serving institution. Factors of transition from high school to college, campus involvement, engagement in student organizations and their perceptions of campus climate were investigated through both a survey with 104 participants and in-depth interviews with 11 participants. This study also explored how undergraduate students with disabilities perceive their academic success and what are influential factors that impact their college experiences. Data were analyzed and interpreted through Tinto Interactionalist Theory of Student Departure, a Social constructivist perspective, Attribution theory, Rendon's model of validation, and Bronfenbrenners (1979) ecological systems theory. Overall findings indicate that disabled students who participated in this study seemed comfortable in the environment and felt rather positive about themselves and their communication with others. These findings suggest that disabled students have perceptions of positive interactions with faculty, staff, and fellow students. Equally important, they seem to feel a part of the campus. This conclusion is further supported by positive perceptions regarding the transition services, nature of adjustment to college, campus involvement and with the technology that are seen as characteristic of the campus environment. The uniqueness of characteristics of disabled students was apparent through some of the individual responses that reflect their own experiences based on how they perceive accessibility and interactions with others. A significant finding of this study is that most students reported that typical interactions with faculty tend to be more formal, brief, and need-based versus informal (i.e., access formal accommodations such as extra time on exams). Tinto (1975, 1993) emphasizes the importance of interaction with both faculty and student peers. This model (Tinto, 1975, 1993) suggests a socialization process whereby students who become successfully socialized into the campus academic and social systems are more likely to persist. Since Tinto's theories also find a strong link between faculty support and student retention and especially with non-traditional students, this study suggests that UTEP needs to be more strategic and systematic in finding ways to develop faculty-student interactions for students with disabilities who are predominantly first-generation and working-class college students. I argue that as UTEP serves non-traditional students thus Rendon's validation model is more applicable. Some of the issues that students revealed in the study included social barriers stemming largely from a lack of friends, feeling socially alienated, and lack social support. Some students also felt that they were misunderstood by faculty, those faculties are not aware about different disabilities that are not visible. Some students are reluctant to request accommodations for fear of invoking stigma. Some also felt they had to spend considerably longer hours in completing coursework than nondisabled peers. Even though the study finds few instances of negative experiences with some of the faculty members, the study suggests that changing the attitudes of faculty toward students with disabilities is critical to promote social inclusion and equal opportunities. ADA is a civil rights legislation to prevent discrimination. While it is not written into the law itself, a subsequent impact of these laws is to improve the attitudes of individuals without disabilities towards individuals with disabilities. However, in order to create more positive attitudes through legislation first thing that is important is to foster an atmosphere of integration for individuals with disabilities in society. However, this can occur only with a change in the attitudes of the individuals within that society (Livneh, 1988). It is ironic that the programs and supports that we have on university campuses focus mostly on removing the academic and physical barriers, but apparently do not work on removing the attitudinal barriers to reduce the social gap, stigma, and social isolation experienced by many students with disabilities, especially invisible disabilities. In addition, most research and discussions on the inclusion of students with disabilities focus on their academics, and neglect the implications of social barriers on their social integration in society at large. Research has shown that lack of informal social interactions between people with disabilities and people without disabilities can be barriers to social integration into higher education. True success or the goal of ADA will only be achieved when these social barriers are also removed. Thus this study calls for academic institutions, student affairs directors, student organizations, and policy makers to promote social integration programs, as part of the services provided in higher education institutions. If students with disabilities are able to remove these social barriers at this college level, this will also help in their future workplace. Two main areas of concerns are identified through this study - communication and awareness of disability and psycho-social needs of students with disabilities. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Subject Area

Behavioral psychology|Educational leadership|Special education|Hispanic American studies|Higher education

Recommended Citation

Agarwal, Neelam, "Beyond accommodations: Perceptions of students with disabilities in a Hispanic serving institution" (2011). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI3490100.