There is limited research regarding college students with disabilities and effective interventions. There is some emerging evidence for the efficacy of peer support and mentoring programs in providing social support as well as instrumental and academic assistance. However, to receive support, students must often disclose their disability. Students with disabilities report reluctance to disclose due to stigma experiences including others doubting the legitimacy of their diagnosis and their need for supports and accommodations. At our mid-western urban university, peer support programs to foster a sense of belonging and inclusion have been developed but have had difficulty attracting student participation, prompting the development of a needs assessment.
Methods: Students with disabilities were recruited to complete an online anonymous survey collecting quantitative and qualitative data (closed and open ended questions) regarding their strengths, challenges, needs, disability disclosure experiences on campus and potential barriers to support program participation. A simultaneous logistic regression analysis (N = 143) was conducted examining predictors of participant endorsement of having difficulty feeling included or having a sense of belonging in college.
Results: The overall model was significant (χ2(12) = 39.4, p < .001, Nagalkerke R2 = .32). Participants who endorsed “difficulty feeling included or like I belong” (47%) had greater odds of reporting fully disclosing their disability (Exp(1.11) = .3, p = .02), indicating needing help with connection to campus resources (Exp(1.3) = 3.9, p = .007), and indicating that a peer support program would be helpful (Exp(1.1) = 3.0, p = .007). Race, gender, class standing, verbal confidence and academic confidence were not significant predictors in the model. Qualitative data regarding disclosure experiences indicated the need to disclose to receive supports and accommodations, but reluctance to disclose due to stigma, incorrect assumptions about limited abilities, and questioning the legitimacy of their diagnosis and needs.
Conclusion and Implications: Contrary to expectations that disability disclosure may help with inclusion, college students with disabilities reported an association between full disability disclosure and difficulty with a sense of belonging. Disclosures may facilitate participation in support programs. However, consistent with Erving Goffman’s stigma theory, disability disclosure may result in the individual being “discredited.” Current disability self-advocacy posits that awareness and education does not lead to understanding and inclusion. Rather, a cultural shift needs to take place regarding the value society places on those viewed as disabled versus abled. Universities should strive to develop programs that foster this cultural shift as part of contributing to success for individuals with disabilities in higher education and beyond.