UO disability support office sees marked increase in demand

The number of students seeking support from the UO for their disabilities has risen sharply in recent years, and the university office that assists them is rising to meet the need.

Just over 3,000 students, or 13 percent of the student body, registered with the Accessible Education Center in the 2022-23 academic year, a 30 percent increase over the previous year. Since 2004, the number of students seeking support from the center has increased nearly tenfold.

Another indicator: In a survey of incoming UO students conducted last fall, 46.5 percent reported having a disability.

A common thread is the number of students reporting disabilities related to mental health, such as depression or anxiety. More than one-third of students registered with the center, and about one-quarter of survey respondents reported mental health as a disability.

The Accessible Education Center, part of the Division of Undergraduate Education and Student Success, provides support and services for students with disabilities, as well as guidelines and training for faculty and staff. 

“Our ultimate mission is to increase awareness, education and understanding, and to develop skills and knowledge so campus community members can act as allies for students with disabilities,” said Norma Kehdi, the center’s director. “We’re creating a network of allies to eliminate attitudinal, physical and curricular barriers that students face.”

The center’s broad goals include increasing accessibility and inclusivity across campus and facilitating and supporting accessible education through full inclusion of students with disabilities into the university environment. Kehdi said she hopes the efforts shift people’s attitudes, create a culture where students with disabilities feel they belong, and show disability as a valued aspect of diversity on campus.

Kehdi said the increase in reported disabilities may be related to students feeling more comfortable disclosing their disability experiences.

That reduced stigma could be due to the pandemic normalizing psychological conditions, like depression and anxiety, and students’ increased awareness that such conditions can be thought of as disabilities, she said.

In addition, people’s perception of disability may be shifting away from seeing it as a problem with a person and toward seeing it as an aspect of identity. Another factor could be an understanding that the challenges of disability are related to barriers in the environment, she said.

The number of students experiencing mental health challenges is part of a larger trend of more people experiencing nonapparent disabilities. About 75 percent of students registered with the center have nonapparent disabilities, such as ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, or psychological disabilities, such as depression and anxiety.

The center recently revamped its training program for staff and faculty members, known as the Accessibility Ally Program. It had been offered twice a year as two live, two-hour online sessions. That has changed to a single training this year, with two sessions, one online and one in person, with expert speakers and a panel of students sharing experiences.

“The decision to incorporate an in-person component was to increase engagement and conversation,” Kehdi said. “Some of these conversations can be challenging but also really powerful, especially alongside others in a supportive environment.”

The training is designed to help faculty and staff members think about inclusion in their classrooms or work environments and how they design their classes and class policies, such as attendance, deadlines and exams.

In addition, Kehdi said, attendees learn about Universal Design for Learning and how to increase options for students, whether in the classroom or in other ways they engage with students, and how to think more creatively about how to support and engage with students.

Next month’s training reached its capacity of 56 attendees within hours of it being offered for registration.

“That speaks to the level of interest on campus,” Kehdi said.

The center may offer additional training sessions in late summer or fall. In the meantime, members of the campus community can take online training modules through My Track. The online training is designed for instructors but is open to all employees; it covers topics including disability and higher education, legal foundations, universal design, typical barriers and accommodations, and instructor responsibilities.

Center staff also are available to offer a variety of group trainings to interested campus units, from Disability 101 to Disability as Diversity trainings and how to create more accessible environments.

In addition to the resources offered by the Accessible Education Center, the Teaching Engagement Program offers a webpage that highlights resources for instructors. The aim is to support instructors in learning more about the role of accessibility and universal design in inclusive teaching, why inclusive teaching is crucial for many disabled and neurodivergent students, and how specific teaching methods can create more access and inclusion and remove barriers.  

“The world is not created for people with disabilities, and that includes institutions of higher education,” Kehdi said. “There are adjustments we can make that can reduce or hopefully get rid of barriers for folks with disabilities.”  

—By Tim Christie, University Communications