Equitable Education

Should college students with physical or intellectual disabilities be encouraged to become teachers? One newly minted WilmU doctor wanted to explore how college professors would honestly answer that question.

gina2The number of undergraduate students with disabilities enrolled in colleges and universities across the nation continues to rise each year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2011–2012, 11 percent of undergraduates reported that they had a disability. This percentage almost certainly underestimates the actual number of students in higher education, since many students don’t disclose their disabilities to university officials. Some students with disabilities believe that college professors may perceive them as being incapable of work in a course if they disclose their disabilities.

Many of these students aspire to become teachers, and higher education faculty and administrators have a legal obligation to provide the means by which they can be afforded appropriate modifications and accommodations. In some studies, faculty attitudes toward students with disabilities are directly linked to the amount of knowledge they have about disabilities. 

But here’s the problem: A student may or may not disclose a disability, so professors may not be aware of the nature of his or her academic and social needs, and that disclosure is not mandatory in higher education unless the student is seeking accommodations or modifications. Professors are frequently challenged to understand the academic and social needs of this student population in the academic setting, so clearly, research about faculty perceptions of students with disabilities who aspire to become teachers is lacking.


In 2015, I conducted a study to determine if there was a difference in the perceptions of faculty regarding students with disabilities and if these perceptions were different depending on students’ disability types. The perceptions were specific to the question of whether a student with a disability (intellectual or physical) should be allowed to pursue a teaching degree in a higher education setting. I wanted to understand these perceptions, so the study focused specifically on faculty perceptions of these students in juxtaposition to neuro-typical or physically impaired undergraduate students, and how these perceptions influence the attitude of faculty toward students with disabilities.


When professors were asked how they perceived students enrolled in teacher preparation programs who had either intellectual or physical disabilities, more were concerned with the challenges that exist for students with intellectual disabilities as compared to those with physical disabilities. So it can be hypothesized that professors perceive the characteristics of an intellectual disability as being more challenging and perhaps more prohibitive than a physical disability, particularly when considering the skills needed to become a teacher. The professors had encountered students with intellectual disabilities more frequently than those with physical disabilities, which implied that there was familiarity with this population.

While the number of students with disabilities continues to increase, training doesn’t appear to be keeping up. Even though the majority of faculty reported that they had experienced students with disabilities in their classrooms on an annual basis, the same could not be said for the frequency of faculty training pertinent to disability awareness and services for those students. In fact, half of all faculty surveyed had not received training in more than two years on how to teach or modify curriculum specifically relating to students with intellectual disabilities. Professors had become aware of the K–12 special education laws, largely due to the curriculum they taught rather than formal training from outside entities. There also was a lack of awareness about laws pertaining to higher education among faculty in the college setting.

An additional finding related to the absence of formal training was the level of confidence reported by professors when asked if they felt they had enough knowledge to discuss special education laws with their students. Both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) explain the legal precedence and justification for students with disabilities in higher education while the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applies only to students in the K–12 sector. Though 67 percent of faculty said they felt confident teaching about IDEA, 4 percent reported confidence in teaching Section 504 and 26 percent felt confident teaching ADA. This was concerning, since university faculty had the lowest confidence in teaching about laws that were pertinent to students with disabilities in higher education.

Gina Harrison, dissertation on students with disabilities who become teachers. Harrison also teaches at Wilmington Univeristy.
Dr. Gina Harrison, dissertation on students with disabilities who become teachers. Harrison also teaches at Wilmington University.

I also explored responses to open-ended questions regarding faculty experiences with students with intellectual and physical disabilities. Fifty percent of all faculty surveyed participated qualitatively and  shared their experiences by providing vignettes of college classroom interactions. The qualitative data of those who shared experiences did not support the quantitative data of the entire sample, which indicated a more negative perception of students with intellectual disabilities becoming teachers in contrast to the qualitative data that revealed a more positive tenor. Faculty supported the inclusion of students with intellectual disabilities in teacher preparation programs. Additionally, qualitative data revealed that the support of this inclusion was not without concerns. Four major themes provided the contextual complexity to this issue: rights of the individual; disability type; social skills/communication, and accommodations/modifications.

The rights of individuals were an important concern among all the professors. Although few were fluent in the aforementioned laws, they felt they had a social obligation to regard all students as equal. Teachers were willing to support students with disabilities in their college classrooms; however, they were concerned about how capably students with disabilities would perform in their own classrooms once they graduated. Most professors noted that the degree and type of disability was an important factor in the overall prospect of the student becoming a teacher.

All the professors believed that students with physical disabilities should be granted equal opportunities to learn in higher education settings, though 89 percent thought that students with intellectual disabilities should be granted the same equal opportunities. So when it came to the question of whether students with disabilities should be encouraged to pursue teaching degrees, the type of disability seemed to impact responses. When the professors were asked if they felt a student with an intellectual disability should be permitted to pursue a teaching degree, 59 percent said yes. But when they were asked if the student with a physical disability should be permitted to pursue a teaching degree, 82 percent said yes.

What It Means

My findings impact students, educators and policy makers. As mentioned earlier, the faculty surveyed had minimal knowledge of both the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the two federal laws responsible for accommodations and modifications in testing situations, classroom modifications and improved building accessibility in higher education. These laws protect college students with disabilities, and the lack of knowledge about them among university professors is concerning.

Some professors are unaware that both acts state clearly the need to provide accommodations to individuals with disabilities in higher education. Faculty ignorance about laws that are supposed to be upheld during the education process may be to the detriment of both the student and the institution. So if professors are not adhering to these legislative provisions, they are actually ignoring a civil law. Then again, if the institution isn’t providing faculty with the necessary information about these laws, then professors can’t be held entirely responsible. If each university reviews and evaluates its faculty training and ongoing faculty development that concerns laws pertaining to college students with disabilities, there will be more awareness among faculty. This matters to all departments in a college or university, not just a teacher preparation program.

Likewise, if faculty is not adhering to the legislation because they’re not fluent in these laws, one can assume that their students are not being taught about these laws in the context of teacher preparation curriculum either. Students may be receiving erroneous information, and it’s the responsibility of professors in teacher preparation programs to mandate that students become informed, law-abiding educators. This is important to those who support the integration into the classroom of students with intellectual and physical disabilities, but it’s also important to policy makers in higher education who direct faculty development programs. Faculty and administrators in higher education would be well served by becoming more fluent in the laws that pertain to students with disabilities in higher education.

In order to ascertain whether or not a student’s strengths and weaknesses are compatible with the multi-level requirements of classroom teaching, an intake interview overseen by a panel of education professionals would be a good start. An honest and forthright discussion should take place, all the while respecting foremost the student’s right to pursue whatever profession he or she chooses. Further interviews should take place periodically to provide on-going counseling and guidance throughout the student’s program. Issues that may arise in the student’s academic and clinical program could be discussed at these junctures rather than waiting until these issues become barriers to successful completion of a degree program or even employment. Administrators in higher education can partner with school districts to assess the employability of these students once they become teachers.

Finally, this study offered insights into potential areas of improvement for faculty of all academic departments within institutions of higher education and for university disability services staff. This information can be utilized to target specific populations to improve disability awareness in many institutions of higher education as well as to counsel faculty and students accordingly. WU

Dr. Gina Harrison earned her Ed.D. in November 2015 from Wilmington University. Her dissertation can be found at wilmu.edu/library/index.aspx.

The Author’s View

The issue of faculty perceptions of college students with disabilities in teacher preparation programs is fascinating. Although the question of whether a student with an intellectual or physical disability can become a successful teacher is complicated, the legal ramifications of discrimination against an individual with a disability in a university setting are more problematic. Because this study involved a limited number of professors from two institutions, a related study could be conducted to include a larger population from several institutions of higher education within a larger geographical area. A larger sample size would enhance the scope.

As suspected, my research supported the fact that faculty have different perceptions of students in different disability categories. Professors who perceive students with intellectual disabilities as less capable than students with physical disabilities may need additional resources in the higher education setting. The admission process can be analyzed, and initial counseling and advisement can be enhanced for students with disabilities who are interested in teacher preparation programs.

Future research may be conducted to compare faculty perceptions of other disability types in addition to intellectual and physical disabilities. Although research suggests that students with disabilities are perceived differently than those without disabilities, the stigma seems to vary according to disability type. More research should also focus on the qualifications, experience, and backgrounds that faculty need to instruct and support students with disabilities who aspire to become teachers.

It will also be important to examine the perceptions of the students with disabilities who want to be teachers. A study may examine the range of experiences that these students have over the course of their teacher preparation programs, and the impact that these academic experiences have on their long-term employment.

The truth is, we can either empower our students (and our children) to succeed or fail based on how we treat them. I’m inspired by a quote from Margit Bradt, a researcher who studied perceptions of teachers toward students with various disabilities — and her research is from 1957: “What you think of me, I’ll think of me; and what I think of me will be me.”