[Update] 25 Years Later: How the Americans With Disabilities Act Has Transformed College Campuses

Dec 4, 2015

Credit Luca Bertolli, 123rf Stock Photo

Update: Part Two of this conversation is now online. 

Dr. Peggy Pittman-Munke, and Dr. Cindy Clemson, are both members of the President's commission on Diversity and Inclusion at Murray State; serving on The Committee on Disabilities. In Part one of a two-part conversation celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, they talk with Tracy Ross about the history of the Act, and its effect on disabled college students.

Campus Life Before the ADA

Before President George H.W. Bush signed into law the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, if a college student had a disability, they might find themselves being carried upstairs to go to class. Colleges and professors may not have been willing to move their class to where there was easier access. They may have been able to reach the bathroom, but couldn't use it because the wheelchair didn't fit into a stall.

A blind student may have had good services, but the school didn't need to provide an interpreter for a student with hearing impairment. Students physically unable to perform the operations of daily living couldn't live in a resident hall with their peers because they wouldn't have been allowed to have a personal care manager. Schools had to give you what you needed for class, but that was where their responsibilities ended.

Students Feel Empowered

Dr. Clemson says she started working at Murray State University in 1993 and has seen students with disabilities feel empowered enough to say "I belong on college campuses just as a student who doesn't have a disability." In 1990, approximately 50 students at Murray State identified as having a disability. At the end of this past academic year, between 600 to 700 students identified as having a disability.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

Prior to this law, in 1973 there was an act called Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a precursor to the current law. While it was proposed in 1973, it wasn't authorized until 1977. It took four years for the Secretary of Education at the time, Joseph Califano, to sign the regulation, prompting a demonstration of people at his office in California - a 28 day sit-in, leading to the eventual signing. Despite this, the act didn't have any "teeth" or significant penalties for those who didn't do anything to accommodate people with disabilities.

No Longer Isolated

Dr. Pittman-Munke says, "The ADA is the civil rights for people who have disabilities," and adds that we still don't have civil rights for everyone, namely the LGBT community. She says in the early days, those with disabilities felt alone on campus, but now feel part of a community and no longer isolated. There's also a greater willingness to talk about having learning disabilities, which used to be a great source of shame.

Now, she says, students tell her they have this need or this problem and ask what she's going to do for them, to which she helps guide them to the right resource. As a professor, she no longer gives in-class tests or tight due dates on assignments because she knows students of differing abilities and issues may need more time.

Educating Professors 

Dr. Clemson says educating professors was a big part of her job prior to becoming a faculty member. Disability affects everyone, she says, and she made it an effort to bring awareness to that. Dr. Pittman-Munke adds that the culture of western Kentucky tends to be warm and inclusive, attributes that don't exist everywhere. She noticed that the culture of Murray State's campus was accepting.

Service Animals

A recent issue on campus, there are very few service animals. Students with animals tend to have a severe visual impairment, epilepsy or in one case diabetes. There are also support animals for those with emotional disorders, however these animals can't be in a classroom or in the Curris Center, only in the residence halls. This is a policy under review by student affairs.

Students on the Autism Spectrum

Earlier intervention in life means students diagnosed on the autism spectrum receive more help and are realizing that they, too, can go to college. In 1993, there were no students who identified as being diagnosed with autism, Dr. Clemson says, but now there are many. Dr. Pittman-Munke says students also identify as having aspergers often by talking with their professors when they have difficulty receiving visual cues, and get help by working with them to connect those dots. 

What's Next?

Dr. Pittman-Munke says it's important for everyone to understand that we are all temporarily able-bodied. Any one of us could have an episode that relates to mental or physical health that would not leave us as able to do things we do now. If we could understand that, she says, then we could make sure every bit of planning we don on campus would encompass the full range of physical, emotional and mental ability. 

Dr. Clemson says we should consider ways to teach people, understanding that everyone learns differently. There are techniques being developed to this end involving universal design for learning and differentiated instruction. She hopes some day we can move past "disabilities" and focus on "different abilities." 


The Office of Student Disability Services is on the 4th floor of Wells Hall, a division of Student Affairs.