This resource examines five interrelated concepts that underpin equal opportunity policies and practices in higher education and research industries: intersectionality, equity, diversity, inclusion and access.

You are on Chapter 5 of 5: Access and notes

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction and intersectionality
  2. Equity
  3. Diversity
  4. Inclusion
  5. Access (current page)
    1. Accommodations for student accessibility
    2. Discrimination of disabled faculty
    3. Curriculum, skills and support
    4. Disabled women of colour
  6. Notes (current page)

5. Access

Access is about creating, measuring and redesigning opportunities to enhance participation by underrepresented groups. In this resource, I focus on disability accommodations and recognition.

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities identifies that disabled people deserve the same rights and opportunities as others, which includes dignity, respect and autonomy. However, in academia (and other workplaces), processes and systems are built to exclude and deny these rights to disabled people.

From lacking or inconsistent resources and gaps in curriculum, research from Australia shows that one in five students in public schools have a disability, yet less than 14% receive assistance and only 6% receive funding. This shows there is a connection between learning disadvantages at school and university success.  This includes curriculum that is delivered in ways that make accessibility a problem, to being excluded from excursion and practical class exercises, students with disabilities and chronic illness have much to contribute, but are often left behind, despite policies that supposedly address their needs.

5.1 Accommodations for student accessibility

In 2017, a senior White male academic in the USA made headlines because he refused to make his lecture slides available electronically to a disabled student. He argued he did not favour special treatment and that making his slides available would negatively impact class attendance. Ignorance alongside discriminatory attitudes make students less willing to disclose their disability status or seek help.

Making lecture materials available is only one small but practical example of the myriad of issues that students with physical disability, chronic illness and learning disabilities face in academia. Other examples include timetabling that makes it physically impossible to attend classes; having to continually and explain to individual lecturers and teaching assistants their needs and then justify adjustments to make the classroom more inclusive.

While there are policies and there may be programs to help disabled faculty and students, the research shows that professors don’t understand how to help disabled students, and disabled learners often don’t always know how or where to go for help on funding opportunities and support with courses. Disability policies often have more emphasis on some forms of disability (usually physical disabilities), but not on others that are less visible (notably mental health and learning disabilities). People with disabilities require flexibility, which is often tokenised and framed as special accommodation, rather than what it is: levelling the playing field for groups that face multiple disadvantages.

This story is not uncommon, as ableism is rife in academia and research organisations.

5.2 Discrimination of faculty

Professor Vera Chouinard (1995) first wrote about the difficulties of negotiating accommodations as a White Canadian disabled woman academic in the mid-1990s. From having to fight for a sense of belonging, to constantly being told she was “below par” in her academic performances, it was clear that she was not being fairly evaluated for her academic performance.

Reflecting more than two decades later, (2018: 320-338) Chouinard remembers that striking a more equitable agreement with her the director of her academic unit was no easy feat, as the dean of science (who supported the agreement), was criticised for the perception that a “special deal” was letting Chouinard off easy (this was not the case!). The backlash from peers continued to play out in other areas, as Chouinard was effectively left out of social events held in places that she could not physically access with her motorised scooter (from Christmas parties to welcome-to-term events). By 1998, even when promoted to full Professor, Chouinard’s salary remained frozen at a lower level. One year later, after Chouinard’s formal complaint, the institution’s response was not favourable and forced her to take legal action. It took another year to reach a settlement and she felt she continued to be punished for speaking up. Chouinard’s fight continued until late 2003, with the negotiation of a more inclusive accommodation plan—two decades after the first agreement was implemented. Unfortunately, discrimination continues to the present-day, as Chouinard’s salary potential is hampered by having “slower scholarship,” despite having physical and mental impairments that include pain, fatigue and mental distress.

5.3 Curriculum, skills and support

Lauren Lindstrom and colleagues (2018) ran a randomised control trial testing a specialised curriculum to bolster young disabled women’s education and job outcomes. Teachers received training on delivering the practical-skills-based modules to young girls. The study tracked the outcomes of 49 mostly-White (81%) disabled girls who participated in the learning program as part of the intervention group (the trial had a total sample of 136 participants). The girls mostly had learning or intellectual disabilities, and half were additionally experiencing difficult family circumstances or mental health issues, 47% had no paid work or volunteering experience, and around one-third had chronic absences from school or were behind on credits towards graduation. Most of the girls participated in focus groups and completed a survey to examine their learning outcomes. The disability curriculum centres on:

  • self-awareness in academic settings, such as practising critical thinking for post-school success, decision-making and teamwork;
  • disability knowledge, building an understanding of different disabilities, how to make informed career choices, and their legal rights to accommodation in education and employment;
  • gender identity in the workplace, including role models, strategies for finding work/life balance, awareness of the gender pay gap and traditional vs non-traditional career pathways;
  • career readiness, such as identifying personally meaningful goals, planning a pathway to university and the paid workforce, job-seeking skills, finding work experience post-school, and managing a career long-term.

Girls enrolled in the specialised curriculum showed statistically significant improvement on disability and gender awareness, self-realisation and vocational self-efficacy, and some improvement on career development. The curriculum did not lead to improvement on other measures such as autonomy, career outcome expectations, student engagement and self-advocacy.

The focus groups showed that the girls felt more empowered, especially having the opportunity to practice their newfound skills in classes with other girls (no boys), and seeing clear examples of the varied career choices available to them as disabled students. One girl said:

“I found my voice even more and being able to understand how many doors are actually open to me. Not just the few doors that I had seen, but now more doors have opened.”

This study reinforces the need for educators in higher education to build-in vocational development specific to disabled learners, including disabled role models, knowledge, skills and advocacy as part of curriculum.

5.4 Disabled women of colour

Disabled women, especially women of colour, are often economically disadvantaged. This makes intersectionality an important framework to address inclusion.

In their review of disability critical race theory (DisCrit), Subini Ancy Annamma, Beth Ferri and David Connor (2018) show how children of colour are overrepresented in special education, achievement gap, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other inequalities in graduation, employment and higher education. Scholarship exploring race and disability can be traced back to 1943, with over 18,000 academic articles, books and chapters, though DisCrit as a specialised subfield yields only 31 papers available through online databases. These academic sources identify the links between race, disability and intersectionality, such as the politics of care, the need for intersectionality in teaching and undoing teacher beliefs and attitudes, microaggressions, and policy reform. DisCrit illustrates how Black disabled students are positioned differently than White disabled students, with teachers lowering their expectations of disabled students of colour, and exhibiting open disdain. In one study a teacher said to a student of colour, ‘You make me sick,’ when they were unable to take a test.

Text Box 13: How to begin addressing accessibility

Apart from an equity and diversity strategy, institutions will have policies covering bullying, sexual harassment, racism and other recruitment or empoloyment grievances. This approach often essentialises experiences of disadvantage, atomising race from gender from disability and other forms of inequity. This is the antithesis of intersectionality, which is an attempt to understand the interlocking aspects of structural inequalities. 

Here are some ideas to start reviewing your organisation’s equity and diversity strategic plan so it has accessible at its core:

  • User testing and inclusive design: when undertaking building planning, purchasing software, designing systems and other physical and online environments, ensure that contractors will meet accessibility requirements. Payroll systems, including timesheets, and managerial programs are often built in ways that are not necessarily accessible. If people with disability cannot easily apply for jobs, access course materials, carry out performance management and other daily duties, then systems are contravening disability rights. Ensure all built environments include disabled people in key decision-making roles, that systems are user tested by people with diverse disabilities, and that IT, buildings and other assets are regularly reviewed by people with disabilities to ensure their needs are being met, so they can concentrate on research and learning.
  • Ensure curriculum, online environments and resources meet accessibility standards: Australian law requires information to meet accessibility requirements. In academia, where excellence is a primary pursuit, we should not merely seek to meet the basics, but exceed best practice. This includes using research software and packages that are accessible – many are not. Lecture slides and other materials should be made available online prior to class. Workshop materials, including by outside facilitators, should also be made available in an accessible electronic format prior to the course.
  • Analyse faculty and staff awareness of flex-work policiesas well as uptake and managerial practices. Flex work is often promoted in terms of supporting parents. Disabled workers can be parents (or not) and may still need additional leave to manage long-term illness or routine check ups. As such, disabled people may benefit from working from home more regularly, or being able to vary their hours. However, they are often prevented from accessing such arrangements due to negative attitudes that they are receiving special privileges. Flexibility is an accessibility issue. Executives should be responsive to the leave, working hours and other arrangements of people with disability, and monitor the connection between flexible work, career satisfaction and promotion.
  • Make workplace adjustments easier: disabled people often waste a lot of time having to tell multiple managers, in different parts of the organisation, about their disability, accessibility needs and agreed reasonable adjustments. Often, this means copious and repetitive paperwork, plus excessive medical examinations. This is inefficient and often humiliating, as the expectation is that disabled people need to keep proving their disability. Having an opt-in, centralised record of agreed workplace adjustments that travel with the employee or student as they move from departments or roles might be a better way. For example, see the The Reasonable Adjustment Passport and its use by the Australian Taxation Office.
  • Fund inclusion: just as organisations invest in regular IT upgrades, new furniture and better facilities, accessibility requires capital investment. The Employment Assistance Fund provides employers with some (limited) funding to make workplace adjustments. In addition, research organisations should make available centralised funding to enhance disability inclusion, including through inclusive recruitment practices, role modifications, specialist equipment, scholarships and other bursaries to support disabled scholars at every stage of their career, from student to Executive. Bear in mind intersectionality; structure identified roles so that First Nations and other disabled people of colour, LGBTQIA disabled people, and disabled people from rural and remote regions are benefiting from funded programs and other career opportunities.

6. Notes

This is a living document. I may add to it from time to time.

*Throughout, I use the full acronym LGBTQIA+ to refer collectively to lesbian, gay, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual and other gender minorities. Where I use a shortened form (e.g. LGBT), this matches the specific study I’ve cited.

Learn more

Read more of my work on equity, diversity, inclusion and intersectionality in academia.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction and intersectionality
  2. Equity
  3. Diversity
  4. Inclusion
  5. Access


To cite this article:

Zevallos, Z. (2020) ‘Equity, Diversity, Intersectionality, Inclusion and Access,’ The Other Sociologist, 16 February. Online resource: