How Much Has the Americans with Disabilities Act Positively Impacted College Students?

A group of students in a lecture hall, sitting with several open seats in between each student. A student in a power chair sits at the bottom of the stadium-style lecture hall seating, separate from peers.
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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has made great strides in equal access, but it has not accomplished nearly enough. As a recent graduate, I experienced first-hand the dichotomy between how the ADA has positively impacted the college experience, and where it is falling short.

Our disability resource center is located in the basement of a building in the center of campus. It is a quiet, non-stimulating environment with comfortable couches and staffed with counselors. However, the execution of ADA policy is a bureaucratic nightmare. Students frequently complain of the complicated process of testing accommodations. Much of the initiative is left to the student, and they must make their request at least 10 business days before the test. What are they to do if a test gets moved just a week prior?

Campus events often require 3 business days for accommodations, which is fine if you’re not spontaneous at all. Upon receiving a notetaker request, the resource center sends out a mass email asking the student’s classmates to volunteer to share their notes. The majority of students will dismiss this email, saying that the disabled student is “lazy” or “taking advantage of smarter people.” Students who request a notetaker find that their request goes unfulfilled, not because the ADA itself failed them, but because the ADA cannot force students to volunteer to support their peers.

The ADA will set standards for buildings, but it won’t enforce them on campuses where buildings are so old they’ve become historical landmarks. Colleges will list disability resources on the class syllabus, but the ADA won’t require them to verify that the information is still accurate since it was last updated in 2008.

The ADA will often provide assistance with campus housing accommodations. If you’re an autistic student, the ADA will enforce a request for a single room on the grounds of full participation and necessity for daily functioning. It won’t, however, give your accommodation priority over the football team’s reserved studio apartments, nor will it guarantee that your window won’t face the busiest street on campus. The ADA will not gift you a Resident Advisor with the proper training on how to interact with autistic people. And it will not provide you any protection for when your suitemate says “you don’t look autistic.”

The ADA will mandate that your classroom be accessible. It will make the college provide wheelchair accessibility, an interpreter, and CART captioning, but it won’t make you feel less awkward about being the only disabled person in the room. It won’t change how you’re called on to represent everybody with a disability or how none of the course material includes voices of prominent disability activists.

The ADA has provided support for disabled college students, and I thank all the activists before me that we are celebrating its 27th anniversary. Unfortunately, its accommodations and protections have been met with apathy and upheld with underwhelming policies. The laws are in place; now it’s time to change attitudes. Because of this, I will continue to use my college experience to continue my fight for disability justice.


Lindy Treece is a recent college graduate on the autism spectrum. When she’s not advocating for disability rights, she enjoys looking at maps and spending time with her kittens.

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