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College Students' Utilization and Perceptions of Disability Support Services.


The purpose of this study was to examine students with disabilities' knowledge of services available on campus and whether or not they viewed the services as adequate. Surveys were distributed to all students registered with the Disabilities Services Office at a northeast Arkansas university. The university utilized in this study has adaptive computer labs, as well as library research assistance for students with disabilities. However, many students reported that they were unaware of these services. Among those who were aware of computer services and library assistance, most individuals did not utilize those services. In addition, the majority of students stated that they would like to join a peer group to discuss issues pertaining to their particular disabilities. In regard to these findings, implications for future research and practice are discussed.


The enrollment of students with disabilities at post-secondary institutions in the United States has increased significantly during the last ten years (Barnett & Li, 1997). This growth can be partially attributed to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which dictates the implementation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Carroll & Johnson Bown, 1996; Johnson & Rubin, 1982). Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that post-secondary institutions provide equal access to academic programs for students with disabilities (Rhoads, Slate, & Steger, 1994). Access includes making campus facilities and buildings physically and academically accessible. Consequently, the demands placed upon Disability Services offices at university campuses have substantially increased.

Due to the expanding numbers of students with disabilities attending post-secondary institutions, there is a vast need for additional staff, extended resources, and developing a team to address access for students with disabilities. Some of the relevant issues include the types of services provided to students with disabilities, disseminating the information so that students become aware of the services, and the extent to which students with disabilities utilize the provided services.

Appropriate accommodations are necessary to foster college success for students with disabilities (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 1999), yet services that are available to students with disabilities are not always effectively utilized. Students may lack knowledge of the availability of services or, due to a lack of prior exposure regarding effective accommodations, they might not perceive the value of obtaining the services. In addition, many students with disabilities are not diagnosed until they reach college; therefore, they may not recognize the importance of accommodations for college success.

Colleges need to educate students with disabilities, as well as faculty and staff, about the resources, services, and modifications that will enhance students' access of programs on campus (Heath Resource Center Newsletter, 1995). Research has demonstrated that accommodations facilitate positive educational outcomes (Kruse, Elacqua, & Rapaport, 1998; Office of Institutional Research and Analysis, 1998), yet some students remain uninformed. In a report by the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (1999), the importance of the availability and accessibility of technology was addressed, and adaptive technology was shown to facilitate the access of curricular materials. Thus, the provision of adaptive technology is important, but students need to be aware of the accommodations, and they need to recognize the importance of using the service.

Many students with disabilities also do not realize that they need to provide information to their instructors (Kruse, et al., 1998). Self-advocacy is important for college success (Merchant & Gajar, 1997); these students need to initiate discussions with professors and to acquire the means necessary to accomplish tasks. Some studies indicate, however, that students with disabilities often perceive faculty as unsupportive or unwilling to make classroom accommodations (Finn, 1997; Smith & Nelson, 1994). Through in-service training, professors realize the importance of making classroom accommodations for students with disabilities (Babbitt, 1998). Social supports are also important for college success. The utilization of peer support programs apparently influences an individual's ability to successfully negotiate the college setting (Carroll & Johnson Bown, 1996; Schaefer Enright, Conyers, & Szymanski, 1996). Research has also found that involvement in campus organizations fosters both socioemotional adjustment and academic adjustment (Sanders & DuBois, 1996).

The purpose of this study was to ascertain the extent of students with disabilities' knowledge of available services on campus, as well as their perceptions of whether or not the services were adequate. Students also were asked to provide information pertaining to which areas or services they felt warranted improvement. Some of the main services that were targeted in this survey included readers, note-taking, library assistance, computer assistance, tutoring, and testing services. Finally, students' interest in joining a support group was assessed



This survey was conducted at a northeast Arkansas university. Surveys were mailed to all students who were registered with Disability Services in the fall of 1998. Of the 256 students registered, only 47 students (18.4%) returned the surveys. Although this rate of return is very low, similar low response rates have been found when surveying individuals with disabilities (Kruse, et al., 1998). Among the individuals who returned the surveys, 14.9% reported a visual

disability; 12.8% reported a heating disability; 23.4% reported learning disabilities; 21.3% listed a physical disability; 4.3% mentioned a psychiatric disability; 10.6% mentioned multiple disabilities; and 12.8% listed other disabilities not mentioned (e.g., lupus, epilepsy, etc.). In five cases, students mentioned more than one disability, and a decision was made to classify them into one of the six aforementioned categories based on the types of services requested by the students.


Students completed the Survey of Disability Services questionnaire which was developed specifically for this project. The survey contains 16 general items targeting a variety of accommodation issues. Items were created by identifying specific campus services listed in a handbook available through the Disability Services office. Questions were created to assess both awareness and utilization of each specific service offered through Disability Services. In addition, questions were generated to assess students' satisfaction with services provided on campus.


The data in this study were collected in the spring of 1999. Surveys were mailed to all students who were registered with Disability Services in the fall of 1998. Follow-up letters were mailed to all students two weeks later. The survey consisted of 16 items created to assess students' knowledge and utilization of services available to students with disabilities. Students who completed the surveys mailed the surveys to the Disability Services office. Anonymity was ensured by replacing students' names with numerical codes.

Data Analysis

Our first objective was to ascertain the extent of students with disabilities' awareness and utilization of the services available to them on campus. Students responded to whether or not they were aware of each specific service available, and frequencies were recorded. They also indicated whether or not they used each of the services. Percentages of students using each service were obtained.

Our second objective was to examine students' satisfaction with the services they receive as well as with the Disability Services office. The number of students who were satisfied with each service and with Disability Services in general was calculated, and percentages were determined. An open-ended question was created to gather opinions regarding areas that students perceived to need improvement.

Our final goal was to assess students' interest in joining a support group for students with a particular disability. Again, frequencies were recorded, and percentages were calculated.


Satisfaction With Support Services

When asked if students were satisfied with the support services available at their college, 95.7% responded that they were satisfied. In addition, 91.3 % indicated that they felt that they had received adequate individualized assistance through Disability Services. However, when individuals were asked to describe services that needed improvement, these students listed several areas in need of improvement: more handicapped parking; the placement of elevators; comfortable seating in all classrooms; transportation for students with disabilities; better adaptive computer software; career planning; improved access to all buildings and facilities; and closed captioned videos shown in classes.

Computer Labs

The campus has computer labs with adaptive equipment for students with disabilities. When asked if they were aware of these computers, 26.1% of the students with disabilities had no knowledge that the computers were available. Of the students who were aware of the adaptive computers available for students with disabilities, 48 % (n = 12) mentioned that they use the adaptive equipment.

Assistance With Library Research

Another type of assistance for students with disabilities is library research assistance. Surprisingly, however, 44.7 % of the respondents were unaware that this service existed. Of those who were aware, only 43.5 % (n = 10) utilized this assistance. Usually students with visual and physical disabilities are encouraged to use these services. Therefore, perhaps these groups of individuals are the students who utilized library assistance.

Note-takers and Reader Services

Note-taking services is the most widely used program and is used by students with a wide array of disabilities. Almost all students (91.5%) were aware of the note-taking services provided to students with disabilities, and the majority of students (61.7%) reported that they were aware of reader services for students with disabilities.

Willingness to Join a Disability-Related Group

The majority of students with disabilities in this study stated that they were generally satisfied with the support services they received on campus. When asked about joining a group that discusses issues pertaining to disabilities, however, most students (71%) indicated a desire to participate in such a group. Therefore, most students desire to engage in discussions about issues related to their disabilities with other students with the same disability.


The majority of the respondents in this study indicated that they were satisfied with the provision of services on campus; however, whether or not the individuals who returned the surveys are representative of all students with disabilities on this campus is unclear. Perhaps the respondents are those persons who are actively involved and view campus life more positively than those who did not return the survey.

The majority of students with disabilities reported satisfaction with services provided by Disability Services; this finding is consistent with other research that has reported that students are satisfied with the accommodations that they receive (Kruse, et al., 1998; Sanders & DuBois, 1996). Furthermore, the study by Finn (1997), in which she interviewed students with learning disabilities about their perceptions of the benefits of services available, indicated that the majority of students mentioned the director or support staff in a positive manner.

Many students with disabilities do not take advantage of the services available on campus, and numerous students are unaware of some of the services available. As reported in the present study, fewer than half of the students knew of the services provided for library research, and many students (26.1%) were unaware of the adaptive computer labs on campus. Yet, nearly all students with disabilities were aware of note-taking services, and the majority knew about available reader services. Even when students were aware of the services, many of them did not utilize the resources.

Students not comprehending how their disability might possibly affect their ability to succeed in a career could explain why they do not actively pursue the benefits offered on campus. As noted by past research (Hitchings, Luzzo, Retish, Horvath, & Ristow, 1998), students with disabilities are often unaware of the potential impact of their disabilities on their future careers. In addition, only six students in the study by Hitchings and his colleagues received any transition services during high school. Therefore, this lack of knowledge may affect students' perceptions of the college environment.

Another possible factor that may impact the reluctance of students with disabilities to use services could be attributed to the stigmatization that occurs when these individuals apply for services. To take advantage of services, individuals with disabilities must be classified as being "inferior" and needing assistance to function adequately (Szymanski & Trueba, 1994). Research has also indicated that nondisabled students and faculty are uncomfortable interacting with students with disabilities (Conyers, Schaefer Enright, & Strauser, 1998). Thus, students with disabilities may be apprehensive about disclosing their disability, because they do not want others to know (Finn, 1997); they may also want to maintain a sense of autonomy.

Acceptance of one's disability impacts college success (Smith & Nelson, 1993). Because of the fear of being stigmatized by their peers and faculty, students may be reluctant to seek assistance. Social interaction with peers has been found to impact college success. Students with disabilities need to understand others' perceptions of students with disabilities; techniques for dealing with the socialization issue should be incorporated into the programs offered by Disabilities Services.

Because students with learning disabilities make up a sizable portion of the population of students with disabilities, this subpopulation may have affected the frequencies reported in this study. Students with learning disabilities often display minimal self-awareness of how their disability affects learning (Merchant & Gajar, 1997). Self-advocacy skills are rarely taught, and programs that address self-advocacy include components related to understanding one's own disability, accommodations needed, and communication skills (Merchant & Gajar). Therefore, these individuals may be more hesitant to communicate their needs to professors or to access the services available. Addressing these issues might improve the chances for success in college for students with disabilities.

Disability Services offices should incorporate support groups into the programs offered for students with disabilities. In this study, the majority of respondents reported a desire to join a support group on campus. Past research has yielded information that suggests support groups impact self-esteem and socialization (Finn, 1997). In addition, through active discourse with other students with similar needs, more students will acquire knowledge about the services available; they will also learn the impact that these services have on learning. Finally, after hearing first-hand accounts from others with similar disabilities, students might be less apprehensive when disclosing their disabilities to instructors as well as when seeking out accommodations and necessary services.

Future research should address the impact of support groups on students' willingness to self-advocate and disclose their disabilities. Furthermore, research should investigate the relationship between one's willingness to self-disclose and the utilization of services on campus.


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Schaefer Enright, M., Conyers, L. M., & Szymanski, E. M. (1996). Career and career-related educational concerns of college students with disabilities. Journal of Counseling and Development, 75, 103-114.

Smith, D. J., & Nelson, J. R. (1993). Factors that influence the academic success of college students with disabilities. (ERIC Document Reproduction No. ED363038).

Szymanski, E. M., & Trueba, H. T. (1994). Castification of people with disabilities: Potential disempowering aspects of classification in disability services. Journal of Rehabilitation, 12-20.

Terri has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology & Counseling. Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Student Personnel Services and is Director of the Department of Disability Services.
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Article Details
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Author:Rice-Mason, Jennifer
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Previous Article:Communication, Humor, and Personality: Student's Attitudes to Learning Online.

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