After a year of research, the Rackham Graduate Student Experiences with Disability Accommodations Committee has released its report, summarizing its findings and identifying three core areas in which Rackham and U-M graduate programs can better support graduate students in obtaining disability accommodations.
The committee was convened in fall 2019 following reports from graduate students with disabilities and their faculty mentors relating negative experiences with attempts to receive academic and employment-based disability accommodation. With Rackham funding, the committee pursued a research project to identify gaps in U-M’s existing academic policies, training, and services with regard to such accommodations. In collaboration with ADVANCE, the committee surveyed 1,070 Rackham students during the winter 2020 term, and conducted six focus groups with 20 students participating.
It is clear there are deficiencies in the way we support graduate students with disabilities, and rectifying those deficiencies needs to be a central part of our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals as a graduate school.
—Dean Mike Solomon
Both the survey and the focus groups revealed U-M graduate students with disabilities face significant obstacles in obtaining and implementing accommodations. The challenges begin with a lack of available information to graduate students regarding how to request necessary accommodations and make sure that these accommodations are fully implemented.
The focus groups further revealed that graduate students with disabilities face an unwelcoming institutional and departmental climate, including overcoming the stereotypes and stigma around disabilities, a lack of knowledge on the part of faculty and staff with regard to disabilities and how to obtain accommodations, and a paucity of services like accessible parking or workspaces.
“The findings from this study are sobering and heartbreaking,” says Dean Mike Solomon. “It is clear there are deficiencies in the way we support graduate students with disabilities, and rectifying those deficiencies needs to be a central part of our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals as a graduate school.”
In light of the committee’s findings, Rackham has identified three specific areas that it will address over the next two years in order to meet the most pressing, immediate needs of graduate students with disabilities.
- The first is to improve education and compliance regarding disability accommodations across campus. Rackham will participate in the creation of a central website relaying information on disability accommodations and how to obtain them. It will also engage with graduate chairs, directors, and coordinators in Rackham programs throughout the university to ensure they understand both their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the role disability accommodations play in creating equitable graduate programs.
- The second aims to improve disability accommodations at the program level by creating an advisory committee comprised of U-M faculty, staff, and graduate students focused on disability issues. The committee will create learning objectives and professional development plans for faculty and staff in Rackham programs. In addition, Rackham will work to alleviate the financial impacts of disability accommodations through a review of its emergency funding program.
- The third looks to help make the campus climate more welcoming for graduate students with disabilities by partnering with U-M Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) and the ADA coordinator to improve the process of obtaining and implementing disability accommodations and develop more consistent and accessible disability services. This work has already begun, as Rackham has shared this report with SSD, and staff are already working on some of the issues it raised.
“Though the outcomes from this report are troubling, indeed,” says Ethriam Brammer, Rackham assistant dean and diversity, equity, and inclusion lead, “we are hopeful that, as a result of this work, we will be able to partner with Rackham’s various constituencies to significantly improve the educational experience for graduate students with disabilities.”
In addition to these areas, Rackham will also partner with student organizations to promote community building for graduate students with disabilities, as well as conduct a review of its physical spaces to ensure they are accessible.