Disability Justice vs. Access and Accessibility

The accommodations process within higher education is regulated by the government and connected to a medical diagnosis of disability.

Center for Gender Advocacy, Mapping Project

Disability justice and accessibility are two connected but different approaches to addressing and transforming the conditions of ableism. While both approaches call for the inclusion of disabled people and the removal of barriers, they raise a different set of questions and strategies about how best to combat ableism.

Disability justice calls for the infrastructural, social, economic, and political transformation of our world—not just making accommodations for people who are excluded, but centring the way we design space, build community, and work together in a way that takes diverse forms of embodiment and neurodiversity as the core of organizing and design. Disability justice work often takes shape in the forms of social movement practices that challenge the idea that there is a “normal” body or “normal” cognition; instead, it sees the relational and constructed ways that we have built our world as inaccessible and exclusionary and celebrates bodily and cognitive diversity.

Disabled students regularly experience both overt and passive barriers when navigating education, including having their lives and experiences invalidated, being met with hostility or incredulity when requesting accommodations, having their demands and needs dismissed by institutions and individuals, holding more student loan debt, and having their right to education denied when faculty, staff, administrators, and peers refuse to make requests for accommodation and adaptation.

Disabled students are likely to have up to 60 percent more student debt by the time they graduate.

Jay Dolmage

Further, students, faculty, and staff whose disabilities are rendered invisible (e.g. chronic pain, chronic illnesses, neurodivergence) are often dismissed, excluded, ignored, or invalidated in their experiences navigating higher education. The impact of microaggressions on disabled people within the education sector and the implicit barriers that can foreclose disabled people from even attempting to enrol in or seek careers in higher education have resulted in disproportionately low rates of disabled faculty and staff represented within institutionalized education. Due to this, universities and other post-secondary educational institutions continue to be predominantly ableist.

Students often face accessibility needs that are not recognized by institutional policies or face barriers when trying to access university services, such as medical assessment, stigmatization, and financial barriers. This means that a significant number of students would likely benefit from accommodations and/or universal and adaptive design approaches in their courses but cannot make official institutional requests for resources or support. The illegibility of disability beyond the medicalized model of diagnosis has been challenged by disabled people, as well as by intersectional approaches that see transformative disability justice as a model for liberation for everyone who faces barriers and exclusions. Just because students are not registered for accessibility services does not mean they would not benefit from adaptations to teaching, learning and the classroom.

Through our policy scan, we found that many universities mentioned intersectionality but did not concretely outline the steps they take to remove barriers for Disabled Students with overlapping identities. Any policy statement committing to an intersectional approach to accessibility needs to be attached to the concrete application, or it’s simply an affirmation of values.

Center for Gender Advocacy, Mapping Project

Critical disability studies and disability justice frameworks introduce an approach to education that moves us beyond a service-provision focus toward a transformative model for education. This approach does not simply include disabled people but centres them at the outset on how education and learning are structured, which entails not simply asking how to make pre-existing curriculum accessible but how to transform the ways we teach and learn in ways that work for everyone. This can include everything from how we design course assessments to the technologies we use, to how we design and use space, to the incorporation of trauma-informed approaches to pedagogy. A disability justice approach to education sees this work as a collective struggle to improve the conditions of education for current students and faculty, staff, and communities not regularly included in the space of higher education.

Access and accommodation are the most common ways post-secondary institutions address ableism: through the development of services, resources, accommodations, and support for disabled students to participate in their classes, in student life, and in the wider community. This approach aims to remedy immediate ways that our post-secondary institutions are exclusionary by developing individualized and collective changes that alleviate the harm of ableism. Rather than transform the conditions that create exclusion from the start, access and accommodation build strategies for adapting to the exclusionary conditions in our present moment. Accessibility is often prioritized in our classrooms only after a disabled person or ally advocates for better access. Better practices would involve working to integrate the principles of accessibility from the outset, alleviating the burden of self-advocacy for disabled students and other members of the community.

When people talk about accessibility, it’s usually around how we build a world around this pre-existing society that fits people with disabilities.’ Disability justice, though, involves building a society ‘that’s free and fits everybody’.

Sarah Jama


Terminology: Person-centred vs. Identity-based language

Like other terminology around identity, the language used to describe disability and disabled people has changed over time and will likely continue to change. Debates and contestations over appropriate terminology speak to the importance of focusing on using language that people choose for themselves. In the area of disability, we often hear terms such as person-centred, which is a way of naming that emphasizes personhood (e.g. a person with a disability or people with disabilities.)

Person-centred language is often brought into tension with identity-based language, which sees disability as a key part of a person’s subjectivity and social location (e.g. a disabled person, disabled people.) In addition to these are dozens of other terms people use to describe themselves (e.g. crip, deaf, neurodivergent, mad, etc.)

Rather than trying to use a universal language for disability, you can use the language and terms that people use to describe themselves. Make sure to check in with people if this language varies in different contexts (e.g. the term someone uses to describe themselves may be different in an activist setting from a medical setting.)

It is also worth noting the increasing emphasis on disability as a process of self-identification rather than diagnosis. This means that when a student self-discloses their identity relating to disability, it might not correspond to a diagnosis with related access to services. As such, our response as teachers to self-disclosure should take into consideration the potential barriers to support and services students are receiving. Expectations that disabled students will have medical documentation or access to university services can add barriers for students seeking out alternatives to institutional forms of accommodation.

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Better Practices in the Classroom by Natalie Kouri-Towe and Myloe Martel-Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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