Ableism and Disability in Higher Education: Possibilities for Radical Inclusion

April 03, 2019


Disability may be many things: a medical condition, a legal definition, a social construct, an identity, or a basis for community and culture. Ableism is a form of oppression that suggests there are disabled and non-disabled ways of doing things, with non-disabled ways always being right, better, and more “normal.” Ableism is everywhere in society, constantly teaching us broader lessons about difference, normality, intelligence, reason, work, and worth. While illuminating how we perceive other social constructs like race, religion, and gender, ableism is also often wielded as a tool to further marginalize, segregate, or stigmatize anyone who is considered “different” by further labeling them as less intelligent, weaker, or ugly. As a gatekeeper for professional fields, economic opportunity, and democracy, higher education institutions reinforce society’s ableism and help reproduce it.

In a vicious cycle, efforts to identify and eliminate ableism in higher education are complicated by policies that reinforce the status quo, and disability remains largely invisible in curricula, research, and inclusion efforts on campus. This leaves students, staff and faculty with disabilities and chronic illnesses feeling pressure to be as “non-disabled” as possible in appearance and action, and to tolerate subtle and overt discrimination when it occurs, with little recourse for remedying problems as they arise. Marginalization of disability and people with disabilities further perpetuates and supports higher education’s ableist views of disabilities as being problematic medical conditions, while discouraging further investigation, reflection, and study.

Ironically, however, greater understandings of disability may have enormous promise for helping higher education wrestle with some of its most difficult questions, by forcing academia to examine its purpose, what it means to be an intellectual, whether standards and traditions of academic fields are truly serving modern and future needs, and how to address rapid changes facing academia in terms of technology and diversity. In a time of increasing political and intellectual polarization, the study of disability and inclusion of people with disabilities also require dialectical and creative thinking, where fundamental assumptions about teaching, learning, thinking, and participation are all up for negotiation. Higher education simultaneously has much to offer emerging fields related to disability, asking how flexibility and high academic standards may converge, demanding empirical evidence for first-person narratives and theory, and asking for policies and regulations to balance academic and institutional freedoms with disability rights.

To illustrate these points, Wendy Harbour will share research and real-life examples from the National Center for College Students with Disabilities in the U.S., a federally-funded center which provides technical assistance and information about disability and higher education. She will also share concrete strategies to address the campus climate for students, staff, and faculty with disabilities, asking participants to consider to consider ways they can address ableism on individual and systemic levels within Simon Fraser University.

About the presenter:

Wendy Harbour is the director of the federally-funded National Center for College Students with Disabilities in the U.S., based at the Association on Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD).  She is an Obama appointee to the National Council on Disability and a lecturer at Saint Catherine University, where she teaches in policy and communication equity through a disability studies lens.  Her publications include chapters in How Did You Get Here? Students with Disabilities and their Journeys to Harvard and Righting Education Wrongs: Disability Studies in Law and Education, as well as articles on disability and higher education in the Journal on Postsecondary Education and Disability, Review of Disability Studies, and Innovative Higher Education.  Her primary scholarly interests are disability in higher education, race and disability, disability studies, and universal design.  She holds a bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, and a Master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University.  She is active in the Deaf community in Minnesota, where she lives with her wife and son.


Date: Wednesday, April 3, 2019     1 – 3 pm

Location: Room 10900, Applied Sciences Building (Big Data Hub)


Accessibility notes:

Light refreshments will be served starting at 12 PM (no nut or orange products will be served at this event, and halal options will be available).

If you have any food allergies to let us know about, please contact Krisztina Fulop at 778-782-6762 or by Sunday, March 31st. 

Please do not wear any scents/fragrances or bring any peanuts, tree nuts, or oranges to this event.


If you are not able to fill out the online registration form, or have any questions and requests, please contact Krisztina Fulop at 778-782-6762. All information provided through this registration form or to the EDI team will be kept confidential and used only for the purpose of organizing the event.



If you were not able to participate in this event in-person, and wish to view the recording of it, please stay tuned as we are working on getting it posted.