Viewing the work of disability services differently

About this Site

Examining Our Practices

Disability resource professionals set the tone for how a campus frames and responds to disability. In a society that is uncomfortable with disability, disabled students are often seen as “other” and accommodations can be easily questioned. Therefore, the messages sent by our offices must intentionally challenge these frames. However, when we create cumbersome procedures for disabled students and communicate concern about the fairness of accommodation, we invite our campus colleagues to question disabled students’ integrity and the appropriateness of accommodation. The frustrations we experience as we advocate for access can often be the result of the messages we ourselves have sent.

Refocus was created as a tool for examining the role the resource office can play in challenging stereotypes and creating truly equitable environments. Shifting practice in higher education disability resources requires that we step back from our current way of approaching and thinking about disability and access. The traditional approach is to work with an individual student, analyze how the student is impacted by disability and prescribe accommodations. The questions we ask ourselves are:

  1. Is the student disabled?
  2. How does the disability prevent access?
  3. Will the requested accommodation provide access?
  4. Will the accommodation provide an unfair advantage?
  5. Are we in compliance?

We communicate the student's need for accommodation to faculty and institutional colleagues. We emphasize that disability documentation is on file and stress the student's responsibility to communicate problems, request services in a timely manner and follow-up.

This practice has resulted in an increase in enrollment and graduation of disabled students. However, it has not produced equity and does not challenge the dominant view of disability on our campuses. It can give the illusion of equal opportunity, while in reality requiring disabled students to accept special treatment and take on burdensome responsibilities. Increasingly, we recognize these limitations. Exposed to the social model of disability and universal design, we are beginning to consider design as a tool for creating access. As we interact with campus colleagues, we remind them of student diversity and encourage inclusive design. However, we rarely look internally at the example that we give or the implicit messages that we send.


To transform our messages, we must develop practices that truly promote equality, appreciation and full participation. To achieve this we must:

  1. Relocate the ‘problem of disability’ primarily from the individual with an impairment to the design of the environment.
  2. Remove the emphasis on sorting and labeling that currently dominates our practices.
  3. Promote the design of environments that anticipates diverse users and thus minimizes the need for retrofit and individual accommodations.
  4. Collaborate with and encourage all members of the campus community to share in the responsibility for creating welcoming and inclusive environments.
  5. Celebrate the rich disability history and culture by including disabled writers, artists and musicians in campus events.
  6. Be informed by disability activists and disability studies scholars.

This transformation is not easy. Through years of experience, college administrators expect us to attend to issues of compliance and may fear the cost of accommodation as we discuss what we should do rather than what we must do. Faculty expects us to ensure students claiming disability really deserve accommodations. Students come to our offices focused on the accommodations they can get rather than on access. We may even feel threatened-- challenged in our roles as expert and uncertain about where to begin.

This is where Refocus comes in. The site is a resource for disability resource professionals interested in making this transition. Beginning with core values that serve as the “true north,” Refocus presents examples of current practice, discusses unintended messages embedded in traditional practice, provides examples of how we might act differently and summarizes the potential impact of a different approach. Practices are divided into three areas--administration, service and outreach--to emphasize that every aspect of disability resource work offers the opportunity to influence campus thoughts and actions. Finally, the site contains an extensive list of resources to encourage further exploration.

The overall goal of Refocus is to model and encourage the development of a critical voice in analyzing the work of disability resource offices. Transitioning from a service provider to a campus leader is not easy. The shift is subtle and the push back from stakeholders invested in the traditional approach is challenging. Recognizing that it is impossible to provide black-and-white answers for all situations, Refocus offer a process for analyzing unintended messages and staying on track toward a long-term goal.

“...the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of perpetual aid that helps people scrape by—it’s whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.”

Obama, B. (2009). Remarks by the president to the Ghanaian parliament. Ghana, Africa: US Government. Retrieved July 14, 2009 from U.S. Department of State Archives

Use of Language

The descriptors disabled people and nondisabled people are primarily used in this website, since disability studies scholars and disability rights activists prefer these terms. To understand the rationale for this choice, please refer to:

  • Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: University Press.
  • Swain, French, and Cameron. (2003). Controversial issues in a disabling society. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.
When we use the term environment, it is used in a broad sense—referring to the physical, curricular, policy, service, information, and social environments.

Frequently Asked Questions

A few visitors to the site have mentioned that they would like to see a quick tips or FAQ page. The authors have resisted this approach as we believe that there is no shortcut in this process. In many ways, it is the superficial understanding of inclusion and access that has resulted in the status quo. Delving deeper is absolutely necessary if we want to become reflective professionals who are well-prepared to challenge the problematic thinking of the dominant frames of disability. One of the most frequently asked questions we hear is “How do I apply the concepts of social justice and a reframed perspective of disability to my work?” This entire site is a response to that question.


Refocus: Viewing the work of disability providers through a new lens is a product of Project ShIFT, through funding from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Postsecondary Education (PR Award # P333A080082-09)

Refocus: Viewing the work of disability services differently has been updated and enhanced in partnership with Access to Design Professions, Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) Boston, MA and funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

The authors are grateful to Nancy Hart, Associate Dean of Student Affairs for Disability Resources at Lane Community College and Principal Investigator for Project ShIFT, the staff and participants of Project ShIFT, and Elaine Ostroff of the Institute for Human Cented Design for their contributions. The authors also want to acknowledge Lane Community College, the University of Arizona, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for supporting this effort.


  • Carol Funckes, Associate Director, Disability Resources, University of Arizona
  • Sue Kroeger, Director, Disability Resources, University of Arizona
  • Gladys Loewen, Consultant, Vancouver, Canada
  • Melanie Thornton, Leadership Development Facilitator, University of Arkansas CURRENTS

Questions or comments should be directed to