An exploration of the lived experiences of college students with disabilities

Below is my dissertation abstract in its current form. Enjoy and please do let me know if you’d like a copy of the final draft!

This dissertation presents a phenomenological study of the experiences of students with disabilities during higher education. This study began due to the lack of literature available regarding the experiences of students with disabilities regarding their pursuit of higher education. The research focus grew from the enrollment rate inconsistencies between students with and without disabilities in higher education. The rate of enrollment of students with disabilities in higher education is significantly lower than the enrollment of students without disabilities. The reasons behind this are complex. It is affected by individual student’s choice to not disclose his or her disability, the transition preparation of the students with disabilities, and the experiences of students with disabilities at higher education institutions. Much of the literature focuses on data about students with disabilities, but little engages students with disabilities in the research.

A qualitative research design provided rich data. Data collected from individual semi-structured interviews was analyzed for themes and sub-themes. The interviews were correlated with observations and observer notes. Nine students with disabilities attending a Midwestern private higher education institution provided nearly nine hours of dialogue, observations, and notes to analyze. From this data, the following themes were extracted and listed here in order of strength, from least to greatest: identity (self-advocacy, self-worth), accommodations (academic life, support from others), social interaction, assumptions and stigma, and barriers. Specific observations or quotes were used to illustrate the existence of themes and sub-themes.

The illustrations developed from the data the student participants provided aided in designing the concluding arguments. The conclusion of the study invites administrators at the Midwestern higher education institution to examine the data analysis. Some of the student participants provided suggestions for improvement in the accommodation and support of students with disabilities. Additional suggestions for improvement were developed from the data. While the information provided from the student participants aided in appreciating the experiences of students with disabilities, more research is needed regarding the experiences of students with disabilities in higher education.

Watch Your Language

Language has a profound impact on how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. I know some deliberately use inappropriate language to hurt others, but others I am sure unknowingly use inappropriate language. Make the choice today to examine your language, change it, and encourage others to do so too!

Disability is a Social Construct

In writing my research proposal and working toward collecting my data for my dissertation, I have been reading quite a bit on disability identity theory (Gibson is the only one that really exists). I was really rather bummed by this when I started my literature review, but now I think it makes a great deal of sense.

You see, disability is a social construct. Society has told people who have disabilities how to be disabled. People with disabilities react to the stimuli society provides, and based upon this information, their identity develops.

The This American Life episode “Batman” came as I had unearthed another interesting bit of identity theory. People react upon perception. Society perceives people with disabilities as less than, and the people with disabilities perceive themselves perhaps not as less than, but as limited. Why? Society says so.

But, society is wrong.

Our bodies are amazing machines. People with disabilities may do things differently than the rest of society. But is that difference less than? And by association is that person less than?

Listen to the This American Life episode. I hope it changes your expectations and thoughts about disability.

ACPA Experience

Whew! I’m home now from the 2014 ACPA Convention in Indianapolis and I’m exhausted. The past 4 days were packed with learning, making new connections, and catching up with old friends. What a great time we all had collaborating and sharing our progress and research on topics. I was fortunate enough to share my dissertation research with the ACPA community. I was overwhelmed by the attendance in my session and very appreciative of those choosing to spend time in my session. Overall we had a positive conversation about making students with disabilities feel more welcome on our campuses.

Inside Higher Ed ran an article on the session, and while I don’t agree with the hook they used:


it is good to get the information out and more people in on the conversation.

In the session I asked fellow student affairs folks to consider some action items to tackle when they got to their home campus. I am invigorated by what the people plan to do!

Also, at the closing session today, I received some very poignant words from Brené Brown:

If you are not in the arena and also getting your ass kicked, I am not open to your feedback.

If someone else is in the game with you, listen and appreciate what they have to say, good and bad. If they’re not contributing to the knowledge at large, challenge them to step up to contribute, but ultimately appreciate the risk you took in sharing knowledge and dismiss their feedback.

I encourage you all to get out there, research, tackle those complex situations and always keep Brené’s wise words in minds.

View my presentation from the ACPA Convention below or download ACPA 2014 Presentation Jackie Koerner in pdf.

The Big Day

I’m terribly excited about my presentation in about an hour. I am not nervous at all – only very excited to share this information I have found with others in hopes they will be able to change the outcome for students with disabilities on their respective campuses. I cannot wait for the whole dissertation to be finished so I can share it with the whole world! Well, the part of the world willing to read it.

Hello ACPA

Hello all from ACPA! I have neglected my site for the most part due to dissertation (well, except when snapping pics of the cats while procrastinating on said dissertation). I’m just going to recap some of the energy from the first day:

Good discussion about being Flawsome.
Take it in stride and own up to your mistakes. It’s better in the end, and frankly people like you better if you’re ok with being human.

Met lots of fun people at CelebrACPA.
Music was a bit loud for networking, but we worked it out. 🙂 excited to be more involved with my interest areas and MoCPA.

Safe Spaces or Zones for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
These spaces are devoid of harsh environmental stimuli (fluorescent lighting, loud noises, etc.) and complete with a staff member trained on how to assist students who might need them if they are over stimulated or just overwhelmed by something on campus. Great retreat spaces for students to process the experience they just had.

Masculinity and Disability
Great discussion not only about masculinity and disability but about many things: being human, accepting of others and their mistakes, appreciating people for moving in a different path than we would choose. Finally, discussing the common practice of “removing” people with disability from gender.

Now, I’m off to a coffee and to check out my room for my presentation tomorrow! If you’re here, come to Marriott Indiana G at 10:30 April 1. Students with Disabilities Persisting Through Higher Education: Their Perspective.