Is disability a diversity issue?: Diversity workers and the construction of disability in higher education

Date of Award

July 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Cultural Foundations of Education


Catherine Engstrom

Second Advisor

Sari Biklen


Ableism, Affirmative Action, Disability, Disability Studies, Diversity, Higher Education

Subject Categories



This dissertation explored how 23 college presidents, senior administrators, faculty and staff at six college campuses in the northeast United States understood diversity and disability and how these perspectives were positioned from their personal experiences, larger campus initiatives, and institutional cultures. Even as higher education scholars and practitioners work to increase educational opportunities for historically underserved populations (Cuyjet, Howard-Hamilton, & Cooper, 2011; Orfield, 2001; Quaye & Harper, 2015) and a growing body of research indicates that being part of a diverse college community can enhance development in leadership skills, critical thinking, and cross-cultural communication (Baxter-Magolda, 1992; Chang, Denson, Saenz, & Misa, 2006; Gurin, Nagda, & Lopez, 2004), there is little inquiry into how disability is situated within this work. Compliance with civil rights statutes made important strides for holding postsecondary institutions accountable to diverse demographics of society but did not fully dismantle structural practices and attitudinal beliefs that underserved groups were lacking in academic potential. Universities have acknowledged the category of disability as the result of hard-fought civil rights campaigns and federal legislation. However, findings from this research indicate that disability’s close proximity to individualized, biomedical discourses kept this social group apart from other work designed to engender diversity in higher education. These diversity workers’ perspectives on both diversity and disability illuminated the ways ableism functioned in the arenas of higher education and how it influenced shared experiences with other forms of structural oppression.


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