In a recent conversation with Sherri Darrow, Director of Wellness Education Services at the University at Buffalo, I was inspired by something that she said when speaking about their efforts in making wellness accessible for students with disabilities: “Nothing about us without us.”

These 5 simple words completely changed the way in which I viewed my work with students. Inspired by James Charlton’s book of the same title, the notion of “nothing about us without us” speaks to the importance of seeking feedback early and often from individuals with disabilities when making decisions about programs, policies, and practices that may have a direct impact on them. Although in my epiphany this statement was particularly applicable to student well-being, it is worthy of consideration for the variety of efforts that may impact the students with whom we work.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of college students report having a disability. Statistically, individuals with disabilities are also at a higher likelihood of experiencing victimization of a crime at some point in their lives. A 2013 study, Rates and Correlates of Binge Drinking Among College Students With Disabilities, found that 70% of college students with a disability reported drinking in a high risk way. Despite these statistics, only a small percentage of institutions tailor prevention efforts to specifically meet the needs of these students. Aggregate data from the Campus Prevention Network’s Sexual Assault Diagnostic Inventory indicates that only 1 in 10 institutions are specifically tailoring programs to students with disabilities in their sexual assault prevention efforts.

Case Study: University At Buffalo

The University at Buffalo is one institution hoping to make wellness and prevention efforts more accessible for students with disabilities. According to Dr. Darrow, “Violence prevention efforts are intentionally woven within the educational curriculum to speak to the needs of marginalized groups. Additionally, there has been increased training on how to address risk factors associated with students with disabilities’ drinking behaviors.”

To enhance these efforts and institutionalize accessibility, UB worked with Eli Clare, a scholar, international speaker, and disability activist, to develop a workshop on intentional inclusion for student leaders, peer educators, and interns. According to Dr. Darrow, the voices of students with disabilities are often “erased and infantilized,” which is why it is critical to have these voices heard.

Through a collaborative relationship with Accessibility Resources, the student life office that provides services for disabled students, and the Center for Disability Studies, their university has been able to co-sponsor training and workshops. They have also brought other people on campus to share information with students, and have integrated training with RA’s. According to Dr. Darrow, “these efforts have been built on general practices of partnership with others, and on-going professional development, with a specific lens toward disability, inclusion and social justice.”

Another important partnership with Accessibility Resources was the development of a universal designed yoga program. All yoga instructors have been trained in the elements of incorporating universal design within a yoga practice — how to create physical space for accessibility, how to give directions that can be adapted, and how to set up props. Instructors have also been trained to do hands-on work with those that would like it.

Considerations for Professionals

  • Given the unique needs of each community, it is critical that we as prevention practitioners consult with the experts– students with disabilities, disabled community leaders, and disability services staff– to best identify the needs within our campus communities. While it is crucial to make wellness and prevention efforts accessible for all students, it is just as crucial that we seek direction and feedback from those individuals that we are hoping to impact. The following tips are designed to support your efforts in doing so.
  • Gather data on prevalence rates, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs among students with disabilities at your institution, and use this information in the strategic planning process.
  • Collaborate with your institution’s disability/accessibility services offices, and academic programs, to ensure that prevention efforts are accessible, appropriate, and inclusive.
  • Remember that students possess multiple identities, with disability status being only one part of a complex whole. Ensure that you are engaging students with disabilities in your ongoing efforts, and looking at disability status within the scope of this broader context. Work with multicultural centers and academic support offices to increase their cultural competency about disability inclusion.
  • Form relationships and keep an open line of communication with students with disabilities at your institution. Consider hosting a closed meeting, an open workshop, or dialogue for self-identifying students to discuss wellness on your campus. Provide them with a chance to ask questions and talk about these issues in a judgment-free space. Consider supporting disabled students to establish a Dream Group on your campus http://www.dreamcollegedisability.org/ and utilize the resources on the Dream College site.
  • Finally, take responsibility for educating yourself. Consider reading Nothing About Us Without Us. Learn about disability oppression and empowerment. In addition to Eli Clare, resources recommended by Dr. Darrow include the work of Mia Mingus, Lydia Brown, and the authors listed on this site: http://aboutdisability.com/bib.html