From compliance to commitment: evolving disability models

Concurrent Session 10

Brief Abstract

Impaired students are typically served through disability resource centers. But is this the best, most efficient way to make sure that students have access to equal educational opportunities? In this session, we will discuss different models of disability and explore new ways we can proactively serve all learners online.


Cole Eskridge is the Course Support Specialist for the University of Arizona's Office of Digital Learning (ODL). They have a Master’s degree in Higher Education from the University of Arizona and a Bachelor’s of Science in Biological Sciences from the University of Mary Washington. Prior to working in the ODL, Cole was a graduate assistant for the University of Arizona’s LGBTQ+ Resource Center and was the lead designer and developer of their Online Safe Zone Network Workshop. Cole has also had the opportunity to work with UA Sky School, Biosphere 2, the Arizona Science Center, the UA Department of Entomology, and the UA Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology as an instructor in and outside the formal classroom. When they’re not on campus, Cole can be found hiking in the mountains, hanging out in a coffee shop while researching access in education, experimenting in the kitchen, or performing with their community chorus.

Extended Abstract

      Higher Education has seen an evolution in its student support services over the centuries. For Disabled students in the United States, much of the support infrastructure we are familiar with today was built following the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 (Madaus, 2011). While providing legal support to Disabled Americans, many of the services and policies created to make institutions compliant follow an increasingly outdated Medical Model of Disability. As the Higher Ed evolves in the modern age, so must our understanding of disability.

     The Medical Model allows for individuals to be seen solely as their impairment, and sets the ultimate goal as attempting to cure oneself or to try to make themselves blend in with the mainstream view of “normalcy” as much as possible. This model limits not only a disabled person’s ability to explore their identity, but it also allows non-disabled people to ignore their role as allies to disabled people. Unfortunately, the medical model is reflected by many of the services provided to disabled students in higher education. Accommodations through Disability Services, such as receiving more time to take a test, taking a test in a distraction-free environment, or captioning video lectures, require that students have documentation of their medical diagnoses. Thus, the medical model encourages “gatekeeping” to accessibility. It also attempts to minimize the number of people responsible to support Disabled Learners.

     While the medical model essentializes and individualizes disability, the social model attempts to expand the perception of disability by proposing that it is the direct result of societal constructs. The adoption of this model necessitates that disability is a reflection of systemic barriers that are largely constructed by non-disabled folks that serve to oppress Disabled people (Shakespeare, 1997). It takes the onus of advocacy away from the disabled individual and instead spreads the responsibility to society as whole. Disability then becomes the result of a lack of consideration taken when policies, courses, and digital spaces are constructed. This is the model that we as online learning professionals should begin centering in our design processes.

     The social model also serves to point to one of the strongest tools to mitigate “disabling” individuals: Universal Design (UD). Coined by Ron Mace, the founder of the Center for Universal Design, UD was defined as “the concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life ( UD requires progressive thinking, instead of falling back on reactionary accommodations. It requires that folks move beyond a model whereby accommodations are made at the request of the individual (Medical Model), to one where requests are not made at all because they can be used by everyone equally (Social model). UD can be used to eliminate barriers to accessible resources that the Medical Model partitions: all students can be given more time to work on tests, or have software that can be navigated using a keyboard, and have access to captioned videos. These services go beyond any diagnosis that students may have received and would benefit all without having to single out learners.

     After this session participants will be able to define the medical and social models of disability and provide examples of professional practices that fit into each of these models. Through guided group discussion, participants will also evaluate their current practice and identify specific areas that they wish to develop in regard to accessibility.

Engagement Strategy:

     The presentation portion of this session will utilize google slides presenter view, which allows for live questioning that can be up-voted by participants. This provides a convenient way to screen participant’s questions throughout the presentation portion so they are viewable by all. Additionally, the presentation will integrate “Poll Everywhere” slides to create a more active learning experience while discussing examples of the medical and social model in practice.
     After the presentation portion, I will direct participants to form small groups, and lead them through a disability values worksheet where participants will reflect and discuss their personal investment in these models, and identify areas of their practice they wish to develop. The worksheet will also contain a QR code linking to a google form to collect contact information to build accountability communities around these areas for idea and resource  sharing post-conference.

Center for Universal Design NCSU - About the Center - Ronald L. Mace. (2008). Retrieved November 03, 2017, from

Madaus, J. W. (2011).  The history of disability services in higher education. In Harbour, W.S.. and Madaus, J.W. (Eds.) Disability Services and Campus Dynamics. New Directions for Higher Education. Vol. 154. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Shakespeare, T. (1997). The social model of disability. In Davis, L.J. (Ed.) The Disability Studies Reader. London and New York: Routlege.  (266-273).