Sociology of disabilities is a relatively new discipline. The term itself is rather ambiguous, creating much confusion with regards to what constitutes as a disability. There are various categories, each denoting its own set of conditions which hinder an individual’s day-to-day life. Abu-Hamour (2013) and Rosetti & Henderson (2013) both reported that learning disabilities are now the most common disability amongst students in high schools and universities. This grouping is one of the most difficult to clearly define. As such, learning disabilities currently encompasses a wide array of hindrances.
This socially constructed label is inherently synonymous with limitations and inabilities. Thus, all those associated with it are innately viewed as abnormal; lesser. Over time, countless stereotypes and stigmas have developed around learning disabilities. Sociologists suggest that when all these factors come together, inequality is inevitable. Subsequently, individuals with learning disabilities were denied the right to education for decades (Klassen, 2002).
Although Canadian social policy currently ensures their access to university classrooms and a sliding scale of accommodations, questions still remain as to which students have access. Furthermore, it has no bearing on others’ attitudes towards them. This study uses grounded theory to examine the experiences of students with learning disabilities at the University of Toronto Mississauga. How do they navigate through both academic and social life? Have they applied for and been provided proper access to the necessary accommodations? Are they treated differently as a result of their learning disability? These questions and more will be investigated to gain a sense of whether the current system aids in their inclusion and success.
For the purpose of this paper, the articles cited provide a sequential comparison of three main topics, spanning over a quarter-century: (1) defining learning disabilities, (2) perceptions and attitudes of faculty towards students with learning disabilities, and (3) the experiences of students with learning disabilities. The first point is an ongoing debate amongst both policy makers and scholars with regards to what previously and currently constitutes as a learning disability. The second theme provides an assessment of how those employed by institutions feel about the inclusion and accommodation of students with differences. Thirdly, an analysis of the university experiences of students with learning disabilities over the past few decades. The review then concludes with some suggestions moving forward.
Klassen (2002) analyzed dozens of Canadian studies which provided a definition of learning disabilities. He noted that many definitions prior to the year 2000 referenced intelligence (IQ scores) as an indicator. Definitions also contained significant amounts of variation, posing serious limitations regarding a study’s generalizability. These issues were also pertinent in the United States, as echoed by Stage & Milne (1996). They acknowledged the difficulties of developing an appropriate measure of a learning disability. In addition, this complicated student access to programs, as institutions struggled to determine who qualified for assistance. Learning disability needed to become a more inclusive, blanketed term.
More recent studies have followed this approach. Works by Olney & Brockelman (2003), May & Stone (2010), and Gyenes & Siegel (2014) to name a few, have excluded any mention of mental capacity from their definitions. Instead, learning disabilities now encompasses a much broader spectrum of difficulties individuals encounter in their learning process. The authors place heavy emphasis on the individual aspect, as it has been formally recognized in recent years that each person may experience their difficulties differently. Unfortunately, a concrete definition of the term has yet to be developed and accepted amongst medical professionals, scholars, and policy makers. As such, the limited research available continues to lack generalizability.
In terms of how students with disabilities have been perceived and received by faculty members at institutions of higher education, Nelson et al. (1990) and Vogel et al. (1999) utilized surveys and questionnaires to conduct research regarding professors’ attitudes in the United States. Though nine years apart, their findings were relatively consistent. Respondents tended to side with the inclusion and accommodation of students with learning disabilities, so long as they were neither drastic nor compromised academic integrity. As well, professors were more likely to approve accommodations that did not require extra effort on their part, such as recording lectures. Younger faculty, females, and those who had personal experience dealing with learning disabilities all demonstrated more willingness to assist students in need. Many noted that they responded better to students with a positive attitude.
Wolman et al. (2004) analyzed American and Mexican professors’ willingness to accommodate various disabilities; both visible and invisible. Their findings showed that among all forms of disabilities, faculty said they were most open to assisting those with learning disabilities. Americans demonstrated more positive feelings towards students who required extra assistance. Although gender did not appear to influence attitudes as suggested in earlier works, Abu-Hamour’s (2013) recent surveys found male professors in Jordan demonstrated much more negative views than their female counterparts. When considered in conjunction with previous literature, it appears as though intersectionality may influence faculty perceptions among various regions and cultures.
Surprisingly, there is limited content pertaining to the students themselves. Earlier works, such as Stage & Milne (1996) and Olney & Brokelman (2003), utilized ethnography and one-on-one interviews to delve into the university experience from the perspective of students with learning disabilities. Participants generally reported positive relationships with both peers and faculty, though not without incidents. They demonstrated average to above-average intellect, challenging initial definitions which were linked to one’s IQ. Students noted such stereotypes often discouraged them from disclosing their situation with others. Those who did found that the work they put into masking their difficulties sometimes led to professors and peers questioning the legitimacy of their conditions. On a few occasions, students even recalled being accused of using their learning disability as an excuse. Some questioned whether the same would happen if their disability was visible.
More contemporary pieces, such as Goodrich & Ramsey (2013) and May & Stone (2010), reinforce the previous notions of self-doubt amongst students. Despite generally having positive experiences with others, society’s deeply rooted stereotypes have often left respondents hesitant to speak up and openly participate in class. A commonly cited reason was the fear that their ability compared to their peers was inadequate. Given these students documented knowledge, use of the term ‘disability’ may be problematic. Moving forward, it may be in the students’ best interest to redefine their circumstances using less of a negative connotation. It is also worth noting that a great deal of current studies rely on quantitative methods. While this is a step towards conducting more generalizable research, it also limits the depth and breadth of the information being collected.
Past literature has ignored Canadian institutions when addressing the inclusiveness of students with learning disabilities at the university level. As one of the most diverse countries in the world, Canada may yield different findings with regards to how faculty, students, and society as a whole perceive and understand those with learning differences. Furthermore, too much emphasis has been placed on the opinions of the aforementioned populations. When studying the effects of racism, it is best to learn about the experiences of the oppressed, rather than the majority. Likewise, when conducting research on the inclusion of students with learning disabilities in universities, scholars may be better served to pay closer attention to these students and their experiences.