Most of the 25 largest American universities spectacularly fail students with disabilities.

Ultimately this will prevent us from becoming a sustainable society.

Under US Section 508, any project using federal money has to be accessible to people with disabilities. This rule is codified in 29 USC § 794 (d) and applies to developing, procuring, maintaining, or using electronic and information technology, including software and websites. Under Section 508, government agencies must give disabled employees and members of the public access to information comparable to the access available to others.

Let’s say hypothetically, the federal government gives money to the state, which gives it to a university? Same deal. The strings mandating accessibility follow the funding. Any university that receives public funding must be equally accessible to students with disabilities.

The federal government is the largest employer of people with disabilities in the United States. Every 1 % increase in people with disabilities working adds $25 billion to the US economy. Anything the government buys that is not usable by people with disabilities:

  1. creates accommodations costs that the government, not the vendor, ends up bearing;
  2. creates the potential of a disability discrimination claim by the employee, and;
  3. hurts the government’s ability to employ people with disabilities. This, in turn, takes people who otherwise could be tax-paying citizens and puts them back into non-taxpaying status, relying on the government for things like healthcare.

But what happens when the government can’t find qualified individuals with disabilities to put in positions that require college degrees? Not surprisingly, there is a significant issue where people with disabilities don’t have the same access to education as people without disabilities.

While most people can connect the dots between education and promising career options, most don’t apply the same logic between the equitable treatment of students with disabilities and a sustainable society. If you think higher education accessibility concerns don’t involve you, think again.

The Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center University Disability Inclusion Dashboard recently assessed the top twenty-five universities across four categories (see the University Scoring page for details on methods and limitations). The measured the four following categories:

  1. Accessibility of the built and virtual environment.
  2. Public image of disability inclusion.
  3. Accommodation request processes and procedures.
  4. Grievance policies related to disability accommodations.

The results were:

0 As
1 B
5 Cs
7 Ds
12 Fs

Let’s let that sink in for a moment.

  • None of the top 25 universities in the country received an A for accessibility.
  • More than 3/4 of them failed.

There can be no end of extremely detailed legal requirements. However, if the educational institutions fail to implement them and are not held accountable, the resulting education will remain atrocious and discriminatory to students with disabilities.

Here is why lack of accessibility and equity for students with disabilities in education creates real-world damage to accessibility programs in the private sector.

Educational inequities for students with disabilities start long before college.

Students with formal K-12 s IEPs graduate from high school at an average of almost 18% lower than students without disabilities.

One in three students with an IEP never graduates from high school.

This issue is just the beginning of a pipeline problem we’re students with disabilities fall through the cracks at every step of the process.

Accessibility teams do not operate in a vacuum.

Successful accessibility programs have non-accessibility team employees talking about accessibility when the accessibility team is not in the room. Organizations with mature accessibility programs have:

These three items are essential to supporting those disabled employees and building a psychologically safe space where they don’t fear retaliation for discussing their disability and asking for help.

Who cares the most about accessibility?

Other employees with disabilities. If all you have in the room are people without disabilities, chances are how customers will use products with disabilities will never come up.

Sustainability requires Disability inclusion.

The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) are a series of 17 integrated goals that are part of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Most UN SDGs can be tied to disability and accessibility, either directly or indirectly.

GOAL 1: No Poverty — People with disabilities are twice as likely to be at the poverty level in the US due to the impact of inaccessible education and job discrimination on their earning abilities.

GOAL 2: Zero Hunger — Households with at least one person with a disability are 1/3 more likely to be food insecure.

GOAL 3: Good Health and Well-being — Adults with disabilities are more than four times as likely to report their health as fair or poor than adults without disabilities. This derives at least in part from the linkage between work and private health insurance in the US. Discrimination in education leads to lower employment opportunities, forcing people with disabilities to enroll in poorly funded public health care systems that result in health inequalities.

GOAL 4: Quality Education — American children with disabilities in special education have a significantly higher dropout rate than children without disabilities. Children with mental health disabilities experience the highest dropout rate in the US. Outside of the US, less than 5 % of children with disabilities have access to any education at all.

GOAL 5: Gender Equality — Men with disabilities, while discriminated against, still have more than twice as many jobs as women with disabilities. Women with disabilities are also more likely to struggle to get stable housing and more likely to be institutionalized. The global literacy rate for women with disabilities is 1 %.

GOAL 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth — When women with disabilities can get work, they often experience:

  • hiring and promotion inequalities;
  • access to training inequalities;
  • unequal pay for identical work;
  • occupational segregation, and;
  • they rarely participate in economic decision-making.

GOAL 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure — Women with disabilities have unequal access to credit and other business resources, limiting their ability to start a business when faced with hiring discrimination.

GOAL 10: Reduced Inequality — Only 24 percent of countries in the world have constitutions that expressly prohibit discrimination or guarantee equal rights based on disability.

GOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities — “Smart cities” aren’t always accessible to people with hearing, vision, mobility, or speech disabilities. In today’s cities, people with disabilities face a widespread lack of accessibility to built environments, including lack of access to roads, housing, public buildings and spaces, transportation. Barriers also exist in ICT, including websites and apps, compounded by cultural attitudes such as damaging stereotypes and stigma. All of these things put together create an environment that excludes and marginalizes people with disabilities.

GOAL 13: Climate Action — People with disabilities have unequal access to emergency response programs.

GOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions — People with disabilities are involved in almost half of police use of force incidents.

The world won’t be sustainable for anyone

until it is sustainable for everyone.

Today we live in an environment where:

  1. K-12 education discrimination leads to fewer students with disabilities going to college.
  2. Fewer students with disabilities going to college plus a 60 % lower college graduation rate lead to fewer students with disabilities with college degrees available for employment.
  3. Fewer employed people with disabilities means
  • less successful accessibility program, which creates the vicious cycle of more inaccessible products leading to even fewer employment opportunities
  • more people with disabilities unable to find employment means more reliance on government support programs for survival.

This chain reaction ultimately leads to the failure of people with disabilities to get equal jobs to those without disabilities, contributing to problems achieving several of the United Nations sustainable development goals. People with disabilities end up being blocked from contributing to society due to inequitable treatment.

If you want the world to become sustainable, these issues need to matter to you.