More than ever, students with disabilities are enrolling in higher education, yet despite their growth, they still underperform compared to their nondisabled peers in grades and graduation rates. The Americans with Disabilities Act grants students with disabilities access to special accommodations and services in postsecondary institutions, and there is evidence demonstrating that these supports have positive effects on college outcomes for students who use them. For students to use these provisions, they must identify as having a disability to their college disability services office or other campus entity that administers special supports. Existing research indicates that less than a quarter of students who qualify for accommodations and services use them. A probable reason that students avoid accommodations and services is their reluctance to claim having a disability due to negative perceptions about disability. In the postsecondary research literature, disability identity, which is generally composed of perceptions and understandings about disability and identification with the disability condition, is a hypothesized but rarely explored predictor of accommodation usage when using quantitative methods.
The primary intention of the study was to examine quantitatively the relationship between disability identity and the frequency of accommodation usage, with the inclusion of more conventional predictors (i.e., psychological empowerment, knowledge of accessing supports, and perceived usefulness of accommodations) as part of the process in linking the two variables. To address this research question, the study adopted the theoretical frameworks of social identity theory and social theories of disability in order to explore and attempt to validate the structure of a multifactorial disability identity construct. The study then investigated the connection that accommodation usage might share with disability identity and other predictors. As a secondary research question, this research also sought to uncover the potential relationship among these variables and academic achievement.
Over 500 students from primarily two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions were recruited to respond to an online survey. The sample was then randomly divided such that an exploratory factor analysis could be conducted on the first subsample and a confirmatory factor analysis and structural equation modeling could be performed on the second subsample. Results from the exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses suggested the presence of three disability identity factors: identification, private regard, and public regard. The first structural equation model found that: (a) identification with disability directly and positively predicted the frequency of accommodation usage; (b) private regard indirectly predicted the frequency of usage through the mediators of psychological empowerment, access knowledge, and perceived usefulness of accommodations; (c) public regard influenced psychological empowerment; and (d) private regard also indirectly predicted student cumulative GPA via psychological empowerment. Some of these patterns were also detected in the structural model for students attending four-year colleges only.
These research findings reveal the significance of disability identity, as well as the process by which different aspects of disability identity affect how often college students access supports in the classroom. Theoretically, the results contribute to the literature by clarifying the dimensions of the disability identity construct. Regarding practical concerns, the findings recommend that disability offices interested in increasing accommodation usage in their registered population should consider ways to enhance students’ acceptance of their disability label. Promoting students’ positive evaluations of disability may be helpful in increasing accommodation usage and student achievement through reinforcing students’ psychological empowerment and knowledge about available resources. Disability offices should also work in conjunction with college administrators to improve the campus climate for students with disabilities, making classroom settings more welcoming for students to disclose their disability status. The present research also highlights the importance of personal disability-related and background characteristics (i.e., disability awareness age, visibility of disability, and parents’ education level) in the relationships among disability identity, accommodation usage, and student achievement.