Disability in higher education is an underexplored area of pedagogical practice. This website contributes to an on-going dialogue about issues of disability in post-secondary institutions, and most importantly, offers recommendations for creating an access-centered learning environment in the humanities classroom. An access-centered University promotes intersectional access. This means creating and communicating content to the broadest audience possible.

Washington University in Saint Louis (WashU) provides several resources for students with disabilities through the Disability Resources center, but it is essential that instructors share the responsibility of creating an accessible learning and work environment for people with disabilities on our campus.

The information on this website is research-based and revised as new findings are made available. If you have a recommendation or would like to contribute to the project, please contact Lacy Murphy at lacy.murphy@wustl.edu.

What is Disability?

Disability is one aspect of diversity. The term “disability” is an umbrella term that includes several subsets of psychological, intellectual, and physical impairments, disorders, or difficulties. Below are four definitions—

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

“The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability.”[i]


[i] “What Is the Definition of Disability under the ADA? | ADA National Network,” accessed May 29, 2019, https://adata.org/faq/what-definition-disability-under-ada.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

“The term ‘specific learning disability’ means a disorder in 1 or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.


Disorders included:

Such term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.


Disorders not included:

Such term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of intellectual disabilities, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.”[i]

[i] “[USC03] 20 USC CHAPTER 33, SUBCHAPTER I: GENERAL PROVISIONS,” accessed May 29, 2019, http://uscode.house.gov/view.xhtml?path=/prelim@title20/chapter33/subchapter1&edition=prelim.

National Join Committee on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD)

“Learning disabilities is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders manifested by significant difficulties in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities. These disorders are intrinsic to the individual, presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction and may occur across the life span. Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities but do not by themselves constitute a learning disability. Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other disabilities (for example, sensory impairment, intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbance), or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural or linguistic differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction), they are not the result of those conditions or influences.”

Washington University in Saint Louis (WashU)

“A disability is defined as a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits an individual in one or more major life activities as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADA AA). In general, major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working. A major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.”[i]

[i] “Frequently-Asked Questions (FAQs) for Disability Resources,” Students, December 6, 2018, https://students.wustl.edu/frequently-asked-questions-disability-resources/.

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