Professional Development: Need, Content & Methods

Research Questions

  • Why do faculty and administrators need professional development regarding teaching students with disabilities?
  • What do we know about the knowledge, experiences, and attitudes of faculty and administrators regarding students with disabilities? What do faculty and administrators want and need to know about fully including students with disabilities in their classes? How do faculty and administrators want to gain this knowledge?
  • What do students with disabilities think faculty members and administrators need to know about providing full academic access in their classes?

Overview of Research

As a result of federal legislation, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, young people with disabilities are being encouraged and better prepared to pursue higher education (Henderson, 2001; Horn & Berktold, 1999; National Council on Disability, 2000). The number of students with disabilities enrolled in higher education continues to grow. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Education reported that approximately 11% of people in postsecondary programs report a disability (2006).

Despite their increasing percentage of college enrollment, students with disabilities are less successful in postsecondary education when compared to their non-disabled peers. A recent survey found that only 12.5% of working-age adults with disabilities had earned a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 30.8% of their non-disabled peers (Erickson & Lee, 2008). These figures are of concern, since a postsecondary education is positively correlated with increased vocational options, financial success, and a rewarding adult life. In fact, for people with disabilities, there is a stronger positive correlation between level of education and rate of employment than there is for the general population (Stodden, 1998; Stodden & Dowrick, 1999).

People with Disabilities and Employment

A significant gap in earnings is apparent between those with disabilities and those without. In a recent survey (Erickson & Lee, 2008) the median annual household income of people with disabilities in the U.S. was $38,400 in 2007, compared to $61,000 in households comprised of people without disabilities. Additionally, it was found that only 36.9% of people with disabilities were employed, while 79.7% of people without disabilities had jobs. The poor employment figures for people with disabilities coupled with the positive impact of postsecondary education make increasing their postsecondary success an important goal (National Council on Disability, 2000; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997).

Legal Issues

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs and services that receive federal funds. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 reinforces and extends the requirements of Section 504 to programs and services, regardless of whether or not they receive federal funds. These laws apply to postsecondary institutions. For qualified students who disclose their disabilities and present appropriate documentation, postsecondary institutions must provide reasonable accommodations to ensure equal access to program offerings (Frank & Wade, 1993; Heyward, 1998; McCusker, 1995).

The Need For Professional Development

Many factors impact the academic success of students with disabilities. They include physical access, campus support services, and faculty willingness to make accommodations.

Although students often report satisfaction with their accommodations, some students with disabilities have difficulty acquiring accommodations, some course content and activities are inaccessibly designed, and some faculty members project negative attitudes toward them (Burgstahler & Doe, 2006; Durre, Richardson, Smith, Shulman, & Steele, 2008; Hill, 1996). Prejudicial treatment, whether intentional or not, creates obstacles for students with disabilities in higher education that can be more disabling than the physical or cognitive impairments themselves (Fichten, 1995). Faculty members with more knowledge about and experience with students who have disabilities have more positive attitudes about them than those with less experience and knowledge (Fichten, Amsel, Bourdon, & Creti, 1988; Fonosch & Schwab, 1981; Yuker, 1994).

When considering accommodations for students with disabilities, postsecondary faculty are often concerned about maintaining academic integrity (Nelson, Dodd & Smith, 1990). Many support the integration of students with sensory and physical disabilities, but are less supportive of integrating students with learning disabilities and psychiatric disabilities (Burgstahler & Doe, 2006; Leyser, 1989; Nelson, Dodd, & Smith, 1990). There are also certain accommodations that faculty members are less willing to provide, such as alternative assignments, copies of lecture notes, tape-recorded assignments, and proofreaders (Nelson, et al., 1990). Additionally, the willingness to provide accommodations varies by academic discipline. For example, education faculty have been found to be more willing to accommodate students than business faculty, and business faculty have been found to be more willing to provide accommodations than science faculty (Leyser, Vogel, Wyland & Brulle, 1998; Nelson, et al., 1990).

Some instructors feel uncomfortable talking to students with disabilities. Similarly, students with disabilities are sometimes reluctant to ask for accommodations. They express concern that instructors may have negative attitudes about them, and that they may not respect their privacy regarding their disabilities (Burgstahler & Doe, 2006; National Center on the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, 2000).

The Delivery of Professional Development

Overall, despite ever-growing course loads, committee assignments, research responsibilities, and community work, professors are receptive to receiving training in teaching students with disabilities (Norman, Caseau, & Stefanich, 1998). College administrators also acknowledge the need to provide training for faculty regarding the capabilities and unique needs of students with disabilities (Nelson, et al., 1990). Both faculty and students have expressed the need for faculty development so that instructors can better understand their legal obligation to provide academic accommodations, learn about typical accommodation strategies, improve communication skills, and become aware of available resources (Burgstahler & Doe, 2006; Leyser et al., 1998; Vogel, Leyser, Burgstahler, Sligar, & Zecker, 2006; Vogel, Leyser, Wyland, & Brulle, 1999). Faculty members and administrators report interest in multiple presentation delivery methods including short printed publications, online resources, and short presentations that include case studies or student panels (Burgstahler, 2007b; Burgstahler & Doe, 2006). Including disability-related content in training programs and orientations for teaching assistants (TAs) is also important, since many TAs have primary teaching responsibilities (Burgstahler & Jirikowic, 2002).

Training opportunities regarding accommodating students with learning and psychiatric disabilities are of particular interest to postsecondary faculty (Burgstahler & Doe, 2006; Cafferella & Zinn, 1999; Houck, Asselin, Troutman, & Arrington, 1992; Souma & Casey, 2008; Spencer & Romero, 2008; Vogel et al., 1999).

Implications for Practice

Faculty members, teaching assistants, and administrators need information about legal issues, accommodation strategies, and resources for working with students who have disabilities. Training should be provided in multiple ways to address differences in schedules, interests, knowledge, experience, and information needs. Short printed publications, Internet-based resources, and both short and extended presentations should be considered. Follow-up support to address specific needs should also be provided.

It is best to tailor professional development sessions to the needs of instructors in specific academic disciplines, giving examples of accommodations that are likely to be provided in each of those fields. Seek to educate instructors in academic disciplines that tend to be less willing to accommodate students with disabilities. Faculty members in academic areas where advancing technology increases opportunities for participation of students with disabilities should also be targeted for training in order to correct faulty assumptions about what students with disabilities can accomplish. For example, faculty members in information technology (IT) fields may not be aware of assistive technology (AT) that allows individuals with a wide range of disabilities to access computers. In addition, instructors of Internet-based learning courses may not be aware of the technical issues and legal obligations to design courses that are accessible to students with disabilities (Burgstahler, 2007a; Patrick, 1996).

Keep in mind that faculty members may feel uncomfortable when working with students who have disabilities. Their attitudes may be based on faulty assumptions and stereotypes. Use faculty training as an opportunity to allow instructors to openly discuss fears and concerns, to dismiss incorrect assumptions and stereotypes, and to provide accurate information. Model an attitude of respect for the rights and responsibilities of the institution, students with disabilities, and instructors. Avoid generalizations about people with disabilities and highlight similarities instead of differences between students with and without disabilities. Emphasize that academic accommodations do not need to be elaborate; creativity and common sense can lead to practical solutions for access problems. Strategies that apply universal design to instruction should also be shared as they hold promise for increasing the learning of all students, including those with invisible disabilities, those who choose not to disclose their disabilities, and those who have other diverse characteristics with respect to language, culture, age, gender, and learning styles (Burgstahler, 2008b; Higbee, 2008; Rose, Harbour, Johnston , Daley, & Abarbanell, 2008; Scott & McGuire, 2008).

When delivering training to faculty and administrators, assume your audience has varying levels of experience, knowledge, and a wide range of interests represented. Some faculty and administrators are eager to learn about disability-related issues; others are interested in only the minimum amount of information they need to perform their jobs. Leave time to discuss issues of special interest to audience members.

Based on a review of research, DO?IT developed six models of professional development for faculty and administrators that may be adapted for a wide range of schedules and interests. The presentation models include a short overview, a comprehensive workshop, tailor-made workshops on specific topics, self-paced web instruction, and a distance learning course (Burgstahler, 2003). In addition to materials provided in this handbook, information can be found at a comprehensive website entitled The Faculty Room website.


Professional development can help educators more fully include students with disabilities in their courses. Ultimately, increased knowledge and skills of faculty members and administrators regarding legal issues, accommodations, and resources can lead to more positive postsecondary and career outcomes for students with disabilities.

Research Question

What do we know about adult learning that can be applied to the design and delivery of professional development for faculty and administrators regarding equal access of students with disabilities to courses and programs?