Professional Development: Need, Content, and Methods

Research Questions

  • Why do campus staff and administrators need to make student services accessible to people with disabilities?
  • What do we know about the knowledge, experiences, and attitudes of postsecondary staff and administrators regarding students with disabilities? What do staff and administrators want and need to know about providing equal access to their services for students with disabilities? How do staff and administrators want to gain this knowledge?
  • What do students with disabilities think staff and administrators need to know about providing accessible student services?

Overview of Research

As a result of federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), young people with disabilities are being encouraged and better prepared to pursue higher education (Gajar, 1998; Henderson, 2001; Horn & Berktold, 1999; National Council on Disability, 2001, 2003). The number of students with disabilities enrolled in higher education continues to grow.

Students with Disabilities and Postsecondary Education

Approximately 6% of people in postsecondary programs report a disability (Horn & Berktold, 1999). The largest group have learning disabilities. Percentages of students reporting specific disabilities are as follows (Henderson):

  • learning disabilities 40.4%
  • blindness or partial sight 16.1%
  • health impairments 15.4%
  • hearing impairments 8.6%
  • mobility impairments 7.1%
  • speech impairments 2.9%
  • other impairments 16.9%

Despite increasing college enrollment, individuals with disabilities are still underrepresented in postsecondary education when compared with their peers who do not have disabilities (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000). It has been found that two years after high school, 63% of students with disabilities were enrolled in some form of postsecondary education, compared to 72% of students without disabilities. Of those enrolled in postsecondary education, 42% of students with disabilities and 62% of those without disabilities were enrolled in four-year schools (Horn & Berktold, 1999).

Students with disabilities are less likely than their counterparts without disabilities to stay enrolled in postsecondary education and earn a postsecondary degree or credential. Regarding degree attainment, it has been found that after five years, 53% of students with disabilities and 64% of those without disabilities attained a degree or certificate or were still pursuing their degree (Horn & Berktold, 1999). Clearly, postsecondary educational outcomes for students with disabilities are not as positive as they are for those without disabilities.

Individuals with Disabilities and Employment

People with disabilities, like other minority groups, face challenges in gaining employment. They are also negatively and disproportionately affected by changes in general employment trends. (Yelin & Katz, 1994; Stodden & Dowrick, 2000; Trupin, Sebesta, Yelin, & LaPlante, 1997)

The completion of some type of postsecondary education increases opportunities for people with disabilities to secure satisfactory and meaningful employment (Gilson, 1996; Stodden, 1998; Stodden & Dowrick, 2001; Yelin & Katz, 1994). A postsecondary education is highly correlated with vocational options, financial success, and adult quality of 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; Stodden & Dowrick). The poor employment figures for people with disabilities, coupled with the positive impact of postsecondary education, makes increasing college success an important goal (Benz, Doren, & Yovanoff, 1998; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Gajar, 1998; Gilson, 1996; National Council on Disability, 2001; Phelps & Hanley-Maxwell, 1997; Reis, Neu, & McGuire, 1997; Stodden & Dowrick).

Professional Development Needs of Staff and Administrators

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 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, institutions must provide reasonable accommodations to assure equal access to program offerings (Frank & Wade, 1993; Heyward, 1998; McCusker, 1995; West et al., 1993). This legislation also applies to services provided in areas such as registration, admissions and recruiting, financial aid, housing and residential life, computer labs, tutoring and learning centers, distance learning, career services, and libraries (Milani, 1996; Simon, 2000).

Although most institutions provide specialized services for students with disabilities, the level and types of supports offered differ considerably by institution (Stodden, Whelley, Chang, & Harding, 2001). Student satisfaction with general campus wide access and the accommodations they receive on postsecondary campuses also varies (Lancaster, Mellard, & Hoffman, 2001; Lehman, Davies, & Laurin, 2000). Faculty and staff attitudes, physical barriers, and difficulties with staff and departmental support outside of the disability services office continue to be problematic for some postsecondary students with disabilities (Lancaster et al.; Lehman et al.; Paul, 2000). Challenges with institutional policies and procedures (e.g., credit-based eligibility criteria for financial aid and housing), as well as inadequate academic and nonacademic support services, have been reported (National Council on Disability, 2003).

Most disability-related professional development efforts have focused on increasing the knowledge and skills of postsecondary faculty (Burgstahler, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2003). Fewer reported efforts, however, have addressed the roles and responsibilities of nonacademic postsecondary administrators and support staff. Yet the need to address access barriers to student service units has been identified, along with emerging recommendations to address attitudinal, facility, and information resource barriers experienced by students with disabilities (DO-IT, n.d.; Kroeger & Schuck, 1993; Higbee & Eaton, 2003; Schmetzke, 2002; Uzes & Connelly, 2003; Wisbey & Kalivoda, 2003).

Faculty, administrators, and auxiliary staff have expressed interest in learning how to more effectively support students with disabilities in their courses and services (Sheppard-Jones, Krampe, Danner, & Berdine, 2002). They want to learn about different types of disabilities, typical accommodations, legal issues, and campus resources. Staff and administrators want to know about campus resources relevant to their programs and about appropriate accommodations for students with specific types of disabilities. Other topics of interest include information on legal obligations, accessible transportation and parking, hiring students with disabilities, accessible library resources, and universal design (Burgstahler & Doe, in press; Leyser, Vogel, Wyland, & Brulle, 1998; Sheppard-Jones et al.; Vogel, Leyser, Wyland, & Brulle, 1999).

Photo of a student in a wheelchair using a computer at an adjustable table.

Staff members and administrators report interest in multiple types of delivery methods, including short printed publications, online resources, and presentations with case studies or student panels (Burgstahler, 2003). Students have also identified the need to provide professional development for staff, administrators, and faculty to help them understand their legal obligations, as well as the needs of students with disabilities (Burgstahler & Doe, in press; Leyser et al., 1998; Vogel et al., 1999).

Since student service staff members play a key role in supporting the academic and career success of all students, professional development for this audience has the potential to improve postsecondary outcomes for students with disabilities (Burgstahler, 2003; Caffarella & Zinn, 1999). Student service offices that will benefit from training, the materials in this notebook, and the complementary website include registration, recruiting and admissions, financial aid, housing and residential life, computer labs, learning/tutoring centers, distance learning, libraries, and career services.

Implications for Practice

Staff members 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, previous knowledge, experience, and responsibility. Short printed publications and Internet-based resources, as well as short presentations and extended workshops, 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 administrators and staff in specific student service offices, giving examples of access strategies appropriate for the specific units. Staff members in computer labs, distance learning programs, libraries, and other areas where advancing technology increases opportunities for the 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, staff members in a campus computer lab may not be aware of assistive technology that allows individuals with a wide range of disabilities to access computers and the Internet. In addition, web developers may not be aware of legal obligations regarding the design of campus web pages that are accessible to people with disabilities.

Trainers should keep in mind that staff members may feel uncomfortable when working with students who have disabilities. Their attitudes may be based on stereotypes and/or lack of experiences working with people who have disabilities. Training sessions can provide opportunities for participants to openly discuss fears and concerns and to provide accurate information. Model an attitude of respect for the rights and responsibilities of the institution, students with disabilities, and campus personnel. Avoid generalizations about people with disabilities, and highlight similarities instead of differences between students with and without disabilities. Emphasize that accessible design and accommodation strategies do not need to be elaborate; creativity and common sense can lead to practical access solutions.

When delivering training to staff and administrators, assume the audience has varying levels of experience, knowledge, and interest. Some participants 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.

Following a review of research, focus group findings, and the collaborative efforts of a national team of postsecondary professionals and disability service providers, DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) developed five models of professional development for staff and administrators that may be adapted for a wide range of schedules and interests. The presentation models include a short overview, a comprehensive workshop, video presentations, email-based distance learning, and self-paced web instruction. In addition to materials provided in this book, information can be found in The Student Services Conference Room at


Professional development can help postsecondary student service providers develop accessible information resources and services for students with disabilities. Ultimately, increased knowledge and skills of staff members and administrators regarding legal issues, disabilities and accommodations, and resources can lead to more positive postsecondary and career outcomes for students with disabilities.