National statistics reveal that approximately nine percent of first-year college students identify themselves as having a physical or mental disability. Senior Alicia Wong wants to know how these students function in rigorous academic settings, such as Bowdoin.
Wong, a sociology major and chemistry minor, is conducting a yearlong independent study on college students with disabilities. Her own experience as a student with a physical handicap inspired her to conduct the study. She has been involved with the campus group Students Embracing Disabilities since her first year at Bowdoin.
During the first semester of her junior year, Wong completed an independent study for sociology about the idea of stigma based on the theories of sociologist Erving Goffman.
"[The study] gave me the theoretical approach that I have now," says Wong. "I have always wanted to look at disabilities at Bowdoin, and how they are differentiated from other stigmas such as race and gender," she adds.
Wong developed her project by conducting research on accommodations for disabilities at institutions of higher learning. She notes that high schools have legal programs protecting students with disabilities. Wong explains that the program Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) "basically forces high schools to create individualized education plans [for disabled students]."
She points out that this law does not apply to colleges. Although students remain protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, these acts do not call for individual accommodation. Instead, colleges base accommodation on student initiative rather than institutional initiative. This leaves students responsible for reaching out if they want help.
"It's not like you arrive for class and there is help automatically there for you," Wong says.
At Bowdoin and other rigorous institutions of higher learning, "there is a standard way the classroom functions," Wong says.
Such an academic atmosphere undoubtedly creates pressures and expectations, she explains. However, Wong notes that "people with special needs often need modified standards, and this can create conflict between the academic processes upon which the college functions."
Wong interviewed 12 students who identified themselves to the College as being disabled, and she asked them how their disability and accommodations affected their overall experience at Bowdoin. The responses she has gotten are varied: Some students worried about the stigma of having special accommodations, such as taking tests within unlimited time frames, while others raised concerns about to whom they should disclose information about their disability.
Thus far, Wong's interviews and research have supported her observations on the paradoxical relationship between the academic ethos of institutions of higher learning and the needs of students with disabilities.