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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

The Importance of Disability Cultural Centers in Higher Education

By Zane Landin, NCIL Policy Intern

19.4% of students attending higher education institutions identify as someone with a disability. Students with disabilities in higher education often experience ableism, discrimination, and invalidation, from microaggressions to institutional barriers. Graduation rates for students with disabilities are as low as 13% compared to 30% among their non-disabled counterparts. The identity of disability is an aspect of diversity that is integral to our communities, society, and higher education, but is predominantly excluded from social justice initiatives and conversations. 

In higher education, to support different marginalized groups, many universities have developed and implemented cultural centers for different cultural groups of the campus community to feel empowered, celebrated, and interconnected. These cultural centers provide students with a physical / virtual space to feel celebrated while offering professional and personal development resources such as networking events, identity exploratory workshops, and educational conferences. These cultural centers challenge and mitigate some of the barriers these cultural groups experience in higher education. Through their efforts, they are also accelerating the success rates of these cultural groups. Student involvement in cultural activities enhance student success, retention rates, well-being, and the college experience by driving cultural community, relationships, familiarity, expression, and validation.

Higher education institutions need to provide academic accommodations (often provided through Disability / Disabled Resource Centers (DRCs)), as mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, as amended, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These accommodations help foster equal access to higher education for students with disabilities. Higher education usually approaches disability rights through the lens of accommodation and access to academic equality. While this is a huge milestone for access and equity for students with disabilities, there is still a missing piece that goes beyond accommodation and access: the cultural identity of disability. The cultural identity of disability emphasizes the impact of ableism and oppression, the importance of engaging in a disability culture, and learning about the privilege of those who do not have disabilities. There needs to be an intersectional, cultural approach that embodies access, accommodation, and the cultural identity of disability where disability culture is recognized and acknowledged. 

Higher education should provide the same efforts, support, and resources for students with disabilities as they do for other cultural student populations to help challenge ableism and validate the disability identity. A Disability Cultural Center (DCC) can serve university students with disabilities by providing a safe space for students to connect with other students. Studies show when students with disabilities interact and engage in inclusive activities / events that help develop a positive, disabled identity, they begin to experience more sense of belonging. A Disability Cultural Center is needed at universities to enrich and cultivate a community of intersectionality and interconnectivity for students with disabilities, allies, and all other student populations. 

Since many students with disabilities experience isolation, loneliness, uncertainty, and discrimination while navigating academia, having a visible space on campus for students with disabilities will help combat ableism and those cultural barriers. A Disability Resource Center will provide students with disabilities access to academic resources, but without a Disability Cultural Center, how will students with disabilities feel celebrated or proud of their identity? Students with disabilities report being not only discriminated against by students but by professors who are not understanding to a student’s academic accommodations. A Disability Cultural Center can create an inclusive space for students with disabilities to feel safe reporting these harmful incidents on campus, provide implicit bias training and create an uplifting and empowering community.  

Disability Cultural Centers will ultimately help students with disabilities feel more welcome on campus, provide them significant opportunities to explore their disability identity, and feel embraced and proud. While the first Disability Cultural Center was established at the University of Minnesota in 1991, only in the past few years have the number of campuses with a center or planning one accumulated to more than double digits. Disability Cultural Centers support the success of students with disabilities equally and allow them to experience the same benefits of the university experience as their non-disabled peers.

University is an important and transitional period for young adults, and this is when identities develop. Identity development is incremental and fundamental, so students with disabilities need resources and support to transition post-graduation. A Disability Cultural Center is truly one of the most important steps universities need to take for an inclusive, barrier-free world for students with disabilities to experience the college setting equally.

Zane Landin Headshot
Zane Landin Headshot


  1. Hello,

    As a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and having recently attended a student/alumni panel of the Disability Resource Center of my institution, I am curious as to why the author of this policy brief, Mr. Zane Landin, may have included this institution as example. According to the recent panel hosted by the University of Minnesota Disability Resource Center, the consensus of the panelists who were currently utilizing or tried to utilize DRC services was far from helpful or supportive. Further, I reached out to several of my colleagues at the University and confirmed that they had never heard of a Disability Cultural Center. I would be curious to hear what policy platforms NCIL is or would be supporting in the future that relates to the topic of this brief. I would also caution highlighting examples of current institutions without further research as the experience and visibility may be less than exemplary. I would be happy to connect with the author further and appreciate NCIL highlighting reform needed in higher education. Please feel free to contact me at my email below. Thank you.

    • liz thomson says

      There is the Disabled Student Cultural Center at the UMN Twin Cities campus. While it is a student-run organization, it is cited to be the first disability cultural center in the U.S., in higher education. The DCC at Syracuse University was the first one with a paid, professional staff member. Hope that helps.

  2. Zane,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Michael John Carley
    Consultant for Disability Inclusive Culture
    New York University

  3. liz thomson says

    Zane, I’m doing my dissertation on PhDs and would love to connect. thank you, liz