Date of Award

December 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science


Occupational Therapy

First Advisor

Roger O. Smith

Committee Members

Ray Fleming, Mark Johnston


Disability Identity, Disability in Education, Educational Accommodation, Post-secondary Education, Students with Disabilities


Background. The prevalence of students with disabilities (SWD) in postsecondary education has increased over the last 30 years. Moreover, the literature suggests that prevalence statistics may be gross underestimations since large percentages of students have not disclosed their disability to the university they attend. This could have significant negative outcomes. When students do not disclose, the university is less able to accommodate their individual academic needs, resulting in poor academic achievement and even failure to obtaining a degree. Inaccurate identification of SWD also impacts the accuracy of demographic information used to interpret educational research, inform educational policy and can erode the planning of educational programming and interventions that may work best for SWD.

Objective. This study examined the prevalence of disability in post-secondary education and evaluated how the terminology that solicits disability demographic data affects the level of disability disclosure to inform possible improvements in demographic data collection methods and consider implications related to the success of SWD.

Methods. Nine hundred and nine students enrolled in a large Midwestern public university in fall 2016 participated in an anonymous survey. Purposeful sampling was used to optimize response and target students within the first two years of enrollment at the university. Data were collected using both in-class and online methods. The questionnaire consisted of 16 multiple choice questions concerning disability identification, disability disclosure, and awareness of disability student services. No incentives were provided by researchers for participation.

Results. Students from sixteen courses completed this survey. Participation was significantly higher when courses were administered traditionally (98.7% class participation) as opposed to online (20% class participation). Disability identification varied from 6% to 20% depending on the terminology used to ask about disability. When all terms of disability were examined additively, 303 students (33%) positively identified as having at least one disability, impairment, or diagnosis. For those students, only 26.2% disclosed their disability to the university. Only 48% of all students reported hearing of the office of disability student services and only 3% had actually used these services. Although the relationship between positive disability identification and awareness of disability student services was significant (p=0.004), 34% of students with disabilities were still unaware of disability student services.

Discussion. The prevalence of students in post-secondary education who may benefit from educational accommodation is substantially higher than previously reported. Large portions of students who identify with a disability do not disclose this to the university resulting in missed opportunities for educational assistance. Moreover, the low disclosure of disability misinforms student demographic statistics that can easily mislead educational research and policy decisions.