Empowering People Through Advocacy

September 2021
A monthly publication from our Disability Rights and Advocacy Specialist,
Patrick Ober, J.D., Ph.D.
Hello again, CILO supporters and Disability Advocates! Below is our monthly highlight of advocacy and policy issues to know and learn about related to people with disabilities and independent living.

First and foremost, CILO is extremely excited to announce that we have a new advocacy intern joining us this fall! Anne Stevenson (hiking a mountain in this picture!) is a junior at the University of Cincinnati’s Transition and Access (TAP) Program. She will be assisting with some of our important advocacy efforts at CILO, including the direct support workforce crisis, voting rights for people with disabilities, and working on community education efforts to increase disability awareness and promote inclusion. Anne has previous experience working with the ACLU of Kentucky, as well as Cincinnati Public Radio, 91.7 WVXU. Join us in welcoming Anne to the CILO staff, we are very lucky to have her!


September means that school is in full swing for millions of K-12 and college students across the United States. Over the past couple decades, more and more students with disabilities are graduating high school and transitioning to college before entering the workforce. As of 2016, a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that about 19% of college undergraduates have some form of disability. Many colleges and universities across the state and country are seeing more students with disabilities joining campus every fall. This month, our newsletter highlights some of the fantastic resources, programs, and opportunities for access and inclusion some colleges are providing for students with physical and/or developmental disabilities.
Higher Education and Independent Living Have a Unique and Direct History With One Another

For a quick history lesson, Centers for Independent Living (aka CILO!) were founded in large part because of college students with disabilities: they fought to first get access to higher education, and then continued that fight to convince universities to provide resources, access, and accommodations so that students with disabilities could attend college just like every other student.

Ed Roberts, widely known as one of the founders of the independent living movement, contracted Polio at age 14 in 1953. Ed had to attended high school via telephone for years but returned to school his senior year using a wheelchair. When he expressed a desire to attend college, California’s Dept. of Vocational Rehabilitation refused to pay for his 4-yr college education, claiming it would a waste since it was “infeasible” that he could ever work. After using the news media to pressure the state to change its mind and help fund his education, he enrolled at UC Berkeley in California. Roberts relied on personal care staff, friends, and eventually other students to get him around on an inaccessible campus for someone in a wheelchair.

During his time at the University of California-Berkeley, more students with physical disabilities came onto campus, eventually forming a peer support group and an advocacy organization that continued to advocate for equal access and opportunities at the university and its surrounding communities. Their exhaustive work resulted in the first Center for Independent Living in California, and now over 400 (and counting!) federally funded and mandated Centers for Independent Living across the country. Oh, and in 1975 Ed Roberts became Director of the California Dept. of Vocational Rehabilitation, the very state agency that told him it was “infeasible” he could ever work.

So how are colleges and universities currently supporting students with disabilities to access higher education and career and life readiness? Below are a few examples!

As Ed Roberts advocated about for many years, physical accessibility is a critical piece of an inclusive college experience for many students with disabilities. A few different publications have identified which universities across the country are the “most accessible” and “disability-friendly” for people with physical disabilities. The Midwest region, and Greater Cincinnati in particular, is well represented on these lists! 

According to College Magazine, Northern Kentucky University, Wright State University, and Ball State (Indianapolis) made its “10 Best Colleges for Students with Physical Disabilities” 2019 list. College Consensus similarly put out its own list of the top 50 most “disability-friendly” list for 2020, and Xavier University and University of Michigan were among the top 5 schools, with Ohio State, Indiana University-Bloomington, NKU, Wright State, and Ball State all making the top 50 list as well!

According to the publications, these schools offer accessible dorms, classrooms, and transportation, as well as student groups that promote advocacy and inclusion for students with physical disabilities. Many of these schools also offer extensive support services that can include extra mental health support, access to on campus support groups for students with disabilities, and even athletic teams that use adaptive principles. Some schools also consistently incorporate universal design when creating curricula and building infrastructure. If you have a person with a disability in your family that is considering what college to attend, these schools are working hard at providing an inclusive and accessible campus and college experience!

In recent years, universities have also sought to become more accessible and inclusive for students with developmental disabilities. Below are some of the colleges that provide opportunities for college credit, experiences, and lifelong rewards for people with developmental disabilities.

  • In one of the major Ohio initiatives over the last few years, the state has made it a point to start providing more resources to help those students succeed in college and set them up for career and lifelong success. Started in 2019, the Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) College2Careers program has placed college counselors at 17 of Ohio’s public state universities. These counselors help with career exploration, assistive technology, and accommodations for internships and jobs – with the goal of getting those students into positions where they can make higher salaries and have greater independence. 
  • Locally, the University of Cincinnati’s Advancement and Transition Services (ATS) serves over 100 people with disabilities each year. One of the ATS programs, the Transition and Access Program (TAP), offers a four-year college education program for students with mild to moderate intellectual or developmental disabilities. TAP students live on campus, take classes, have internships and career exploration opportunities, are involved in student organizations, and can earn a university recognized certificate after completing the program.

  • In Massachusetts, a grant program offered at several state colleges allows students with intellectual disabilities to take college courses until they’re 22 years old. Based on the success of this program, the state introduced legislation that would allow people with a documented intellectual or developmental disability to attend college as a non-degree-seeking student, without passing the state standardized test required for degree-seeking students. The legislation would also lift the current program’s age restriction, increasing access to college courses, experiences, and opportunities to build knowledge and skills for a whole population of students to attend college.

  • A couple Tennessee universities are also providing college programs and opportunities for students with developmental disabilities. At the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, a program called Mosaic supports students with autism, and includes credit-bearing courses, academic life coaching, and peer and faculty mentoring. Vanderbilt University has a two-year nonresidential certificate program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities called Next Steps that includes individualized programs for social skills, physical fitness, and job skills.

  • At Mississippi State University, students with developmental disabilities in the ACCESS program receive individualized advising and curriculum structure designed to help them develop self-empowerment and independence needed to excel academically, as well as develop career skills through pursuit of internships and academic courses.

  • COVID-19 and the shift to remote learning and work has also created additional opportunities for students with disabilities to access higher education that many people hope are not removed and forgotten after the pandemic. Angela Smith, head of the University of Utah’s disability studies program, said that reimagining how society works during the pandemic has leveled the playing field between disabled and non-disabled people. “Once everyone had to rethink how they lived their lives, suddenly a whole host of things became possible that people with disabilities have previously been told weren’t possible,” Smith said.

  • Finally, students with disabilities are also being given the opportunity to remove any loan debt they gained while attending college. At the beginning of September, the U.S. Department of Education announced it will use $5.8 billion to forgive college loans for students with permanent disabilities that currently have loans!

Disability-Focused Legislative News to Follow

Disability advocate Andrew Pulrang outlines 5 major federal bills and policies that are currently introduced in Congress can have significant impacts on the lives of people with disabilities. Below are brief descriptions of each:

1.  The Better Care, Better Jobs Act will amend the Social Security Act to expand access to home and community-based services (HCBS) under Medicaid, increase direct support workers’ pay and benefits, and make the “Money Follows the Person” program permanent –– which would continue to help people actually leave institutional care and return to more independent living in their own homes.

2.  The Transformation to Competitive Integrated Employment Act would finally remove the ability for employers to pay people with disabilities below minimum wage for work, and increase support for competitive and integrated employment, and require employers to pay people with disabilities the same money for the same job that others without disabilities are paid.

3.  The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act would adjust social security rules that currently limit the amount of money people receiving SSI can earn and save while remaining eligible for SSI benefits. Currently, most people that receive SSI due to a disability are very limited in how much money they can possess or save, essentially trapping disabled people on SSI in poverty, and “powerfully discourages people with disabilities SSI on from working and saving to improve their financial stability.” This bill would both increase maximum monthly payments and increase the income limits for people so they can transition out of poverty while remaining eligible for federal assistance.

4.  Finally, two bills – the Disabled Access Credit Expansion Act, and the Disability Employment Incentive Act – would adjust IRS rules on tax credits to encourage and provide financial incentives for small businesses to 1) hire individuals with disabilities, and 2) make changes and improvements to their businesses to become more physically accessible to people with disabilities.


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