Inclusion across education contexts is critical to acknowledge and inspire the full potential of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). In the early stages of a postsecondary education program's development, peers and faculty are integral stakeholders to promoting an inclusive campus life. We conducted a campus-wide survey at a large public university to evaluate the perspectives of 1,867 faculty and students regarding their views of inclusion in student life and their attitudes toward prospective students with IDD. We incorporated a mixed-methods approach to summarize these views by using correlations, linear regression, and qualitative analysis of open-ended responses. We offer recommendations for research and practice aimed at increasing inclusive opportunities for students with IDD and their peers on college campuses.
Institutions of higher education are viewed as venues in which students can develop academic and social competencies intended to prepare them to be contributing members to society (Folk, Yammamoto, & Stodden, 2012). Since the authorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act in 2008, many institutions have created opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) to matriculate through certificate-based (i.e., non-degree) programs (Hart, Grigal, & Weir, 2010). These opportunities include the option to apply for federal financial aid, enter college without a traditional high school diploma, and participate in college coursework. Overall, these programs demonstrate a positive impact on the employment and adult outcomes of people with IDD and an improved sense of independence (e.g., Hendrickson, Carson, Woods-Groves, Mendenhall, & Scheidecker, 2013).
Postsecondary education (PSE) programs for people with IDD increase in national prevalence each year; there are currently 268 programs across 49 states (Think College, 2018). Recent trends in program expansion and implementation demonstrate an increase in inclusive opportunities across all aspects of college life, rather than a subset of activities as has been the precedent (Jones et al., 2015). This gradual move toward inclusive PSE represents a paradigm shift for people with IDD, offering normative pathways for these students to pursue competitive employment and community living outcomes that mirror their peers without disabilities (Uditsky & Hughson, 2012).
As students in PSE programs spend more time integrated within the full “college experience,” their relationships with peers enrolled at the university become increasingly important. In addition to the positive outcomes demonstrated for students enrolled in the PSE program, the inclusive nature of these programs allows their peers to benefit as well. Prior research shows that expanding inclusive opportunities can lead to a more tolerant, equitable, and cohesive campus community (Bruder & Mogro-Wilson, 2010). For example, Griffin, Summer, McMillan, Day, and Hodapp (2012) surveyed 256 peers about their attitudes toward students with IDD during the first semester of an inclusive PSE program. In general, peers reported positive attitudes toward students with IDD; in particular, females and those with higher comfort levels reported more benefits of inclusion and willingness to interact with these students on campus. Jones and Goble (2012) explored the effects of a mentoring program to support students with IDD in PSE settings. Participants expressed that focusing on the “big picture” of inclusion could lead to a positive classroom climate, free of limitations for all students. Similarly, Izzo and Shuman (2013) conducted a mixed-methods study to understand the extent of peers' attitudes toward students with IDD. Peers' comfort levels and acceptance increased when they had frequent opportunities to interact with students with IDD. These findings affirm the positive impact of inclusive environments on students with IDD and their peers learning alongside them.
In addition to peers, faculty members are integral stakeholders in creating inclusive spaces and increasing social and academic opportunities on campus. Peers shape the social experiences, while instructors determine the culture of the learning environment (Cress, 2008). Prior research demonstrates the impact of the values, philosophies, and attitudes of faculty members on the overall climate of the university (Lundquist, Spalding, & Landrum, 2002; Rao, 2004), with faculty members' perceptions either facilitating or deterring overall student success (de A Moreira, San Juan, Pereira, & de Souza, 2000).
However, little research exists about the attitudes of peers and faculty members on campuses without inclusive academic programs for people with IDD. When the campus is still a “blank canvas” in terms of widespread exposure to people with IDD, an understanding of the current landscape of inclusion is especially critical to inform training opportunities or develop resources to help a new program launch successfully. Gibbons, Cihak, Mynatt, and Wilhoit (2015) conducted a preliminary analysis assessing campus-wide perspectives prior to the development of a PSE program. They surveyed 499 students and 152 faculty members to evaluate the overall campus climate, general views of inclusion, and their attitudes toward sharing or offering classes (respectively) to students with IDD. Participants reported their comfort levels toward having students with IDD on campus, beliefs about postsecondary options and employment opportunities for students with IDD, and the perceived impact of having students with IDD on campus. Faculty and students generally responded positively about the idea of offering inclusive coursework to students with IDD. While this study demonstrated the willingness of students and faculty to accept students with IDD, gaps remain regarding what actually constitutes inclusion on a university campus and how the realization of such an ideal would consider students with IDD.
As new programs develop, establishing a vision of inclusion at the outset is critical to shaping the program models, practices, and partnerships they pursue (Bumble, Carter, Bethune, Day, & McMillan, 2018). Currently, the concept of inclusion in research and practice is broadly defined and loosely interpreted, resulting in variability of participation in student life. Many PSE programs claim they are inclusive, yet often demonstrate aspects of separate, non-inclusive environments and supports, such as specialized curricula or courses designed only for students enrolled in the PSE program (Hall, 2010). Furthermore, simply having a seat in a college classroom is not equivalent to inclusion (Uditsky & Hughson, 2012), rather, it is manifested through “pervasive attitudes of acceptance, belonging, value, and connection throughout the community –a social justice perspective that offers equality and dignity to all members of a higher education community.” (Hall, 2010; Jones et al., 2015, p. 1).
Bumble and colleagues (2018) investigated how 172 diverse stakeholders across three communities conceptualized inclusion and envisioned supports needed to launch new PSE programs at their local campuses. These events were open to anyone in the local communities to attend and share their input on the development of new programs. Their findings revealed that the concept of inclusion must emphasize inclusive skills, supports, and partnerships. In two of the three communities, the authors acknowledged a lack of attendance in “inside campus” stakeholders, such as traditional college students and faculty, who are more familiar with the campus and are poised to make an immediate impact.
Hafner, Moffatt, and Kisa (2011) acknowledge the need for “a comprehensive approach to inclusion with the goal of fully integrating [students with IDD] into academic and social life on campus” (p. 19). Without a shared definition of what constitutes inclusion in higher education, inclusive models and practices will continue to remain ambiguous. To address this issue, several faculty and staff across PSE programs formed a special interest group entitled Building Inclusive Campus Communities. Jones and colleagues (2015) designed this inclusion framework to be a reflection tool or evaluation model; yet there is no study assessing the extent to which this framework actually resonates with the population it is intended to reflect.
Furthermore, as PSE programs develop and expand, it is essential to understand (1) how students and faculty define the landscape of inclusion on their campus as it relates to the framework prior to the development of an inclusive academic PSE program; (2) the perceptions of the current level of inclusive opportunities on campus; (3) the extent to which students and faculty are willing and comfortable welcoming students with IDD to co-create these inclusive spaces; and (4) the factors predicting these attitudes. We developed a mixed-methods design that used a combination of quantitative and qualitative analyses to answer the following research questions:
How do faculty and students define inclusion prior to the development of an inclusive PSE program?
How do faculty and students perceive the current level of inclusive opportunities?
How do faculty and students report their willingness to accept students with IDD?
What factors predict higher degrees of acceptance for faculty and students toward prospective students with IDD on their campus?
Participants and Setting
Participants were 1,867 faculty and students of a large public research university in the south central United States. At the time of the study, the university consisted of 68,603 students and 4,955 faculty members. The university currently offered a one-year, employment-training program, designed for students with disabilities to attain certification within a specific career field. Students attending this PSE program receive most of their academics in a separate setting than traditionally enrolled students, resulting in limited opportunities to interact with students and faculty across the university. During the time of data collection and analysis, a team of faculty members, prospective parents, and campus leaders received university approval to develop another PSE program at the university—a four-year, inclusive residential PSE program designed for people with IDD. The survey was part of a larger study, including follow-up focus groups, that evaluated attitudes of inclusion on campus and the extent to which students and faculty would be receptive to a new inclusive PSE program.
To be included in the study, participants must have been affiliated with the university as a faculty member, undergraduate student, or graduate student during the 2017 fall semester. Most participants were undergraduate students (n = 1, 262, 67.6%); 12.7% (n = 238) were doctoral students; 12.1% (n = 225) were faculty members; and 7.6% (n = 142) were master's students. See Table 1 for summary demographics of students and faculty.
We sought to attain broad representation from a sample reflecting the gender, racial/ethnic, economic, and discipline diversity of students and faculty from the university. We recruited participants primarily through two campus-wide email announcements (i.e., sent to all faculty, students, and staff) inviting them to participate in an online survey focusing on their views of inclusion on campus. We sent these announcements at the beginning of the survey window in October and at the end as a final reminder with the survey deadline in December.
Additionally, we collaborated with student organizations and departments to extend study invitations across campus. We used the university's student activities website to identify student organizations with the highest amount of members. We contacted 180 undergraduate student organizations with membership ranging from 50 to 1,000 students. Areas of focus for the targeted organizations included: cultural and international (n = 42), fraternity and sorority (n = 31), business (n = 24), engineering (n = 21), agriculture (n = 16), liberal arts (n = 15), education (n = 11), religious (n = 9), service (n = 9), military (n = 1), and athletics (n = 1). Additionally, we contacted 28 graduate student organizations with membership ranging from 10 to 1,000 students. Areas of focus for these groups included: academic (n = 19), cultural and international (n = 6), and student government (n = 3). Collaborating organizations could choose an appropriate way to recruit participants (e.g., fliers, phone scripts, personalized email invitations, social media blurbs). We also recruited participants by distributing fliers at the student union. To reach faculty participants, we sent emails to the chairs of each department at the university (n = 83) and requested them to forward the message to their faculty members.
Participants did not provide identifying information while completing the survey. We requested voluntary contact information (e.g., email address) on a separate form not linked to survey responses. They could share their contact information if they wanted to participate in a focus group on the same topics, learn more about the program development, or be entered into a drawing for one of 50 $25 Amazon gift cards. We designed the survey to take less than 20 minutes.
We developed a survey to (1) learn how faculty and students define inclusion on a university campus without an inclusive PSE program; (2) understand faculty and student perceptions related to people with IDD; (3) understand the extent to which faculty and students view opportunities for inclusion among diverse populations at this university, including people with IDD; and (4) learn what resources and information students and faculty might find helpful to create inclusive spaces on campus. We created the survey by drawing upon prior research on inclusion in PSE programs (e.g., Gibbons et al., 2015) and the conceptual framework for inclusion developed by Think College (Jones et al., 2015). We asked ten graduate students, eight undergraduate students, and six faculty members to pilot the online survey. They provided feedback related to the length, formatting, and clarity of several questions via an open-response question on the online survey draft.
The final survey included six sections pertaining to: (1) participant's role at the university, (2) student life, (3) views of inclusion, (4) experiences with people with disabilities, (5) opinions of people with IDD and interest in potential training opportunities, and (6) demographic information. Student and faculty surveys were identical, except for the role section and demographic information. These sections comprised a total of 42 items for each version. Although all participants completed the survey online via Qualtrics (2017), we offered print copies if participants requested them.
Role at the university
We asked four questions related to the participant's role at the university. First, we asked them to identify their role from the following options: (1) undergraduate student, (2) master's student, (3) doctoral student, or (4) faculty member. Students and faculty selected from a drop-down menu their primary discipline (with 18 options and the option to write in “other”), and their affiliated college (with 16 options of all colleges included in the university). Faculty selected their professional rank (i.e., assistant professor, associate professor, professor, chair, dean). Students reported their planned graduation date (ranging from Fall 2017 to Fall 2021) and the number of academic years they had completed at the university (ranging from 0 to 11 or more than 11). We also asked participants to complete demographic information related to gender, racial identity, language, and household income (see Table 1).
Views of inclusion
Both faculty and student versions contained a section about inclusion and student life. We included this section to provide a foundation for the current landscape of inclusion at the university. Participants were instructed to think about student life in the context of their own personal experiences at the university and evaluate the extent to which they characterized these statements as indicative of the core values and purpose statement of the university. Responses were provided on a 5-point, Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Cronbach's alpha for these five items was .81.
Next, participants were instructed to reflect on their views of inclusion at the university and evaluate the extent to which they agree or disagree with these statements about inclusion based on their own experiences. Cronbach's alpha for these six items was .86. Table 2 provides a summary of these items.
We also provided an opportunity for a write-in response to change the given description of inclusion based on their own personal view of inclusion (Jones et al., 2015):
Inclusion is realized when there is mutual and ongoing benefit among people of varying abilities, gender, identity, culture, socio-economic status, race, and other forms of diversity, with shared eagerness to create and sustain those relationships across all aspects of higher education.
Experiences with people with IDD
The next section asked participants about their interactions with people with IDD throughout their lifetime, including experiences at the university. We provided the following definitions from the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (2017):
Intellectual disability is characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, problem solving) and in adaptive behavior, which covers a range of everyday social and practical skills. Developmental disabilities is an umbrella term that includes intellectual disability but also includes other disabilities that are apparent during childhood. Developmental disabilities are severe chronic disabilities that can be cognitive or physical or both. The disabilities appear before the age of 22 and are likely to be lifelong. Some developmental disabilities are largely physical issues, such as cerebral palsy or epilepsy. Some individuals may have a condition that includes a developmental and intellectual disability; for example, Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, or autism.
We asked whether participants were familiar with these terms, whether they have known someone personally with IDD, and whether they identify as having an intellectual or developmental disability. Response options were yes or no. If they indicated they knew someone with IDD, they could write in their relationship with this person or persons.
Opinions of people with IDD
The next section asked participants about the extent to which they believed young adults with IDD would be successful in an inclusive PSE program at their university. We slightly modified questions from Gibbons et al. (2015) related to expectations of students with IDD and the impact they would have on campus and in class. Response options were provided on a 5-point, Likert-type scale (1 = strongly disagree to 5 = strongly agree). Table 3 provides a summary of these items.
Since we know there are limited training opportunities related to supporting students with IDD in college, we asked whether students and faculty members would be interested in receiving training in this area at the outset of program development. Response options were yes or no. If they indicated yes, we asked them to rank order the form of training they would be most interested in receiving to help them support students with IDD to succeed in college on a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 = greatest interest and 4 = least interest. Training types included online training modules, in-person workshops, 1:1 coaching, and fact sheet or resource guide. Participants could also select “other” and write in a different type of training.
Faculty reported how many courses they taught each semester and the types of courses they typically teach (i.e., online, face-to-face, hybrid) and which students they typically teach (i.e., graduate, undergraduate). They indicated all the ways they engage with students on campus aside from teaching, including academic advising, committee chair, research team/lab leader, advisory board, or attending social events on campus. Participants also had the option to select “other” and write in a different way of engaging with students on campus.
Data Analysis Procedures
We used descriptive statistics to summarize how participants evaluated the extent to which they felt the campus was currently inclusive (Research Question 1, Table 2). We reported percentages and models based on the number of participants who responded to the given item.
We explored the potential factors that could contribute to the attitudes students and faculty demonstrated toward the prospect of having students with IDD on campus (Research Question 2, Table 4). We selected independent variables based on demographic factors (i.e., race/ethnicity, gender, multilingual status, income) as well as potential indicators of greater familiarity and experience with people with IDD (i.e., familiarity with the terminology, personal relationship with someone with IDD, diagnosis of IDD). Additionally, we were interested in knowing the extent to which faculty ranking, student enrollment type, and primary college affiliation may have been associated with the level of comfort that faculty and students demonstrated toward the prospect of having students with IDD on campus.
We hypothesized that students' comfort levels would be strongly associated with their major area of study (i.e., higher for students in the College of Education and Human Development), familiarity with the terminology (i.e., higher for students who were familiar with the term “intellectual and developmental disabilities”), and their personal relationship with someone with IDD (i.e., higher for students who had a personal relationship to someone with IDD). We hypothesized that faculty willingness to offer their course to students with IDD would be strongly associated with professional ranking (i.e., higher for faculty members of lower ranking who are presumably younger), income (i.e., higher for faculty members with higher income), and overall involvement in student life (i.e., higher for faculty members who were involved in more activities).
In addition to our hypotheses, we included demographic variables for both models, such as race/ethnicity, multilingual status, student ranking, and household income. We selected these variables because they are considered core components comprising one's identity composition that often contribute to issues related to diversity and inclusion in higher education (Torres, Howard-Hamilton, & Cooper, 2011).
In preparation for building a linear multivariate regression model for these continuous variables, we conducted correlation analyses to understand the relation between these dependent variables and a selection of independent variables. We computed Pearson correlation coefficients to examine associations among continuous variables and used point-biserial correlation coefficients for combinations of continuous and dichotomous variables (see Tables 4 and 5). We did not impute values for the marginal percentage of missing data across our large sample (i.e., approximately 7% of missing responses across questions included for analysis).
Variables for student model
We evaluated student responses to the statement: “I would be comfortable being in the same class as someone with IDD.” Response options were presented on a Likert-type scale, possible range 1–5, wherein 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree.
We used the following binary variables: female (1 = female, 0 = male); enrollment in education-related degree program in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD; 1 = primary affiliation with College of Education and Human Development, 0 = primary affiliation with any other college); race/ethnicity (1 = White, 0 = non-White); multilingual status (1 = speaks a language other than English at home or with family, 0 = does not speak a language other than English at home or with family); familiarity with the term “intellectual and developmental disabilities” (1 = yes, 0 = no); personal relationship with a person with IDD (1 = yes, 0 = no); and diagnosis of IDD (1 = yes, 0 = no). Continuous variables included: student type (possible range = 1–3, wherein 1 = doctoral student or professional student, 2 = master's student, 3 = undergraduate student) and family's household income (possible range 0–6, wherein 0 = I don't know or I prefer not to answer, 1 = less than $35,000, 2 = $35,000–$49,999; 3 = $50,000–$74,999; 4 = $75,000–$99,999; 5 = $100,000–120,000, 6 = more than $120,000).
Variables for faculty model
We evaluated faculty responses to the statement: “I would be willing to offer my course to a student in a certificate-based program who has IDD.” Response options were presented on a Likert-type scale, possible range 1–5, wherein 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neither agree nor disagree, 4 = agree, and 5 = strongly agree.
We used the same binary variables for faculty as we described for the student variables. Continuous variables included: faculty ranking (possible range 1–5, wherein 1 = assistant clinical professor or assistant tenure-track professor, 2 = associate clinical professor or associate tenured professor, 3 = full clinical professor or full tenured professor, 4 = department head, 5 = dean or higher) and faculty annual income (possible range 0–6, wherein 0 = “I don't know or I prefer not to answer”, 1 = less than $35,000, 2 = $35,000–$49,999; 3 = $50,000–$74,999; 4 = $75,000–$99,999; 5 = $100,000–120,000, 6 = more than $120,000). We also created a sum variable based on the number of response options selected by faculty when asked about other ways in which they engage with students aside from teaching, i.e., academic advising, committee chair, manage research team, advisory board or advisor for student organizations, attend social events on campus, or other (possible range 0–6; higher scores reflect involvement in more campus activities outside of teaching). Table 6 provides a summary of both models.
Qualitative data analysis
We coded the open-ended responses using the constant comparison method (Strauss & Corbin, 2008). The coding team consisted of four members who worked in pairs to code and establish consensus. Our team included an assistant professor in special education, two doctoral students in special education, and one undergraduate student in economics with an interest in special education. First, each person independently coded the response items in a spreadsheet using open coding to assign a preliminary code to each item and then met with their coding partner for consensus. As appropriate, we used in vivo codes to name a code using language from the response. After coding half of the responses, the team met to compare codes and develop an initial set of open codes. Next, we used axial coding to condense codes and identify patterns across the data used to create themes. A doctoral student in special education, who was blind to the data, provided peer debriefing for the final set of themes (see Table 7).
How do Faculty and Students Define Inclusion Prior to the Development of an Inclusive Postsecondary Program?
We used descriptive statistics to summarize how participants defined inclusion and how they viewed the current level of inclusive opportunities on campus (see Table 2). Both students and faculty members indicated strongest agreement with the following components of inclusion: being valued for what one brings to the interaction (Faculty M = 4.43, SD = 0.75; Student M = 4.38, SD = 0.78); access to opportunities (Faculty M = 4.40, SD = 0.76; Student M = 4.31, SD = 0.79); and being actively engaged alongside others (Faculty M = 4.18, SD = 0.84; Student M = 4.27, SD = 0.79).
Participants were also asked about the extent to which they agreed with the definition for inclusion based on the Think College framework (2015):
Inclusion is realized when there is mutual and ongoing benefit among people of varying abilities, gender, identity, culture, socio-economic status, race, and other forms of diversity, with shared eagerness to create and sustain those relationships across all aspects of higher education.
Overall, 508 participants wrote a response to this item. Less than half (n = 224, 44.1%) agreed with the definition or only suggested minor syntax changes. A small group of respondents (n = 22, 4.3%) suggested adding words to the definition to incorporate other elements of identity, such as gender identity, religion, neurodiversity, ideologies, political beliefs, sexuality, disability, ethnicity, and mental health. Another small group (n = 32, 6.3%) recommended that words or terms be removed from the existing definition, including mutual benefit, choosing own path, eagerness, and identity labels.
We used open coding and axial coding to categorize the remaining responses (n = 230, 37.9%) across nine themes (Strauss & Corbin, 2008). Overall, participants defined inclusion based on having access to a community (i.e., people with shared interests or characteristics) and membership in a group (i.e., subset of a community in which people form relationships). Participants characterized inclusion primarily across four themes: group membership (n = 56), reciprocal engagement (n = 41), recognition of unique identity (n = 41), and respect and value (n = 39). See Table 4 for the definition and frequencies of all nine themes.
How do Faculty and Students Perceive the Current Level of Inclusive Opportunities?
Next, we asked about the extent to which these tenets of inclusion are present on their own campus by changing the stem of the statement to, “I think all students at my university…” (see Table 2). Faculty members indicated strongest agreement with the presence of the following components of inclusion: are valued in my class for what they bring to the discussion (M = 4.29, SD = 0.91); and are an integral part of the campus community (M = 4.04, SD = 1.08); and have access to a wide range of opportunities (M = 3.89, SD = 1.13). Students indicated strongest agreement with the presence of the following components of inclusion: are free to choose their own life path (M = 4.20, SD = 0.92); have access to a wide range of opportunities (M = 4.15, SD = 0.98; and are an integral part of the campus community (M = 4.06, SD = 1.03). Students only were given an additional statement on the same scale of response options about their personal experiences with inclusion: “I feel like I belong to a community at my university.” (M = 3.16, SD = 1.79).
How Do Faculty and Students Report Their Willingness to Accept Students With IDD on Their Campus?
Approximately 91% of responding participants (n = 1,529) reported they were familiar with the term “intellectual and developmental disabilities.” Moreover, 86% of responding participants (n = 1,441) reported they knew someone personally with IDD (e.g., sibling, cousin, friend, classmate). Additionally, 6.7% (n = 106) of responding participants reported having IDD.
Table 4 provides a summary of participants' views on the educational and employment opportunities for people with IDD and their willingness to accept students with IDD on their campus. Approximately 73% (n = 129) of responding faculty members and 85% of responding students (n = 1,253) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I think people with IDD can succeed in a four-year college or university.” Approximately 69% of responding faculty members (n = 121) and 86% of responding students (n = 1,273) agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “I think students with IDD should have the opportunity to advance their education through a certificate-based inclusive program on a university campus.” However, only 43.5% of responding faculty members (n = 77) and 62.8% of responding students (n = 927) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I think people with IDD can obtain the job of their choice.” Most of the responding students (92%; n = 1,353) indicated they would be comfortable being in the same class as someone with IDD. Approximately 63% of responding faculty members (n = 110) reported they would be willing to offer their course to a student in a certificate-based program who has IDD.
What Factors Predict Higher Degrees of Acceptance for Faculty and Students Toward Prospective Students With IDD on Their Campus?
We used correlational analyses to understand relationships among factors associated with degrees of acceptance toward prospective students with IDD on campus (see Tables 5 and 6). Faculty members' willingness to offer their course in a certificate-based program to a student with IDD was negatively correlated with professional rank. That is, faculty members of lower rank tended to report higher degrees of willingness. Faculty members' willingness to offer their course to a student in a certificate-based program with IDD was positively correlated with speaking another language in addition to English.
Students' comfort level of being in the same class with someone with IDD was positively correlated with being enrolled in the College of Education and Human Development, being female, being white, being familiar with the term “intellectual and developmental disabilities,” and having a personal relationship with someone with IDD. However, students' comfort levels were negatively correlated with speaking another language in addition to English.
We used these correlations to construct a linear regression model to identify potential predictors of degrees of willingness and acceptance for faculty and students toward prospective students with IDD on campus. Table 7 provides a summary of the unstandardized regression coefficients and standard errors for the faculty and student models. The faculty regression model accounted for 13% of the variance in willingness to offer a course for students with IDD, R2 = .13 (F 10, 96) = 1.46. The student regression model accounted for 4% of the variance in comfort levels of being in the same class as someone with IDD, R2 = .04 (F 10, 1340) = 5.39. Higher levels of comfort were associated with being familiar with the term “intellectual and developmental disabilities” and being female.
Understanding the current landscape of inclusion at an institution of higher learning is integral to the development of opportunities for young adults with IDD. We asked faculty and students about their definition of inclusion and the current level of inclusive opportunities at a large university prior to the development of an inclusive PSE program. We also evaluated the extent to which students and faculty would be willing to accept students with IDD and explored the factors that might shape those perspectives. We offer several key insights drawn from this large-scale, campus-wide study.
Emerging Patterns in the Concept of Inclusion
First, faculty and students defined inclusion in similar ways and emphasized similar components. Specifically, both students and faculty indicated the strongest average level of agreement for the following tenets of inclusion: being valued for what one brings to the interaction, access to opportunities, and being actively engaged alongside others. This overlap indicates consistency among faculty and students. This content can help determine topic areas for training opportunities for faculty, students, and staff members at the campus prior to the program's implementation. Having common language to discuss the components of inclusion can help university faculty and students visualize and create inclusive spaces on their campuses in the preliminary stages of program development (Jones et al., 2015). These burgeoning ideas can be fully realized when shared with and expanded by other stakeholders on campus, such as staff members and prospective students with IDD, as well as community members, such as families, self-advocates, civic leaders, and employers.
Inclusion Starts With “I”: The Individualized Side of Inclusion
We encountered several challenges in attempting to construct a cohesive definition to encapsulate the complex philosophical concept of inclusion. Even when using the framework for inclusion as a guide (Jones et al., 2015), we noted many variations in how students conceptualized the idea. There were several areas of disconnect between how students evaluated the concept of inclusion and the personal experiences they reported. For example, in the open-ended responses, students seemed to view their participation in inclusion as a choice with the extent of involvement (i.e., active or passive) determined by the individual.
Additionally, we identified a gap between how students idealize inclusion and how they actually experience the feeling of being included. Although 88% of students agreed with the statement, “Inclusion involves belonging to a community of others,” only 48% agreed with this similar statement when reflecting on their own experiences: “I feel like I belong to a community at my university.” Therefore, it is important to acknowledge how individualized the inclusive experience is for each person when planning social and academic programming for students with and without IDD (Causton-Theoharis, Ashby & DeClouette, 2009; Izzo & Shuman, 2013). That is, how one student defines inclusion may be vastly different from another. Moreover, the extent to which one student feels included while navigating the same inclusive landscape may also vastly differ from another. An understanding of the individualized nature of the inclusive experience is critical for developing an inclusive PSE program that is responsive to the needs, interests, and aspirations of all students.
Factors Shaping Inclusive Attitudes
Many of the factors we hypothesized to be influential in understanding predictors of these attitudes were not statistically significant, which limits the extent to which we can draw conclusions about the sources for the variance in these viewpoints. Moreover, even the factors that were statistically significant (e.g., multilingual status) offer little indication to assess their importance. It could be that these beliefs stem from individual differences that are difficult to assess in a sweeping survey of this magnitude, such as religion, philosophical beliefs, or cultural differences. Similar to the experience of inclusion being highly individualized, so, too, may be the factors that shape one's willingness to practice inclusive behaviors. Future research could incorporate multivariate analyses to determine the extent to which underlying beliefs could affect perceptions toward people with IDD.
Limitations and Future Research
Several limitations of this study indicate opportunities for future research. First, our findings are cross-sectional, limited to a single university at a single time. Future researchers could replicate this study at a different type of university in another region of the United States to determine if these findings transfer elsewhere. Additionally, a longitudinal study could explore how these perspectives change over time, particularly after the development of an inclusive PSE program for students with IDD.
Second, although we took concerted efforts to reach a representative sample of the campus community by using an all-campus listserv, there is an opportunity for people to opt out of these emails or overlook them. We recruited faculty systematically by contacting the chairs of each department; yet it is unclear how many of those individuals forwarded the announcement to their faculty. Our primary method of targeted student recruitment was through student organizations, which could add an inherent bias to these findings. That is, the people who were likely to respond may have been those involved in student organizations that had an impact on the extent to which they felt included. Additionally, since the focus of the study is about the extent to which students with IDD could be included in academic classes at the university, we intentionally designed the survey to be completed by students and faculty members only (i.e., not staff), although we acknowledge this omission precludes a large and vital part of the campus community. Future studies with a broader focus on campus inclusion should also include the critical perspectives of staff members.
Third, although we used regression analyses to identify factors that may influence student and faculty attitudes of including people with IDD on campus, the high percentage of students who affirmed the prospect of inclusive courses may limit the appropriateness of the regression analysis. Future measures could include questions that yield more nuance in the responses and thus may help researchers understand the variance across student attitudes.
Fourth, all surveys are inherently limited in the extent to which they can provide clarification or extension on an item, topic, or question. Several examples of ambiguity in the survey measure present limitations for our findings. For example, we labeled the midpoint of the Likert scale as “neither agree nor disagree,” which could be interpreted as either (a) somewhere between agree or disagree, or (b) I don't know or I don't have an opinion. Additionally, we asked participants to share their personal experience as related to IDD and provided definitions to assist participants with understanding IDD (AAIDD, 2017). Even though we provided the definitions for “intellectual disability” and “developmental disability,” it is still possible that participants did not fully understand the types of conditions included in these categories and may have confused them with others, such as learning disabilities or mental health disorders. Due to both of these potential discrepancies, we recommend these responses be interpreted with caution.
Fifth, we have limited information about the quality of the relationships people reported having with people with IDD. Future research could examine with whom these relationships exist and how they would be characterized by respondents (i.e., positive or negative). These studies could include focus groups or interviews to evaluate perspectives of inclusion in greater depth. Furthermore, adding the perspective of people with IDD would provide a rich insight about how they characterize inclusion and the extent to which they feel included on campus.
Implications for Practice
Our findings have several important implications for stakeholders committed to increasing access to PSE for people with IDD. The majority of students and faculty (54.1%) indicated an interest in receiving training related to supporting people with IDD to thrive in a collegiate environment. However, there is no comprehensive training available that addresses these issues. With the rapid increase of postsecondary programs for people with IDD across the country, inclusive education is gaining prominence (Think College, 2018). Thus, training programs for students and faculty should parallel the growth of these opportunities to include topics such as disability awareness and universal design for learning. Specifically, participants indicated the strongest interest in the following training modalities: online training modules, in-person workshops, and individual coaching. Participants also wrote in suggestions about the ways in which they could receive this training, including a required humanities course focusing on disability issues, a faculty learning community designed for faculty members who are interested in offering their courses to students with IDD, and hands-on experiences interacting with people with IDD in the community.
In addition to faculty and students, this work also has implications for people with IDD and their families. As inclusive opportunities increase at campuses across the country, so too will the options for college attendance. As families explore the choices among universities offering PSE programs, an important consideration might be the characteristics defining inclusion on that campus as well as the perspectives of current students and faculty. Sharing responses of a similar survey tool could help families make a more informed decision.
We are grateful for the contributions of the Department of Educational Psychology at Texas A&M University for providing financial support for this research.