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NIFA Celebrates Disability Pride Month

Nifa Author
Larachelle Samuel-Smith, Internal Communications Manager
A collective case study of Land-grant University leaders discovers strategies for the retention of students with learning disabilities. Such outcomes could prevent bullying on campuses and in the workplace. These strategies might also promote a healthy learning and work environment that increases diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility for a vulnerable population with so much to offer society.

Social justice issues in America have evolved since the civil rights movement from race and gender to a current focus on neurodiversity at all levels of education and in the workplace. According to the U. S. Department of Education, disabled students identified in K–12 and postsecondary education make up nearly 14% of national public-school enrollment. Consequently, enrollment of college students with disabilities has increased across the United States, generating more interest in leadership strategies that serve this broader spectrum of learners and break down career barriers.

Appreciating the Contribution of Americans with Disabilities

This year we commemorate 32 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed by Congress In 1990. This civil rights law prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities and ensures a level playing field by providing reasonable accommodations and requiring accessibility to be built into all resources funded with public dollars.

Not everyone with disabilities – defined by the ADA as a physical or mental condition that substantially limits one or more major life activities such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing or learning – has obvious physical challenges. It is important to recognize that it may not be apparent that someone has a disability, especially when they exhibit high levels of self-determination and purposely choose not to disclose the disability to avoid stigmatization. People with hidden disabilities are unique in many ways. For example, many well-known celebrities have found success in their careers of choice despite various challenges such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental coordination disorder, and more.

Neurodiversity, Self-Determination and DEIA Progress

The collective case study, conducted by Dr. LaRachelle Samuel-Smith and published this year, focused on leadership strategies and self-determination in neurodiverse college students. The case study examined a small but significant segment of public institutions in the Southern region of the Land-grant System to fortify leadership strategies for higher education, recognize and reward self-determination, and inform government funding agencies, advocacy groups, professional organizations, faculty and parents.

The two research questions that guided the collective case study were, “How do administrators of Land-grant Universities in the Southern region of the United States – in an environment where both Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and predominantly white institutions (PWIs) exist -- describe strategies to retain students with learning disabilities?” and “How do leaders explain their perspectives regarding self-determination in students with learning disabilities, so they succeed in their academic progress?”

Two Land-grant Universities--one HBCU and one PWI--were central to this study, so both types were included to fully understand the historical, political, and social impact of leadership and policy on underserved student populations.

Leadership and Policy

Collectively, seven findings regarding leadership strategies were identified: delegate responsibilities; build relationships; embed success into the culture; train and develop stakeholders; plan strategically and tactically; embrace diversity; and implement technology solutions. Five findings emerged for self-determination: lead by example and acknowledgment; manage candid conversations; create a safe zone of mentorship; trust staff and students to make decisions; and provide access to resources.

The implication of these strategies highlights the effectiveness in the combination of transformational and servant leadership. Transformational leaders initiate, develop, and implement innovative changes while servant leaders demonstrate selflessness by sharing power and influence, both of which are the unique characteristics of PWI and HBCU administrators to bring about strategic results.

The outcomes of the case study led to leadership development that enhances self-awareness and self-reflection, which builds the personal confidence needed to lead and influence others. Administrators from diverse backgrounds should prepare to have difficult conversations about the cultural influence of their unique institutions without blame or shame to improve collaboration on issues related to accessibility. Simulating conflict guided by professional counselors helps with managing difficult conversations and safeguards effective communication. Leadership strategies with a commitment to student self-determination should amplify persistence, retention, and academic progress.

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