Disability: The Next Diversity Challenge

With nearly 1 in 5 students reporting a disability, it’s time for higher ed to be more intentional with its marketing efforts.

4 minutes
By: Jaime Hunt
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Higher ed marketing has a diversity problem.

This isn’t new information. It has been written about in higher education publications for years. We all agree that representation is important and are cognizant that we reflect the racial and ethnic diversity that is part of what makes our institutions great. Pick up any viewbook in the country and you’ll find individuals with skin of all hues, hair of all styles, and a range of religious expressions. What you rarely see, however, are individuals with disabilities. Although not all disabilities are visually apparent, few photos show people in wheelchairs or with guide canes or hearing devices, for example. I’ve never seen an image of a class with a sign language interpreter or a classroom shot that reveals a guide dog. Worse still, I visited two dozen university websites of all types and could not find easy access to pages that explain the accommodations processes.

With one in five undergraduates reporting a disability, this is a problem, but it’s one we can help fix. Here are a few ways you can use marketing to help students with disabilities see themselves on your campus — and, more importantly, see that they can thrive. 

Representation

Showcasing our students’ excellence is among our prime directives. It’s time to be more deliberate about seeking out students who live with disabilities. Make a conscious effort to find those students who use assistive devices and ensure they are featured. Invisible disabilities, such as chronic illnesses and sight and hearing impairments, are more challenging to depict in photos, but video interviews allow willing students to share their stories. Don’t relegate these testimonials to Disability Awareness Month; weave them into your content strategy throughout the year. To avoid tokenizing, never expect a student to represent an entire population. Showcase them as uniquely themselves, not as part of a monolith. 

Make It Easy

While you are working with students with disabilities, ask them what they wish they had known when they were choosing a college. Then share that information in your marketing materials. I recently heard from a student who said she sought out images that showed campus sidewalks and building entrances to gauge how easy or difficult it would be to navigate campus. Another student shared that she clicked through institutional websites and immediately ruled out any campus that had inaccessible content. Another said she crossed a school off her list if it took too long to find information about accommodations. Rather than force students to seek out information on our massive and complex websites, make it easy. Don’t make them dig for details on accessibility or support services. Place that information front and center; nearly 20% of your students need to find it. 

Advocate 

Consider walking your campus and looking at it through the lens of a person who may find navigation difficult. Better yet, walk the campus with a person for whom accessibility may be an issue to garner their feedback. Advocate for improved wayfinding and clearer signage. Do campus tours accommodate individuals with mobility challenges? If not, can you propose a solution? Get creative. Can you use virtual or augmented reality? Can a regular tour specifically for students with physical disabilities be created? In what ways can you make it easier for a student to know he or she will be comfortable and supported on your campus?

These are just a few ways marketers can help build bridges with prospective students who are seeking a campus that is accessible and accommodating. Does it solve all the problems that students with disabilities face in college? Absolutely not, but it can help students feel more confident about their ability to succeed — something toward which we should all be striving. 

Jaime Hunt

Jaime Hunt

Contributor

Jaime is the vice president and chief marketing officer at Old Dominion University, and the host of the podcast “Confessions of a Higher Ed CMO.”time


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