Understanding the Belongingness of Students with Disabilities

This is an executive summary. Full paper is available upon request.

Chapter 1: Introduction

Statement of the problem

The population with disabilities is increasing every year, however, disparities persist for students with disabilities compared to their abled counterparts. (Harbour & Greenberg, 2017; Newman et al., 2010)

Purpose of the study

The purpose of the study was to learn about the belongingness of collegians with disabilities. With the use of qualitative methods, belongingness of the students with disabilities was examined and factors that affect belongingness were explored. The study was guided by the following research questions:

  1. When navigating belonging, how do students with documented disabilities experience the connections between self-advocacy, social relationships, and academic mastery?
  2. Outside of the proposed model, which other factors do students with disabilities believe affect their sense of belonging on college campuses?

Significance of the study

By exploring disability belonging, researchers and educators can develop a better understanding on how to serve the growing population of college students with disabilities.

Chapter 2: Literature

Belonging is when an individual person feels an emotional connection to a community. Belongingness has been reported to be a human need and can have an impact on college student outcomes. If collegians struggle to fit in or feel they do not have a strong social support, then they become unmotivated and therefore, are less likely to succeed (Strayhorn, 2012). The Theoretical Model of Belonging for College Students with Disabilities stated that disability belongingness was generated by three factors: self-advocacy, social relationships, and mastery (Vaccaro, Daly-Cano, & Newman, 2015). The factors influence one another, as shown:

Figure 1. Theoretical Model of Belonging for College Students with Disabilities (Vaccaro et al., 2015, p.677).
Social ModelMedical Model
Disability is considered a social construct in accordance with the disability social model.Disability to be a fixed issue to those living with disabilities.
Allows room for “improving the self-esteem of disabled people and building a positive sense of collective belonging” (p.198).Used within the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Intersectional framework.Most common model used by professionals.
(Shakespeare, 2017)

Gaps in Literature

Various studies examine belongingness for racial, ethnic, and gender minorities, however there is little research regarding the sense of belonging for students with disabilities (Strayhorn, 2012). This is likely because there is a decrease in literature on students with disabilities (Peña, 2014). However, since there are now more students with disabilities enrolled in higher education than ever, it is critical that more recent research is conducted (Newman et al., 2010).

Chapter 3: Methodology

Research Design

  1. Phenomenology: A “careful description and analyses of consciousness, with a focus on the subjects’ life world” (Flick, 2007, p.118).
  2. Narrative Inquiry: Described as how a series of experiences are weaved into the overall larger narrative of a population (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000).

Research Methods & Sampling

  • Data was collected through semi-structured interviews over the course of three weeks at a large, private university.
  • Narrative inquiry and phenomenology were implemented.
  • Five participants were selected based on availability.
  • Personal identifiers were removed to protect privacy.
  • Interviews were broken into three parts: Understanding each participant’s (1) disability history and narrative, (2) experiences with the three disability belonging factors, (3) beliefs on the significance of other factors affecting belonging development.

Validity, Ethical Considerations, and Limitations

  • Validity: Consistent memos, transcripts, and recordings will be utilized collectively as a way to track the accuracy of analytical observations (Saldaña & Omasta, 2018).
  • Ethical Considerations: Disclosement of disability (Vance et al., 2014), 
  • Limitations: Time constraints and accessibility.
  • Author Positionality: The researcher’s perspective on disability belonging is informed by her own experiences as one of the first deaf students to graduate from her undergraduate institution. However, the researcher recognizes that each disability experience is both unique and equally legitimate, thus data collection will maintain a level of validity.

Chapter 4: Research Findings

ParticipantPronounsYearDisabilityReceiving full accommodations?Accommodations
JackieShe/her/hersSecondHoHNoPreferential seating
Captions on videos
YesReal-Time Captioning
Extra time on exams
Clinical Depression
Anxiety Disorder
YesExtra time on exams
Extended deadlines
Extra absences
Anxiety Disorder
NoSingle dorm room
Figure 2. Meet the Participants. Source: Research data.

When considering the findings and connections between the three disability belonging factors, the three observed themes are as followed:

  1. Disability stigma played a role in disability belongingness.
  2. On-campus involvement impacted disability belonging development.
  3. Cultural identities influenced disability belongingness.

Disability Stigma

“It is the fear of mishearing someone or the fear of asking someone to repeat themselves and them thinking I wasn’t paying attention.”

-Participant with a hearing disability
  • Difficulty disclosing disability.
  • Decreased self-advocacy skills.
  • Lack of connection to others.
  • Little to no accommodations due to stigma from others.


“Because of my ADD, I can never sit still, so I do a lot of extracurricular [activities] because it sets structure in my life.”

-Participant with an attentional disability
  • Increased inclusion.
  • Alternative way to socialize.
  • Stronger support network.
  • Created a sense of purpose.
  • Cultivated coping strategies.

Cultural Identities

“There was no concept of accommodations anywhere in my country. Accommodations are considered cheating and not very good.”

-Participant, who is also an international student.
  • Affected perception of academic accommodations.
  • Impacted ability to receive accommodations.
  • Influenced disability identity.


Overall, findings indicated that the disability belonging model is complex and cyclical—as intended by Vaccaro et al. (2015). Participants with disabilities felt that every experience or encounter that influenced their overall belonging development had one or more disability belonging factor present.

Though each theme included varying aspects of the disability belonging factors, findings implied that there are other external influences not necessarily addressed within the disability belonging model, including the significance of disability stigma and ableism, on-campus involvement, and cultural identities.

Chapter 5: Implications and Conclusion

The study implied that though the Theoretical Model of Belonging for College Students with Disabilities is a strong, foundational model for understanding the experiences of students with disabilities, there is room for theoretical growth. Future studies should:

  • Examine potential adjustments to the disability model.
  • Investigate how belonging connects to the public versus private identities.
  • Seek to understand why medically beneficial on-campus activities promote disability belonging.
  • Examine gendered experiences in disability belonging.
  • Explore how cultural identity impacts disability belonging.

Suggestions for Policy and Practice

  1. Mandatory disability competency training for faculty members.
  2. Mandatory cultural competency training for disability services staff members.
  3. Partnership between faculty and disability services.
  4. Better accessibility for on-campus opportunities.
  5. A designated platform for students with disabilities to voice their concerns/opinions and be heard.

Concluding Thoughts

Through the use of semi-structured interviews, three themes emerged that suggested that the connections between the disability belonging factors are intertwined and complex, creating a cyclical effect. Additionally, the themes highlighted the importance of on-campus involvement on disability belonging and how varying cultural backgrounds can affect how students with disabilities make sense of their belonging. 

Though this study helped further the understanding of collegians with disabilities, there is still room for theoretical, practical, and social progress. There is still so much to discover on disability belonging in higher education and I am eager to see what future studies hold.