Diagram showing the 11 high impact practices: Community-based learning; Research; Diversity/Global learning; Internship/co-ops; Learning communities; Writing-intensive courses; Collaborative work; Capstone experiences; First-year experiences; Common intellectual experiences; ePortfolios

Hopefully Extreme’s 1990 “More than Words” is starting to percolate in your head. Although you may not attach this song to inclusion and equity in higher education, the message of these lyrics is basically: Your actions are more meaningful than the words you say. This is resonating with me as I embark on a two-year Center for Engaged Learning Scholar position focusing on access, participation, and best practices for engaging students with disabilities in high-impact practices (e.g. undergraduate research, capstone experiences, study abroad, etc.) (Kuh 2008).

Drawing portraying different ways of talking about autistic people: "suffers from autism", "on the spectrum", "person with autism", "autistic person"

If you are a student with a disability, or a professional who has worked with students with disabilities, or a parent of a student with a disability, or maybe all of the above, you have likely grappled with the words used to identify individuals and groups who have a disclosed or undisclosed disability. Individuals and disability communities often voice a preference for person- or identity-first language (Crocker and Smith 2019) that are integral to their culture (e.g. person with autism vs. autistic). This awareness that the words matter comes from a place of respect. Respect for language of identity matters. Similarly focusing on strengths and supporting challenging aspects of a disability matters. But using the right language and amplifying strengths is not enough to support disability communities; it is more than words. Over the last year as I read, asked, listened, and amplified, I now hear with more clarity: It. is. more. than. words. Let me attempt to articulate.

In my 17th year of teaching in higher education in the field of exercise science, my classrooms are full of developing clinicians. I often engage my students in discussions about the language of identity—I talk about neurodiversity (Exceptional Individuals 2020), the harm of functioning language (Flynn 2018) and switching to support language, deaf community and culture (National Association of the Deaf 2021), my autistic son. I often encourage people to directly and respectfully listen to and ask the individual’s (or parent’s) preferences and to investigate what people with the disability identity typically prefer and to lead conversations with strengths; what they can do. This past semester I primed this discussion with an exercise to explore our own identities. I introduced the importance of strength-based thinking and the nuanced difference between “inclusion” and “not excluding” . . . more of this to come in subsequent blog posts. I have learned throughout my teaching career that pre-health students need to have these discussions because they want to be advocates and support, but they often do not know how.

My teaching philosophy and classroom climate is meant to be open; we practice unpracticed conversations together (Grant 2020). For many this was one of those difficult, complex conversations, where I see eyes open wider, students being humbled by their hero mentality often fueled by their volunteer work with special needs kids (Corning, Ketcham, and Hall 2020). I am a mother of a thirteen-year-old autistic son and a movement neuroscientist who has researched and taught about a spectrum of disabilities and movement disorders for my career. I continue to learn in these discussions and prioritize partnering with students to set the tone for a semester of mutual growth. So with that as some background, this past semester, I had a growth spurt.

About halfway through this discussion in a small elective course, Emily, who has visible physical disabilities and self-identified as neurodiverse, was very firmly and perceivably frustrated with the discussion and said (and I am paraphrasing):

“I actually don’t care what you call me or [my disability]. It is about the reality of the support and the understanding of the challenges. Being strength-focused is great, but I need support and accommodations—so let’s figure that out.”

It is more than words.

Emily, I am listening. This was the friendly and respectful slap in the face I needed to re-examine and reframe my intent and the impact. I will look to partner with you (foreshadowing upcoming blog posts) and students with disabilities to do this better. Because while I get it is more than words, I am teaching it is about the words. I must do better and take myself and my students further.

When one’s awareness, knowing, and understanding expands you can hear and see things differently. This is why we teach—the reciprocity of expansion that happens in the spaces of learning.

This understanding expansion very serendipitously triangulated with a discussion on my car radio this April, Autism Awareness month. I was listening to an NPR 1A segment, “From Awareness to Acceptance: Changing How We Understand Autism.”  The panel included Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes, which I have read; Eric Garcia, author of We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation, which comes out August 3, 2021; and Sara Luterman, a disabled disability journalist. I tuned in at the end of the segment and heard Sara Luterman answer a clumsy question about a listener’s comment that suggested we shouldn’t celebrate awareness or acceptance but rather empowerment. I want to highlight the clumsy here. Sara continually asked the host to prime her that a question was coming for her to respond to as a needed support for her disability. The host misinterpreted this request repeatedly signifying she didn’t think Sara understood and so reposed with more words and more complexity. After this unaware, awkward, and likely common interaction, Sara said:

“I have complicated feelings about the word empowerment because I think sometimes it’s used as a substitute for systemic change. I don’t think the issue is that autistic people need to be empowered and feel braver about speaking out for themselves, that’s great, but I think what is more important is things like: access to education services; access to in-home care when necessary; access to competent therapists. I think a lot more about things in terms of the systems than I do about individuals generally.”

Emily, Sara: Heard. It is more than words.

Equity issues in higher education (ACE 2020) impact more than just students with disabilities or any identity group; but the disparities in impact on historically marginalized and underrepresented communities is staggering. So let’s truly focus on the systems, infrastructure, policies, and practices in higher education that place the burden of access and engagement on the individuals that need support. In the 2020-21 academic year, many of the supports students with disabilities have been seeking went mainstream (Campbell 2020) as institutions pivoted to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. This amplifies that it has never been about the ability to provide support — but the will. And in 2021 actions still speak louder than words.


ACE (American Council on Education). 2020. “Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education.” https://www.equityinhighered.org/.

Campbell, Stephen. 2020. “Emergency Flexibility for Online Learning Is What Disabled Students Have Been Seeking.” THE (Times Higher Education) (blog), March 17, 2020. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/blog/emergency-flexibility-online-learning-what-disabled-students-have-been-seeking

Corning, Sara, Caroline J. Ketcham, andEric E. Hall. 2020. “Striking Down Barriers: Parents’ Perspectives of Youth Sport Programs for their Children with Disabilities.” Advances in Physical Education 10(4), 459-474. https://doi.org/10.4236/ape.2020.104036.

Crocker, Amy F., and Susan N. Smith. 2019. “Person-First Language: Are We Practicing What We Preach?” Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare 12: 125-129. https://doi.org/10.2147/JMDH.S140067.

Exceptional Individuals. 2020. “Neurodiversity: Meaning & Disorder Types.” Accessed June 15, 2021. https://exceptionalindividuals.com/neurodiversity/.

Flynn, Jessica. 2018. “Why Autism Functioning Labels Are Harmful – and What to Say Instead.” The Mighty, July 22, 2018. https://themighty.com/2018/07/autism-functioning-labels-low-functioning-high-functioning/.

Kuh, George D. 2008. “High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter.” Washington, DC: AAC&U. 34 pp. https://www.aacu.org/node/4084.

National Association of the Deaf. 2021. “Community and Culture – Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed June 15, 2021. https://www.nad.org/resources/american-sign-language/community-and-culture-frequently-asked-questions/.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite this Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. (2021, June 21). More than Words: Inclusion and Equity for Students with Disabilities [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/more-than-words-inclusion-and-equity-for-students-with-disabilities.