by Caroline J. Ketcham

Welcome, here is what you can expect:

This page will share dialogue about resources around access, inclusion, and supports for neurodivergent and physically disabled students in higher education settings. It is the beginning of a conversation and not an all-inclusive set of resources. The goal is to pique the readers’ interest in challenging perspectives of learning in higher education. My hope is you will become curious about how attending to supports for neurodivergent and physically disabled students can make us better teachers and our spaces more inclusive. The intended audience is administrators, faculty, and staff in colleges and universities, as we are the ones building and revising the systems that ground the student experience. While this resource is meant to give practical advice and starting material that’s aimed towards making our experiences, classrooms, and campuses more inclusive and accessible for all, it is in no way meant to replace the voices of people who identify as neurodiverse or physically disabled. My hope is this resource is a starting point for conversations that are integrated into all processes with this perspective in the room from the beginning and not an afterthought.  While the focus is on neurodiversity and physical disabilities, it is not meant to be expansive or exhaustive. There are so many populations we need to consider and voices we need to elevate. The principles shared are meant to drive expectations that spaces and experiences are accessible and inclusive. The focus populations of this resource tend to be left out of these critical conversations, which cultivates landscapes where they are unable to thrive.

Operational Definitions

Neurodiverse: (See
There is not a singular definition for neurodiverse or what it encompasses. It can be used as a noun or adjective to describe the variation or diversity in cognitive functioning in people. Neurodivergence is often used to describe people who have cognitive functioning outside of “typical,” including autistic, dyslexic, or dyspraxic people or people with less common learning differences. Individuals may identify as neurodiverse/neurodivergent and may or may not identify with one of the diagnoses that typically fall under the neurodiverse/neurodivergent umbrella (autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, Irlen Syndrome, hyperlexia, obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, synesthesia).

Neurodivergent: Refers to an individual with an identity from a neurodiverse category. An individual would be referred to as neurodivergent—neurodiverse describes a population of neurodivergent identities.

Neuroinclusive: Creating spaces where a diversity of learning, thinking, processing, and executing styles are celebrated and neurodivergent identities can thrive. Related to inclusion (Longmire-Avital 2018), but focused on diversity of cognitive functioning.

Neuroaffirming: Asserting and affirming that all variations of thinking, learning, processing, and execution are valuable and valued.

Physical Disability:
This is a disability that is an impairment to a body’s structure and function. For purposes of this white paper, it includes a mobility, visual, hearing, or sensory impairment. In some definitions, mental impairments also fall under physical disabilities, but I have not specifically focused on inclusion of common mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc. in this resource. With that said, much of the accommodations and advice included for this population could apply and be valuable for our students with mental health conditions or concerns.

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Common Considerations to Improve for All: Beyond Accommodations

As we consider supports and accommodations that would serve neurodivergent and physically disabled populations, it is important to highlight that many of the considerations will improve the learning context for all. Some of these topics are part of inclusive pedagogy, but putting a focus on how these ideas support neurodivergent and disabled populations centers these identities as part of the work to make contexts more inclusive.

Executive Functioning

Executive function is an important concept to much of the work in neurodiversity and universal design; it is the ability to organize, plan, and execute daily tasks while also being able to manage tasks that are coming in the future. The best analogy I have heard of this is thinking of executive functioning as equivalent to a personal air traffic control ( Providing students with structure, clear instructions, and course management techniques can go a long way for all students and tend to be essential for neurodivergent individuals. Practices including assignment scaffolding, clear structure with concrete deadlines, labeled flexibility, and course management tools can create a neuroinclusive classroom. These practices can help manage distractions and procrastination as well as build habits that lead to action in our classrooms.

Sensory Friendly

The environment can make a big difference, but many of us do not have control over the classrooms we teach in. I encourage institutions to consider this as part of facility design as well as in their event planning process and infrastructure. Multiple seating options, visually serene color schemes, and sound sensitive settings can be instrumental to learning. Taking inventory of student needs and sensory concerns can also be validating to an inclusive classroom. More and more institutions and instructors are taking advantage of outdoor spaces for learning. I advocate learning outside, but also know temperature and outdoor climates can be a challenge. It can be helpful to create spaces within a course structure to give options for group or individual work time so students can choose these work environments.

Ranges of Seating

I can’t emphasize this enough: there is no reason why every classroom can’t include a range of seating options for students. A wheel mobile student should not always have to be in the front left corner of a classroom because someone brought a table in for them. This student’s learning should be just as integrated into the space as a learner who would prefer to stand at a standing desk or a student that needs a flat back chair that leans back providing resistance to them as a fidget. This design element can be integrated into a cool design and make all learners feel welcome in spaces.

Classroom with multiple types of seating and multiple seating heights

Universal Design for Learning

This pedagogical framework could encompass an entire white paper of its own. I encourage readers to embrace UDL (Universal Design for Learning) as a tool to help all learners. For our neurodiverse and physically disabled students, the options of choice can be woven into common accommodations seamlessly. The opportunity to engage in multiple modes of content can support all learners and levels of learners. Reinforcement of material via text, video, podcast, audio books, and discussion will help students engage where they can. Providing multiple options for assignments can support individual students in utilizing their strengths, or support groups by utilizing talents of multiple learners. Assessment can also include multiple options. As instructors, we often gravitate toward one assessment option and assume learners will take the easy route if given a choice. But I encourage us to remember that “easy” looks different for each learner. The goal of assignments is often not related to “ease” but rather focused on specific learning outcomes. Ensure those learner outcomes are incorporated in all options of assignment submission, and then enjoy what students are able to produce when given the leeway to leverage their strengths.

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Making High-Impact Practices Accessible and Inclusive

In 2008, Kuh labeled a set of experiences as high-impact practices (HIPs) because students who engage in one or more of these experiences have positive outcomes (Kuh 2008; Kinzie 2012; Kuh et al. 2017). These experiences provide students with hands-on experiential learning opportunities. The most recent list of HIPs includes: first year seminars and experiences, common intellectual experiences, learning communities, writing and inquiry interactive courses, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/study abroad/global learning, service-learning/community-based learning, internships and field experiences, capstone courses and projects, and ePortfolios (Kuh et al. 2017). The Center for Engaged Learning (CEL) has set a priority to lead multi-year, multi-institutional deep dive research seminars centered on engaged learning opportunities including, but not exclusive, to HIPs. While these experiences positively impact all students, students from disadvantaged or marginalized backgrounds who engage with HIPs have higher retention rates and meaningful self-reported development gains (Brownell and Swaner 2010; Finley and McNair 2013; Finley, McNair, and Clayton-Pederson 2022). There have been intentional initiatives to target these populations to increase access and participation. As an educator and researcher who has been engaged in this research and improving access, I have noted that many of the strategies promoted do not consider the experience of our neurodiverse and physically disabled students. When considering access and participation for these identity groups, a change in lens can make a big difference in how we approach and implement these experiences for all students.

A couple of example considerations:

Study Abroad

This experience is often marketed as learning about and interacting with different cultures. Traveling outside of your “home” region gives hands-on experiences in listening to and hearing a diversity of perspectives. For many neurodiverse students, college is a significant cultural learning change and experience. For many students with physical disabilities, navigating a study away context comes with many potential barriers. For these students, deciding whether and where to engage in a study abroad experience while considering their neurodivergent and disabled identities is an important conversation to have with them. We could encourage students to take an inventory of learning outcomes of study away experiences and reflect on if the stress of managing their needs in this new context outweighs the benefits. We should not make the travel component superior to experiences that could happen locally with similar learning outcomes. Similarly, for physically disabled students, the navigation of what programs are accessible tends to fall on them. As locations, travel, and daily mobility lend to varying levels of accommodation, it would be valuable for some universal labeling of accessibility. What programs are accessible to those with mobility challenges? What supports are in place for learning disabilities or visual disabilities? Are there cultural expectations that may impact neurodiverse students in challenging and harmful ways? How can we foster beginning and expanding these inventories?

Work-Integrated Learning

Internships, work-integrated learning, and community or field-based experiences provide valuable opportunities to try out your skills, apply knowledge, and preview what careers are possible (Center for Engaged Learning, “Work-Integrated Learning”). This experience can be transformative for many students as they connect theory to practice. However, it is also an experience that pulls on skills, knowledge, and assumptions that are not always explicit. Furthermore, it may occur in contexts that have unexpected barriers, both physical and process oriented, leading to unintended challenges for neurodivergent and physically disabled individuals that may impede progress on learning goals for the experience. This can unfairly and unnecessarily lead to bad experiences for the student, the supervisor, and the hosting industry, especially if processes and infrastructure to support these experiences are not in place already. Many programs do have internship liaisons and facilitators, but they are rarely primed to think of the needs of these populations. Here are some ideas that may provide some guidance and a starting point for creating supportive and meaningful work-integrated learning experiences: 

  • There may be a way to incorporate matching systems or involving students in finding opportunities. This process can benefit both parties by allowing for thoughtful preparation for the student and the site location. Has anyone visited the site to identify what accommodations might be needed or helpful? Has the student been given some idea of the context, expectations, and responsibilities they’ll face, and the space to articulate their needs and potential accommodations?
  • Are there pipelines and pathways that institutions and programs may be able to build for our students that would benefit our neurodivergent students in particular? Having partnerships in place that value what students of neurodiverse identities across majors can bring to their context will pay dividends in many ways.
  • Can we promote pathways to careers through internships as a way for industry partners to understand and support these individuals’ needs during a training and onboarding process? Perhaps an internship model can become a long-term interview and support a meaningful transition.
  • Consider experiences that support the learning goals, but may not include the barriers on the context such as remote opportunities.

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Let’s Talk about Language, Assumptions, and Practicing Inclusion

There can be much to discuss and learn about language when referring to neurodiverse and disabled populations. However, I think it can be valuable to simplify this topic, as getting caught up in the semantics of language can derail the importance of providing supports. Person-first versus identity-first language matters to individuals with neurodiverse and disabled identities. Person-first language often is preferred by populations where the disability or condition is less tied to whom the individual identifies being and is often the default in the medical model (e.g., person with Down syndrome, person with Parkinson’s disease). Identity-first language is often preferred by populations where their neurodiversity or disability is an integrated part of who they are (e.g., Autistic, dyslexic, deaf). I encourage prioritizing asking individuals their preference (or caretakers of individuals, if appropriate). In all cases, it is an individual’s choice what their preference is. I will default to an identity-first language to support strength-based versus deficit-based thinking, and maintaining disability as a positive cultural identity (AUCD). But I respect this is not the preference of all, and valuing their choice matters.

I want to emphasize asking individuals in all aspects of this work. One common misstep in this work is trying to assume what individuals need or prefer, and this screams ableism. There is no one way to support all, and so asking is important in dismantling ableist cultures. Similarly, building environments and cultures that support a breadth of diverse needs only strengthen our communities.

Best Practices / Characteristics to Consider

The following are some characteristics and ideas to consider that could support neurodiverse and disabled students. These ideas prioritize explicit and clear expectations and communication. They also add in flexibility to support students who often find their disability or identity impacts their ability to meet the demands that are inherent to the institutional structures often built on tradition. Can we be creative, flexible, and more inclusive? Can this help a wider range of learners beyond neurodiverse and disabled identities?

Clear and Direct Communication

Do not use vague language or hidden meaning in communication. Be clear and direct with what is expected from students. Consider sharing language with students to communicate with you. This is especially helpful for students that don’t know how to ask or don’t want to screw up, and so then won’t ask. A colleague, Dr. Madison Chandler, gives students a sheet with professional email tips and templates for absences, questions for content appointments, and letters of recommendation requests. Below are a few examples of changing common communication to a clear and direct style and an email template from Dr. Chandler for a missed class:

  1. If you aren’t in class, you can’t learn. >>> Coming to every class is expected. If you are not able, please send me an email before class.
  2. For the final presentation, be creative. >>> I will expect a 5-7 minute visual presentation such as PowerPoint or Prezi, but there is no template you need to follow.

Email template for an upcoming missed class:

Subject Line: ESS 1234: Absence on 10/15

Hi Dr. [Name],

I am writing to let you know that I will be absent on Monday, 10/15 due to a University-sponsored field trip for my COR 1010 course. I will plan to complete my assigned reading questions and turn them in prior to class and will review the lecture slides on Moodle about the material I miss. Thank you!


Your Name & Contact Information

Scaffolded Assignments with Explicit Expectations

It is helpful to provide scaffolding to assignments or projects so that components can build on each other. Identify what are the explicit expectations and spell them out. For example, if you expect the presentation to be on PowerPoint or some format that is projected on screen—say that explicitly. If you expect that formatting and grammar won’t be graded on an early version or component, say that explicitly.

Group Work Logistics and Expectations

For many learners with neurodiverse and disabled identities, managing to find a group can be challenging. Set up groups or identify how groups should be set based on interest, skills, etc. Provide clear expectations for how each group member should contribute, or guidelines to help that conversation.

Course Load Flexibility

For many students with disabilities or neurodiverse identities, managing course loads can be a challenge. Often, students have to take a specific number of hours each semester to graduate in a typical time or have to pay extra. Creating or identifying pathways that build in differently paced paths without increased costs would be valuable for students in these populations, and likely additional students. Having a pay-by-credit system instead of a defined semester cost can create more equitable and feasible paths for these students. Institutions with blocked scheduling may be the right choice for many of these students with the advantage of focusing on one topic for a short and intense period of time.

In addition to flexibility in pace, identifying paths and giving more defined choices can also be helpful. Much like a major or minor, it would be valuable to help students see how courses in the general education curriculum map together to support their interests and goals.

Accessible (Physically) Spaces and Opportunities

This can’t be emphasized enough: identifying physical barriers to access for students is one of the most low bar things an institution can do. Are there handicapped accessible entrances on ALL entrances that serve the space, not just the one on the other side of the building? If your campus has sensory-friendly spaces, are they located throughout campus or is there just one spot? Can we look for opportunities to create sensory spaces in multiple shared spaces to serve students and creatively identify sensory-friendly access to programs and organizations (i.e., not all events are large and loud). Are we making sure events like graduation, celebrations, concerts, and speakers have accessibility built into the event (closed captioning, wheelchair accessible, microphones, etc.) so that individuals don’t have to ask if they will be able to attend and participate. Being proactive about accessible spaces and opportunities says a lot about who is intentionally included versus who is an afterthought on our campuses.

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Key Scholarship

  • Cook-Sather, Alison. 2019. “A Tool for Changing Differences from Deficits into Resources: The Access Needs Form.” The National Teaching & Learning Forum 28 (5): 7-9.

    About this Journal Article:

    This is a short publication and tool to switch your classroom from deficit-based thinking to strength-based thinking around differences and disabilities. It invites students to identify differences and disabilities that can then turn into resources within the classroom community.

  • Cook-Sather, Alison, and Morgan Cook-Sather. 2023. “From Reporting to Removing Barriers: Toward Transforming Accommodation Culture into Equity Culture.” Education Sciences 13 (6): 611.

    About this Journal Article:

    This is a co-written piece by an educational developer and their legally blind daughter highlighting the barriers encountered in their educational experience. The piece includes a video to help exemplify the student’s experience of navigating the campus. This is both a powerful piece and an example that any institution could draw from and replicate with students on their campuses.

  • Dolmage, Jay Timothy. 2017. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

    About this Book:

    This book gives a valuable perspective on assumptions in processes, programs, and infrastructure that promote an ableist environment and disadvantage those on our campuses with disabilities. It is a must-read for anyone working in and supporting higher education. Dolmage’s writing style is accessible and conversational. It gives any reader content that will make you frustrated, ready to jump to action, or reflective. No matter where you enter this conversation, there is much to learn and consider in making our spaces and process better.

    Available in an open-access format at

  • Dwyer, Patrick, Erica Mineo, Kristin Mifsud, Chris Lindholm, Ava Gurba, and T. C Waisman. 2023. “Building Neurodiversity-Inclusive Postsecondary Campuses: Recommendations for Leaders in Higher Education.” Autism in Adulthood 5 (1): 1-14.

    About this Journal Article:

    This publication is by neurodivergent students of various academic stages that, with a parent advocate, provide recommendations for higher education campuses to be more supportive and inclusive of neurodiverse identities.

  • Forber-Pratt, Anjali J., Larry R. Price, Gabriel J. Merrin, Rachel A. Hanebutt, and Javari A. Fairclough. 2022. “Psychometric Properties of the Disability Identity Development Scale: Confirmatory Factor and Bifactor Analyses.” Rehabilitation Psychology 67 (2): 120-27.

    About this Journal Article:

    This article uses the Disability Identity Development Scale (DIDS), which is a useful tool to understand identity in disability populations. This can be used by campuses to understand self-advocacy, disability advocacy, wellness, and inclusion. Dr. Forber-Pratt is a scholar to search for, as her work and her current role as Director of the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR) are leading this work in many realms.

  • Griful-Freixenet, Júlia, Katrien Struyven, Meggie Verstichele, and Caroline Andries. 2017. “Higher Education Students with Disabilities Speaking out: Perceived Barriers and Opportunities of the Universal Design for Learning Framework.” Disability & Society 32 (10): 1627-49.

    About this Journal Article:

    This article highlights the benefit of universal design for learning (UDL) framework for students with barriers, as well as a critical analysis about why implementation of UDL on its own can create additional barriers for access and inclusion.

  • Kuder, S. Jay, Amy Accardo, and John Woodruff. 2021. College Success for Students on the Autism Spectrum: A Neurodiversity Perspective. Routledge.

    About this Book:

    This book is targeted to support autistic students success in college. There is much to learn in here that would apply more broadly to support neuroinclusive and neuroaffirming campuses, but the focus on the autistic student experience is prioritized.

  • Minotti, Bradley J., Katherine M. Ingram, Anjali J. Forber-Pratt, and Dorothy L. Espelage. 2021. “Disability Community and Mental Health among College Students with Physical Disabilities.” Rehabilitation Psychology 66 (2): 192-201.

    About this Journal Article:

    This article connects the living experience of disabled students to the sense of community and inclusion on a college campus. There are specific insights to how community-building initiatives support these students and their college experience.

  • Moriña, Anabel, and Gilda Biagiotti. 2022. “Inclusion at University, Transition to Employment and Employability of Graduates with Disabilities: A Systematic Review.” International Journal of Educational Development 93 (September): 102647.

    About this Journal Article:

    This article is a systematic review of work that examines the employability and transition to employability for graduates with disabilities. This topic is important for both neurodivergent and disabled populations, and the article covers how universities can facilitate successful matching and transitions.

  • Shea, Lynne C., Linda Hecker, and Adam R. Lalor. 2019. From Disability to Diversity: College Success for Students with Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Autism Spectrum Disorder. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

    About this Book:

    This resource promotes a philosophy of universal design for education. The authors are all faculty or staff at Landmark College, which exclusively serves neurodivergent students. This book gives a great introduction to the language of identities and diagnoses and how they might present in the college context. There are also important discussions around supportive and inclusive environments in and out of the classroom using a universal design approach. Consider this a go-to guiding document to get started on a more neuroinclusive college campus.

  • Shmulsky, Solvegi, Ken Gobbo, and Steven Vitt. 2022. “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for Neurodiversity.” Community College Journal of Research and Practice 46 (9): 681-85.

    About this Journal Article:

    This article highlights the need for intentional intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and pedagogical practices to be inclusive of neurodiversity and universal design of learning practices. There are very concrete recommendations that can be implemented into any course and curriculum.

  • Shmulsky, Solvegi, Ken Gobbo, Andy Donahue, and Frank Klucken. 2021. “Do Neurodivergent College Students Forge a Disability Identity? A Snapshot and Implications.” Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability 34 (1): 53-63.

    About this Journal Article:

    This paper investigates identity formation and self-acceptance of students at an institution that serves neurodiverse students. They look at the connections between strength of identity with wellness and social justice advocacy around neurodiversity and disability.

  • Tobin, Thomas J, and Kirsten T. Behling. 2018. Reach Everyone, Teach Everyone: Universal Design for Learning in Higher Education. West Virgina University Press.

    About this Book:

    This book is a great resource about UDL for a wide range of leaders and roles on a college campus. It gives examples of where UDL is implemented and helps readers apply it in various ways to their classrooms and campuses.

  • Wong, Alice. 2020. Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century. Penguin Random House.

    About this Book:

    Also an adapted version for young adults – Disability Visibility: 17 First-Person Stories for Today – Alice Wong

    These books provide short stories of lived experiences across a breadth of disabilities and contexts. I give this book as a reading in courses exploring diversity, equity, and inclusion. The perspective of these accounts is sometimes tough to read because of the ignorance and ableism that can be found everywhere. However, engaging in the hard-to-hear experiences should help anyone gain empathy and understanding, and implore readers to advocate for disability in their spaces and contexts.

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Programs to Highlight

Rowan University PATH (Preparation and Achievement in the Transition to Hire)

This is a unique scaffolded program that supports the transition to employment for neurodivergent students and alumni. They provide resources and practice for components of career readiness, social engagement, and resource networks. They work and educate both the student and potential employers to support the path to employment. Much more information is on their website.

Landmark College

Landmark College is a college for students who learn differently, serving students with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and executive function challenges. Much more information is on their website.

Neurodiversity at UCONN

This is a learning community for neurodiverse students in STEM. It starts with a course that is highlighted as a university study skills course for first-year students. The syllabus highlights a course meant to provide resources, community, and support for neurodiverse students in engineering as they navigate the transition to college.

University of Minnesota Rochester – Neurodiversity Living Learning Community

This is a living learning community that focuses on celebrating neurodiversity identity and serving as promotion of education on neurodiversity and disability access.

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A CEL Research Seminar on Neuroinclusive Engaged Learning

This summer we launch a multi-year, multi-institutional research seminar through the Center for Engaged Learning focused on “Affirming and Inclusive Engaged Learning for Neurodivergent Students.” As with all the seminars, the lead-up to this has been a multi-year process with…

Trading Engaged Learning Skills: What We Can Learn From Our Kids and Our Kids’ Learning Spaces

On a Wednesday in mid-April, I decided to step away from work and go watch my oldest son Elliot compete in cabinetry at SkillsUSA NC state competition. I debated going for a moment—there are things to grade, a meeting or…

Ableism in Academia: The Uneven Impacts of Distraction and Procrastination

Recently in one of my productive distraction moments, I came across a tweet thread from Dr. Hannah Snyder (@Hannah_R_Snyder) that spurred reflection for me in my teaching, and has led to this discussion in this platform more broadly. Two articles…

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Brownell, Jayne E., and Lynn E. Swaner. 2010. Five High-Impact Practices: Research on Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

Finley, Ashley, and Tia McNair. 2013. Assessing Underserved Students’ Engagement in High-Impact Practices. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Finley, Ashley, Tia McNair, and Alma Clayton-Pederson. 2022. “Designing Equity-Centered High-Impact Practices.” In Delivering on the Promise of High-Impact Practices: Research and Models for Achieving Equity, Fidelity, Impact, and Scale, edited by John Zilvinskis, Jillian Kinzie, Jerry Daday, Ken O’Donnell, and Carleen Vande Zande, 17-29. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Kinzie, Jillian. 2012. “High-Impact Practices: Promoting Participation for All Students.” Diversity & Democracy 15(3): 13–14.

Kuh, George D. 2008. High-impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities

Kuh, George, Ken O’Donnell, and Carol G. Schneider. 2017. “HIPs at Ten.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 49(5): 8-16.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2018, October 8. Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity, Oh My! [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Content written by Caroline J. Ketcham, professor of exercise science at Elon University. Dr. Ketcham’s 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar project focused on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

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