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Fernández-Batanero, J.M.;  Montenegro-Rueda, M.;  Fernández-Cerero, J. Students with Disabilities in Higher Education. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 19 June 2024).
Fernández-Batanero JM,  Montenegro-Rueda M,  Fernández-Cerero J. Students with Disabilities in Higher Education. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed June 19, 2024.
Fernández-Batanero, José María, Marta Montenegro-Rueda, José Fernández-Cerero. "Students with Disabilities in Higher Education" Encyclopedia, (accessed June 19, 2024).
Fernández-Batanero, J.M.,  Montenegro-Rueda, M., & Fernández-Cerero, J. (2022, October 25). Students with Disabilities in Higher Education. In Encyclopedia.
Fernández-Batanero, José María, et al. "Students with Disabilities in Higher Education." Encyclopedia. Web. 25 October, 2022.
Students with Disabilities in Higher Education

Access to university is a right for all people; however, access to higher education for people with disabilities is still a challenge. The present study, based on a systematic review of the literature, aims to report on the challenges faced by students with disabilities in accessing and participating in higher education.

barriers facilitators higher education inclusion

1. Introduction

The UNESCO conference in Salamanca (1994) had an impact not only on educational thought, policy, and practice, but also on culture [1]. Today, it continues to present an indispensable point of reference for all those involved in the struggle for inclusive education. This legacy immersed in the digital age is leading educational institutions and professionals to a profound transformation and a radical change in their ways of doing, acting, and training. In the framework of the European Higher Education Area, a more inclusive character is being demanded from the University, as evidenced in different international declarations [2]. Furthermore, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 on education of the European Agenda 2030 calls for ensuring an inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all by 2030. It emphasises the importance of inclusion and equity as the foundation for quality education and learning.
In the case of persons with disabilities, the European Agency for Special Needs, and Inclusive Education [2] and the United Nations High Commissioner recognised inclusive education as an opportunity for their empowerment [3], as well as an opportunity to remove barriers to learning and participation for all learners [4]. However, at present, practices of educational exclusion and discrimination are still present in all education systems, constituting real barriers or obstacles to progress [5].

2. Conceptualisation

The scientific literature shows that there is a wide range of definitions around access and participation of students with disabilities in higher education. Thus, according to the World Health Organisation [6], barriers to inclusion are all those physical, social, and attitudinal factors that prevent or limit the full realisation of individuals. Authors such as Ainscow [1] refer to them as obstacles to inclusion that hinder or limit learning, belonging and participation, under equal conditions, in educational processes. Authors such as Darrow [7] classify barriers in three areas: organisational, attitudinal, and knowledge barriers. The first ones refer to the way in which institutions and classes are structured, how the objectives proposed to students with disabilities are defined, how teaching strategies are used and how classes are managed.
Attitudinal barriers relate to the beliefs and attitudes that teachers may have about educational services for students with disabilities, including curricular adjustments, interactions with students, and participation in the institution and community activities.
Conversely, aids, supports, or facilitators are elements of the educational context that contribute to students’ social and educational inclusion in educational contexts [8]. Within the studies referring to the school environment, Pivik, McComas and Laflamme [9] identify three aspects to be addressed as facilitators: environmental modifications, changes in policies, and institutional resources. Regarding environmental modifications, they consider it important to include technological resources and to adapt the infrastructure to the needs of the students, and about policies, they recommend educating the population and making curricular adaptations.
On the other hand, participation is a multidimensional concept made up of three interdependent subdimensions. Firstly, it refers to feeling a sense of belonging or the perception of emotional well-being resulting from an established social and academic self-esteem. It also symbolises being part of a peer group, where students are valued and recognised and where identities are constructed in a positive way and not deficient or of lesser value than any other student. Finally, it means taking part in the formal and informal bodies and structures of educational participation [10].
In short, barriers and facilitators constitute one of the different ways of approaching the inclusion (and exclusion) of people with disabilities in higher education. Their effects are the result of the convergence between collective actions, individual actions, and social conditions, and are manifested in different dimensions of students’ academic and social life [11].

3. Results, State of Play, Access, and Participation of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education

Many efforts have been made to try to create an educational culture where students feel competent, valued, and not excluded, regardless of their characteristics, interests, abilities, or difficulties. In this sense, access to university for people with disabilities is a legally recognised right [12]. Despite this, there are still legal gaps in its implementation, contributing to the fact that the path of these institutions towards inclusion is increasingly long [13]. Researchers are aware that there is gradually a greater commitment on the part of universities to move towards this objective; despite this, works and studies that give students a voice conclude that universities become an obstacle course that, on many occasions, generates a premature abandonment of university studies [14][15]. On the contrary, it should be noted that students with disabilities recognise the value of universities for their social and educational inclusion, but at the same time they consider that their experiences in this institution are not always positive [15]. Therefore, it is not enough to guarantee access, but rather it is necessary to establish policies and plans to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, remain and succeed in university studies [16].
Along these lines, in recent years, studies have focused on the different barriers encountered by students with disabilities during their time at university. However, the most common barriers include architectural barriers, lack of information, inaccessible technologies, or regulations that are not applied, as well as teachers. Regarding the latter, teachers are identified as the main obstacle to inclusion [17], as their attitude towards people with disabilities is essential to facilitate student learning [18][19]. Other research focuses on the teacher profile, especially on personal competences as essential values for working in inclusive contexts [20][21]. Studies that have given a voice to inclusive teachers have concluded that when it comes to facilitating the learning of students with disabilities, the diversity of active and participatory methodological strategies where students are included, more affective and emotional, is just as important [22].
Another line of research in relation to the possible barriers encountered by students with disabilities focuses on the teaching and learning processes themselves [23]. These studies show how reasonable adjustments to the curriculum (flexible timing and methodological strategies) to help students participate in the teaching and learning processes on an equal footing with their peers can contribute to the retention and success of students with disabilities [23][24]. Another key element of educational projects that concerns both students and teachers is the assessment tests. Research addressing this issue points to the difficulty for teachers to adjust, especially in examinations. Studies coincide in pointing out the lack of receptiveness of teachers to enable different modes of assessment [25].
Another relevant finding is the importance of peer relationships. Peer support would favour the participation of students with disabilities, as they value the support of their peers as a facilitator of their inclusion in the academic context [24].


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  2. European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education. Evidence of the Link between Inclusive Education and Social Inclusion: A Review of the Literature; European Agency for Special Needs and Inclusive Education: Odense, Denmark, 2018.
  3. UN. Empowering Children with Disabilities for the Enjoyment of Their Human Rights, Including through Inclusive Education; UN: New York, NY, USA, 2019.
  4. Ramberg, J.; Watkins, A. Exploring inclusive education across Europe: Some insights from the European agency statistics on inclusive education. Fire Forum Int. Res. Educ. 2020, 6, 85–101.
  5. Lacono, T.; Keefe, M.; Kenny, A.; Mckinstry, C. A document review of exclusio-Tnary practices in the context of australian school education policy. J. Policy Pract. Intellect. Disabil. 2019, 16, 264–272.
  6. World Health Organization. The World Health Report 2001: Mental Health: New Understanding, New hope; World Health Organization: Geneva, Switzerland, 2001.
  7. Darrow, A. Barriers to effective inclusion and strategies to overcome them. Gen. Music Today 2009, 22, 29–31.
  8. Nieto, C.; Moriña, A. Barriers and Facilitators for the Educational Inclusion of Persons with Intellectual Disabilities. Siglo Cero 2021, 52, 29–49.
  9. Pivik, J.; McComas, J.; Laflamme, M. Barriers and facilitators to inclusive education as reported by students with physical disabilities and their parents. Except. Child. 2002, 61, 97–107.
  10. Márquez, C.; Sandoval, M.; Sánchez, S.; Simón, C.; Moriña, A.; Morgado, B.; Moreno-Medina, I.; García, J.A.; Díaz-Gandasegui, V.; Elizalde San Miguel, B. Evaluación de la inclusión en educación superior mediante indicadores. REICE. Rev. Iberoam. Sobre Calid. Efic. Y Cambio En Educ. 2021, 19, 33–51.
  11. Pérez Castro, J. Between barriers and enablers: The experiences of university students with disabilities. Sinéctica 2019, 53, 1–22.
  12. Yssel, N.; Pak, N.; Beilke, J. A Door Must Be Opened: Perceptions of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education. Int. J. Disabil. Dev. Educ. 2016, 63, 384–394.
  13. Alcain, E.; Medina, M. Hacia una educación universitaria inclusiva: Realidad y retos. Rev. Digit. Investig. Docencia Univ. 2017, 11.
  14. Mullins, L.; Preyde, M. The lived experience of students with an invisible disability at a Canadian university. Disabil. Soc. 2013, 28, 147–160.
  15. Moriña, A.; Cotán Fernández, A. Educación Inclusiva y Enseñanza Superior desde la Mirada de Estudiantes con Diversidad Funcional. Rev. Digit. Investig. Docencia Univ. 2017, 11, 20–37.
  16. Thomas, L. Developing inclusive learning to improve the engagement, belonging, retention, and success of students from diverse groups. In Widening Higher Education Participation. A Global Perspective; Shah, E.M., Bennett, A., Southgate, E., Eds.; Elsevier: Oxford, UK, 2016; pp. 135–159.
  17. Hewett, R.; Douglas, G.; McLinden, M.; Keil, S. Developing an inclusive learning environment for students with visual impairment in higher education: Progressive mutual accommodation and learner experiences in the United Kingdom. Eur. J. Spec. Needs Educ. 2017, 32, 89–109.
  18. Sharma, U.; Loreman, T.; Simi, J. Stakeholder perspectives on barriers and facilitators of inclusive education in the solomon islands. J. Res. Spec. Educ. Needs 2017, 17, 143–151.
  19. Alesech, J.; Nayar, S. Teacher strategies for promoting acceptance and belonging in the classroom: A New zealand study. Int. J. Incl. Educ. 2019, 25, 1140–1156.
  20. Fernández Batanero, J.M. TIC y Discapacidad: Investigación e Innovación Educativa; Octaedro: Barcelona, Spain, 2020.
  21. Boynton, l.; Mahon, J. Secondary teachers’ experiences with students with disabi-lities: Examining the global landscape. Int. J. Incl. Educ. 2018, 22, 306–322.
  22. Aguirre, A.; Carballo, R.; López-Gavira, R. Improving the academic experience of students with disabilities in higher education: Faculty members of Social Sciences and Law speak out. Innov. Eur. J. Soc. Sci. Res. 2021, 34, 305–320.
  23. Bunbury, S. Disability in higher education do reasonable adjustments contribute to an inclusive curriculum? Int. J. Incl. Educ. 2020, 24, 964–979.
  24. Moriña, A.; Perera, V.H.; Melero, N. Difficulties and reasonable adjustments carried out by Spanish faculty members to include students with disabilities. Br. J. Spec. Educ. 2020, 47, 6–23.
  25. Moswela, E.; Mukhopadhyay, S. Asking for too much? The voices of students with disabilities in Botswana. Disabil. Soc. 2011, 26, 307–319.
Subjects: Education, Special
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