Campus Student Groups

Student Leadership Guidebook

Starting an Organization of Students with Disabilities on your Campus


This section is designed as a guideline to assist students with disabilities to organize at the grassroots level, using existing resource materials from the National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS). Currently, there are about 40 campus based student groups and committees for post-secondary students with disabilities who are part of the NEADS network.

As you would expect, there is no magic formula for starting and/or maintaining a disabled students group on a campus. The foundation of a particular organization must be carefully thought out to reflect the needs and concerns of the disability community at a post-secondary institution. Keep in mind that every school has a unique environment. The mandate of the organization must fit the needs of the student body. In addition, the environment is defined by the institution's commitment to disability issues.

Forming A Group

The main ingredient for starting a group is effective organizing, beginning with just a few people who have a lot of dedication to the cause. The degree of difficulty people may encounter when they start out depends largely on the attitudes and awareness that are present on campus.

"We completed an access audit two years ago which resulted in a five year plan to address iss-ues identified in the audit." (Service Provider, University, British Columbia, National Approach to Services Project)

The first step to starting a group is finding a name. Whatever you choose to call your organization will serve as an identifier and reflect the objectives of the group. In this way, people should associate the objectives and goals of the group with the chosen name. In deciding goals and objectives the organization will define specific areas of interest members wish to pursue. Although the focus may change over time, it is necessary to know what the group represents as a collective. Write it all down to ensure consistency. This serves as the beginning of a constitutional charter. A constitution is a written mandate.

The development of a mandate is an essential part of gaining recognition. Setting out goals and objectives provides a framework in which to operate. Your goals and objectives should address long term accessibility issues at your school, taking into account the concerns put forward by the group's membership. In that way, the group can continue to address them over time. For example, if lack of wheelchair access is a problem on your campus, removing physical barriers could be a raison d'ętre for your group. Deaf and hard of hearing students may not have access to adequate interpreting services in the classroom. If that is the case, the organization may consider an issue such as this as a central focus of any campaign to improve accessibility. These are but two examples of areas that may require the work of your group. At the same time, you need not focus on the needs of one group of students with disabilities in deciding the long-term aims of the organization. A collective of students with disabilities can be as diverse in its objectives and goals as the members that it serves.

Operating Structure

The operating structure of a students' group begins with the establishment of a set of rules to govern its activities. A formal management structure may or may not be necessary in a group's infancy. At the same time, it is essential to ensure that elected executive members are well aware of disability issues. Furthermore, the written charter should ensure consumer control over the group's activities. Should you choose to have a Board of Directors' structure, keep it as simple as possible to avoid confusion.

"We have no student-lead support services for students with disabilities, or student advisory groups. We have tried in the past, but have not been able to get students to attend on a regular basis. We do not have student reps on our advisory groups." (Student, College, Ontario, National Approach to Services Project)

A good way to provide the organization with some permanence is to guarantee that there are mechanisms to support the group over time. This can be accomplished by becoming affiliated with the students' union. Each students' union has different rules and procedures that must be followed with respect to affiliation, and you will have to show that there is a need for an organization of students with disabilities. However, if you are able to demonstrate that disabled students want such an organization and will take an active role in it, a Disabled Students' Group can develop the same kind of profile and clout as your campus Women's Centre or International Students' Centre. Also, sponsorship from your student government may provide you with a small budget to support on-going activities.

Establishing a permanent operations centre, for example, an office in a prominent space on campus, is also equally important. When you set up an office, people will know where they can find you. Many groups use their disability services office as a contact point. This is okay, but it might be difficult to maintain autonomy when sharing space with another centre, particularly one that has an affiliation with your campus administration.

Services and Advocacy

A group of students with disabilities may or may not provide services. For example, such groups often decide to have strictly a social function. Still, your organization may want to provide specific services to meet the needs of its members. Some of the services that these groups might provide are:

  1. A peer support service for students with disabilities:
    As part of a peer support service, special orientation workshops for first year students can be arranged. The disability service office at your school may offer some type of orientation, but such a service often can leave out important information that can only be provided adequately by other students with disabilities. Peer support can be an ongoing part of your group's activities and it can encompass all facets of the academic and social experience of your members.
  2. An information or resource centre for interested students:
    A good place to start would be to develop a resource library on issues relating to disability. The group's collection of resources may be put on loan to the campus community or it may only be used in your office space. Making available magazines, books and various kinds of writing on the subject of disability will inform and enlighten fellow students and staff.
  3. A drop in centre to provide a meeting place for members plus services and supports:
    As part of the centre's operations, you could provide needed services to students with disabilities such as: a resting area, photocopying privileges, peer tutoring, note-taking, a TTY line for communication with and for deaf or hard of hearing persons. The drop in centre may also run awareness raising events for the campus population.
  4. An advocacy and support network for students with disabilities:
    Taking on an advocacy role on behalf of the membership in the post-secondary environment will become crucial to the group's effectiveness. The group may decide to advocate for specific projects, services and programs that will make the school environment more accessible. Part of this function could include the initiation of fundraising ventures. The members may also decide to publicize the organization's position on disability issues in the community at large. This kind of activity will expose the organization to other like-minded groups, which can become allies in ongoing advocacy work.


Membership need not be restricted only to people with disabilities. This may make it more difficult to establish support for the organization. Restricted membership can give the group a negative image. It is often harmful rather than helpful for a new organization to limit the scope of its membership, especially an organization advocating for the rights of an equity group. If all students are allowed to join, you will expand your influence in the campus community, which will encourage integration and dispel myths surrounding people with disabilities.

"The disability centre encourages students to advocate for themselves. Personally, I do. However, there are no seminars or courses on self-advocacy and there are students who are uncomfortable advocating for themselves. Teaching students to advocate would be better than simply stating, "be your own advocate." (Student, University, British Columbia, National Approach to Services Project)

However, your members should ensure that students with disabilities have control over the organization's mandate and activities. The best way to maintain the consumer focus of the group and ensure that it meets the objectives of its members with disabilities is to provide disabled students with the primary decision-making functions. In this way, the organization serves as an excellent vehicle for one-on-one education, while maintaining a consumer perspective. You may choose to sell your organization, when canvassing for membership, as a group that offers students with disabilities and able-bodied students alike an opportunity to learn about the issues in an informal setting.

It is important to recognize that the model of membership that has just been proposed, often called "PHAB" which stands for Physically Handicapped and Able-Bodied, is not the only model, nor is it always the most appropriate. A "Consumers Only" model, which means that only students with disabilities will be part of the group, can be extremely effective as an advocacy body. The "Consumers Only" organization may create a situation in which students with disabilities are more comfortable in airing their issues and concerns. It may also be more effective in dealing with an extremely inaccessible campus which is resistant to positive change.

On-Campus Relationships

A new organization promoting disability issues should establish links on campus in order to be effective. These links include: lines of communication to both the students' union and the administrative body responsible for student life.

Most schools have a person responsible for arranging accommodations for students with disabilities. Depending on the university or college there may also be a specific office assigned to accommodate disabled students. Regardless of the structure of the institution, it is important to enter into a working relationship with key members of your campus administration responsible for issues affecting students with disabilities. It is essential that students with disabilities become knowledgeable about their school's commitment to the quality of education and quality of life offered to students with disabilities. This will involve a complete understanding of policies and programs on campus, which will affect the kinds of accommodations that are provided.

"(Our) Student Equity Committee brings forward all issues of concern for disabled students to proper departments and pushes to have problems rectified." (Student, College, Ontario, National Approach to Services Project)

For example, your group might gain membership to a committee that reviews accessibility on campus. In a situation where there is no committee of that kind, the group should advocate for the existence of one. In the meantime, you should continue to work for awareness of disability issues through other means, including the campus newspaper, radio and of course good old letter writing. A disabled students' advocacy group can also effectively gain active representation for students with disabilities in regard to input into the construction and the design of buildings on campus. Evaluation of both physical access and disability services at your school can be dual roles for the group. Establishing these kinds of relationships is important to ensure that concerns affecting students with disabilities are known throughout the campus.

Some students' unions do not always consider disability issues to be crucial; therefore it is up to your group to change that. Make disability issues a priority by placing them on the agenda come election time. Get to know the members of your council once they are in office. Tell them what the issues are and make them listen. Don't forget, a member of your organization can run for student government — that will ensure students with disabilities are well represented on campus.

"Our senate policy works very well and is almost unanimously supported by academic and administrative staff. It allows individualized accommodation initiatives." (Service Provider, University, Manitoba, National Approach to Services Project)

In addition to disabled student services and your student union, it is also wise to make other areas at your college or university aware of issues affecting people with disabilities. It is important to improve the general environment in which your members study. Improving the environment will make it easier for students with disabilities to pursue their academic programs as this reduces segregation and barriers.

This type of awareness will reach other areas of service on campus forcing them to examine whether or not they are accessible to students with disabilities. Awareness raising serves to educate the faculty, providing instructors with a better understanding of the implications of living with a disability and making them more sensitive to the situations in which special accommodations are required. As a result, the faculty will be prepared and more willing to respond appropriately when students with disabilities request accommodations. As more people become familiar with the group, the interest in the issues will grow, as will your membership. Establishing your group as a valuable resource on campus can only help this endeavour.

Good relationships are nice, but they are not always possible. You may encounter resistance from your school's administration. Do not appear confrontational, and always show willingness to work in a team environment. In the same fashion, members of the student union might shrug your organization off as not important. Keep working with them. That is the only way you will change their minds.

Off-Campus Relationships

It is important to have contact with disability organizations off-campus. This allows your group to be aware of the issues facing people with disabilities in the city where you study. The creation of a network with other groups makes it easier to exchange ideas. This network might include groups from universities and colleges in different parts of the country. In addition, communication with other "like-minded" organizations can only help your cause and increase the effectiveness of your advocacy work. The same principle exists for other organizations in the community; establishing the group as a vital resource will improve its profile beyond the campus environment.

For Further Ideas:

  • Advocacy the Process: Active Living Alliance, Government of Canada, Fitness and Amateur Sport, 1988.
  • Changing Their Minds: A Primer for Student Activists, University Relations Office, Simon Fraser Student Society, 1992.
  • Organizing Back Home, April D'Aubin, Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped, July, 1988.
  • Student Association Directory: 1997-98, Canadian Federation of Students, Ottawa, Ontario, August, 1998.
  • Taking Action: A Guide to Successful Organizing and Advocacy in a Post-Secondary Environment for Students With Disabilities, British Columbia Educational Association of Disabled Students, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1993.