Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Stops at the University of Illinois: Discussions on Access and Opportunity for Students with Disabilities

by Eboni Zamani-Gallaher / Sep 21, 2015

On Wednesday, September 16th, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign during his sixth annual Back-to-School Bus Tour. The theme of Duncan’s 2015 tour is “Ready for Success”. The campus visit this week at UIUC is one of 11 stops in seven states. The Secretary shared that part of his tour serves to honor those that endeavor to broaden student access and opportunity. In  particular, Duncan’s stop at Illinois was to engage in discussion on disability resources, the advancements as well as persistent challenges in P-20 education for persons with disabilities. While his visit was not an open campus forum, an audience of roughly 30 people were given an opportunity to hear from a panel moderated by Secretary Duncan that included a select group of students with disabilities ranging in background (i.e., gender, race/ethnicity, age, program of study, and disability) alongside Dr. Jim Applegate, Executive Director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and key staff of the University of Illinois Division of Disability Resources & Educational Services (DRES).

So why target the University of Illinois as it pertains to access and opportunity for students with disabilities? Secretary Duncan shared that he wanted to shed light on champions of reform and considered Illinois a trailblazer with regard to advancing disability support service. In fact, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the first postsecondary institution to provide a support service program enabling students with disabilities to attend, establishing what was formerly a satellite campus in Galesburg, Illinois known as the “Rehab Program” to accommodate returning WWII veterans that sought to utilize GI Bill funding to earn college degrees in the 1947-48 academic year which has evolved over the years into what is now known as DRES (see

In 2010, 19% of the U.S. population accounting for roughly 57 million people had a disability, with over half of reporting a severe disability and since 2005, the number of persons with disabilities has increased by 2.2 million (Brault, 2012). Although the cultural politics of race and gender have garnered continual consideration in the discourse examining access and equity, discussions about disability are a fairly contemporary social justice concern (Zamani-Gallaher, Green, Brown, & Stovall, 2009). As a community college researcher, one that is concern about accessibility and equitable educational outcomes, particularly for marginalized students, I was fortunate to be among the few guests to attend. What was especially enlightening and inspiring for me was to hear directly from the students on the panel about how they transitioned to Illinois and navigate college. Several remarked that there was personal doubt or doubt cast upon them by others (e.g., family, friends, teachers, etc.) about whether they could be a collegian in general notwithstanding their ability to be admitted and/or persist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. One student remarked how his high school counselor told him he should temper his expectations and consider a two-year institution instead of UIUC. Yet another student, said he always thought if he went to school the only option would be a community college until he knew someone with a disability apply get accepted and subsequently attend the University of Illinois that four-year colleges felt within his reach.

In 2007-2008, 11% of college students identified themselves as a person with a disability (National Center for Education Statistics, 2013) however, 44% of students with disabilities seek attendance at community colleges (Newman et al., 2011). Hence, there is stratification in access and postsecondary educational opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Out of 13 million students attending community colleges, 12 percent are classified a person with a disability (American Association of Community Colleges, 2015). According to the HEATH Resource Center (2013), people with disabilities elect to attend community colleges because of their reputation for serving all citizens and because of their open-access admission policies. While community colleges offer people with disabilities specialized services to support their academic needs, students with disabilities face challenges in postsecondary matriculation with respect to accommodations whether at two- or four-year institutions of higher learning.

Secretary Duncan posed more questions than provided answers or insights regarding how the administration was reconceptualizing the policy context relative to educational reform that would remedy the long-standing barriers in moving students with disabilities in, through, and out of college with degrees. However, the conversation was value-added as it clearly illustrated the student panelists’ sense of agency whereby they clearly showed Secretary Duncan and everyone else in the room how they are their own best advocates, are highly self-aware and resilient agents of change that shared their collective voice to ultimately leave an imprint — an imperative for the Secretary of Education to consider their realities in shaping the discourse and impacting policy.

Among those who are involuntary minorities at the margins of full participation in the U.S. are individuals with disabilities (Zamani-Gallaher et al., 2009). In particular, more educational and social reform is needed. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to be at a campus that has been a long-champion for inclusion and disability rights. Furthermore, I am hopeful that new advances in accessibility and disability support services throughout the educational pipeline will move from the radar of the DOE to materialize in reality.


Eboni Zamani-Gallaher is a professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization & Leadership in the College of Education at Illinois and the Director of OCCRL. Her research centers on access and collegiate experiences of marginalized students at two- and four-year institutions of higher education.