The governing board of Mississippi’s public universities has formed a task force to study accessibility for possibly the first time since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 33 years ago. 

The initiative by the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees comes at a key moment for disability in higher education. Even before the pandemic, college students have been disclosing disabilities at increasing rates, specifically mental disorders such as depression or post-trauma stress disorder, which are covered by the ADA. 

And the U.S. Department of Education is expected to drop new rules this month for a key law that prohibits schools that receive federal funding from discriminating against students with disabilities. 

It’s also an effort of personal significance for Jeanne Luckey, an IHL trustee from Ocean Springs appointed by Phil Bryant in 2018. Luckey has been in a wheelchair since she was in a car accident 18 years ago. 

Luckey said that last year she found an article ranking the country’s colleges with the best programs for students with disabilities. She wanted to see Mississippi universities on that list. 

“I pay attention to those things maybe a little bit more than everybody else does,” she said. “You only pay attention to things when you need them sometimes.” 

The 19-person task force comprising representatives from each campus and the Department of Finance and Administration plans to produce a report with recommendations for enhancing accessibility services across the university system by June 2024. 

At the top of the agenda, said Alla Jeanae Frank, an IHL assistant commissioner of operations and a co-chair of the task force, is data gathering. 

“That’s the main goal,” Frank said. 

There is a dearth of data on the number of enrolled students with disabilities, the accommodations they receive, and the rate at which they graduate in Mississippi. 

“This is going to be a fact-finding process for us,” said Marcus Thompson, IHL’s deputy commissioner. 

That information is available from each university’s disability services office, but each office tracks this data differently, according to records Mississippi Today obtained earlier this year. And it is not reported to IHL, which couldn’t provide the total number of students with disabilities in the university system or their graduation rates. 

But that is far from unusual, according to a national expert. 

Most colleges across the country do not collect detailed information on students with disabilities because the federal government doesn’t require it, unlike other demographic information such as race or gender, said L. Scott Lissner, the ADA coordinator and 504 compliance officer at Ohio State University and the past president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability, a national organization.

Lissner said he’d urge the IHL taskforce to recommend ways the system can collect better data on students with disabilities for two reasons. It shows how much tuition dollars come from students with disabilities, which in turn helps universities budget for accommodations like real-time interpreters versus real-time captioning. 

Data collection also makes it easier to identify if accommodations are working to help students with disabilities graduate at similar rates to able-bodied students. 

“The bottom line on whether or not we’ve been nondiscriminatory, equitable and inclusive would be similar graduation rates,” Lissner said. “If those rates are differential, then presumably there’s a flaw in the system some place.” 

Also at the top of the task force’s list is improving staffing at disability service offices across the campuses. Some offices have as little as two staff members, Frank said, which can impact response times. Oftentimes, those offices have services available, but students aren’t aware. 

“Finances always come up,” she said. “How much do we put into actual funding for our institutions to be equitable?” 

The task force will also be looking at possible infrastructure improvements. Frank said that as more students disclose disabilities and receive accommodations such as extended test-taking time, universities are running out of classroom space. 

Another issue is ensuring campuses are suited to emotional support animals. 

“You’ll hear everybody screaming right now about ESAs,” she said. “You have to have accommodations for the animals, too.” 

State funding, which has historically been a barrier to infrastructure projects for the public universities, may be less of an issue this year, as IHL has received more legislative support for real estate projects in recent years. 

Thompson said he believes that generally Mississippi universities have successfully used institutional funding to ensure buildings are in compliance with the ADA. 

“They’ve done a pretty good job over the last 10 years really working to make enhancements,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk with curb cuts.” 

Luckey agreed. She said she has visited most of IHL’s campuses and has generally found them to be accessible. But she hopes the task force will be able to bring more uniformity to the university system. 

The taskforce, Luckett said, is a positive, not punitive, effort. 

“It’s not an effort to say you’re doing this wrong or you’ve been slacking on this,” she said. “It’s an effort for us to share ideas and make sure everybody can do it the best way they can.” 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.