University of Illinois at Chicago
THOMSON-DISSERTATION-2022.pdf (797.13 kB)

Exploring the Impact of a Disability Cultural Center on Disabled Students in Higher Education

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posted on 2022-05-01, 00:00 authored by Elizabeth Anh Thomson
This study aims to explore the impact of a Disability Cultural Center (DCC) in higher education on disabled students, which aims to assist other campuses considering creating a DCC and to support those DCCs already in existence. Universities should care about supporting disabled students more holistically to increase recruitment, retention, and academic success through affirming their disability identity, building community, and facilitating disability culture programs and events. While disabled students still need accommodations, some disabled students and their allies are advocating for their disability identity, culture, and community to be recognized through the creation of DCCs. Although disability oppression and ableism are different than other marginalized and oppressed identity groups and oppressions, disabled activists looked to the successful creation of other identity and cultural centers (e.g., Black Cultural Center, Asian American Cultural Center, Latinx Cultural Center, Women’s Center, and LGBTQ Center) to increase their sense of community and gain identity affirmation. There is scant research on cultural and identity centers in higher education. This research contributes to cultural and identity center work, and further inserts disability and disability identity into the diversity, equity, and inclusion landscape of higher education. This qualitative study looks at one DCC and explores its personal, academic, social, and cultural impact on disabled students who had some level of engagement with the center. I conducted three virtual focus groups with disabled students and held two, semi-structured virtual interviews with the DCC director. I argue that the DCC directly and indirectly facilitates and affirms disability identity exploration, culture, community, and academic success in a unique way. Key findings are: 1) disabled students need time, space, and a friendly environment with people who share their lived experiences to explore their disability identity; 2) the DCC helps disabled students recognize internalized and external ableism on campus; 3) disability culture is both a way of thinking and doing and can be realized in everyday behaviors, programs, or events; 4) disabled students benefit from a space of their own to gather in community and experience less ableism; and 5) the DCC is a unique unit on campus due to how it centers disability as well as includes intersectionality of other identities.



Sandahl, Carrie


Sandahl, Carrie


Disability and Human Development

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Nishida, Akemi Charlton, James Suarez-Balcazar, Yolanda Kraus, Amanda

Submitted date

May 2022

Thesis type



  • en

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