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  • Psychological Profile of University Students with Different Types of Disabilities
  • Shengli Dong (bio) and Margaretha S. Lucas (bio)

Increasing numbers of students with disabilities attend colleges and universities after graduation from high school (DaDeppo, 2009; U.S. Department of Education, 2002), but studies show that students with disabilities lag behind academically and fail to make progress and complete academic programs at a level and a timeframe comparable to their peers without disabilities (U.S. Department of Education, 2002). Studies are needed that explore variables related to the academic performance of university students with disabilities.

According to Tinto (1993), multiple factors relate to university students’ academic performance and persistence, including students’ background, academic and social integration, and personal characteristics. His theoretical model highlights the role of personal attributes in relation to academic success and persistence in postsecondary education.

Much of the research conducted in the area of personal characteristics of students with disabilities has focused on only academic or cognitive attributes (Hall & Webster, 2008), while neglecting psychological attributes such as self-esteem, life satisfaction, perceived support, and perceived control. As these psychological attributes have been found to play important roles in adjustment to one’s disabilities and academic performance (LaBarbera, 2008), this area of study needs attention.

In addition to a narrow focus on academic and cognitive attributes, research related to academic success and persistence of students with a disability has concentrated almost exclusively on students with a learning disability (LD; DaDeppo, 2009; LaBarbera, 2008). But, given advances in medical, educational, and environmental technologies and the fact that federal laws mandate improved access to postsecondary education (Newman, 2005; Skinner, 2004) to all, the scope of studies needs to be expanded to include those with other disabilities.

The goal of the current study was to compare and contrast psychological attributes of students with different types of disabilities who enter college. Findings might suggest ways to make the academic environment more conducive to learning for students with different types of disabilities.



Incoming first-year students at a large American mid-Atlantic university completed the University New Student Census (UNSC), a 230-item questionnaire given each year after students’ summer orientation program. The survey is composed of both psychometrically developed scales and a variety of demographic items. The purpose of this annual survey is to gain an understanding of the attitudes and behaviors of incoming first-year students.


A total of 1,991 out of 3,915 first-year students [End Page 481] responded to the 2008-2009 UNSC. The sample used for the current study was the 1,226 students who responded to the question inquiring about their disability status. Of these, 51% were female, 49% were male; 61% were White, 14% were Asian, 13% were Black or African American, and 6% were Latino. Thirty seven students (3%) reported psychological disabilities, 25 (2%) reported cognitive disabilities, 21 (1.7%) reported physical disabilities, and 1,143 (93.3%) indicated no disability.

Measures and Analyses

Demographic variables included gender, ethnicity, and disability status. Disability status was measured by the following question on the survey: “Which of the following best describes your disability? Disability options include Learning Disabled, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Physical Disability, Psychological, Hard of Hearing, Visual Impairment, others and ‘no disability’.” We collapsed Learning Disabled, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder into one status and named it Cognitive Disorder, as these disabilities are known in the field to be related (Web Accessibility in Mind, 2010). We used only the Psychological, Cognitive, Physical, and No Disability statuses, as the frequencies in the other statuses were too low for comparison.

Additionally, we examined five psychological attributes: life satisfaction, self-esteem, perceived constraints (perception of the extent to which an individual believes there are obstacles beyond one’s control that interfere with reaching one’s goals), social supports, and attitudes toward seeking help, and we compared participants’ scores across types of disability, using ANOVA and Tukey’s as a post hoc test. Life satisfaction was measured by the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985). Self-esteem was measured by the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (Rosenberg, 1965). Perceived constraints were measured by the Constraints Perception Scale...


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pp. 481-485
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