Unit 8: Socializing and Thriving at College

Chapter 33: Diversity and Accessibility

Lumen Learning; Linda Bruce Hill; and Dave Dillon

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

– Audre Lorde

What Is Diversity?

There are few words in the English language that have more varied interpretations than diversity. It’s become a catchall term. What does diversity mean? Better yet—what does diversity mean to you? And what does it mean to your best friend, your instructor, your parents, your religious leader, or the person standing behind you in a grocery store?

Since the late 1960s, diversity assumed a unique meaning when students of color pushed for campus diversity. The term has evolved, but new terms are needed to address specific lived experiences and relationships. Below are a few of the many definitions offered by college students at a 2010 conference on the topic of diversity. Which of these definitions stands out to you as most accurate and meaningful? Which definitions could use some embellishment or clarification, in your opinion? You will find that the definition draws from your own personal experience and story.

Diversity is a group of people who are different in the same place.

Diversity to me is the ability for differences to coexist together, with some type of mutual understanding or acceptance present. Acceptance of different viewpoints is key.

Tolerance of thought, ideas, people with differing viewpoints, backgrounds, and life experiences.

Anything that sets one individual apart from another.

People with different opinions, backgrounds (degrees and social experience), religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientations, heritage, and life experience.


Having a multitude of people from different backgrounds and cultures together in the same environment working for the same goals.

Difference in students’ background, especially race and gender.

Differences in characteristics of humans.

Diversity is a satisfying mix of ideas, cultures, races, genders, economic statuses and other characteristics necessary for promoting growth and learning among a group.

Diversity is the immersion and comprehensive integration of various cultures, experiences, and people.

Heterogeneity brings about opportunities to share, learn and grow from the journeys of others. Without it, limitations arise and knowledge is gained in the absence of understanding.

Diversity is not tolerance for difference but inclusion of those who are not the majority. It should not be measured as a count or a fraction—that is somehow demeaning. Success at maintaining diversity would be when we no longer ask if we are diverse enough, because it has become the norm, not remarkable.[1]

In the context of your college experience, diversity generally refers to people around you who differ by race. The definition of diversity has broadened to include ethnicity, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, abilities, politics, and in other ways. When it comes to diversity on the college campus, we also think about how groups interact with one another across differences. How do diverse populations experience and explore their differences?

Under the umbrella of diversity, diversity accounts for representation, inclusivity, and equity. Colleges and universities may “look diverse” without “being diverse,” if it doesn’t truly support non-white communities and change policies and practices. So-called “diversity” is actually tokenization that falls short of fostering inclusion. To learn more, student organizations offer diversity and inclusion workshops. The following videos explore aspects of diversity. They highlight the passion and excitement about diversity and the many ways in which diverse groups can support one another.

The following videos explore aspects of diversity. They highlight the passion and excitement about diversity and the many ways in which diverse groups can support one another.

Video: The Danger of a Single Story, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED Talk

Video: Color blind or color brave? Mellody Hobson TED Talk

Video: When To Take a Stand and When To Let it Go, Ash Beckham TED Talk

Video: How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them, Vernã Myers TED Talk


Video: ‘Ask Me’: What LGBTQ Students Want Their Professors to Know

(View this video by clicking the subheading above or at Chronicle.com)

Surface Diversity and Deep Diversity

Surface diversity and deep diversity are categories of personal attributes—or differences in attributes—that people perceive to exist between people or groups of people.

Surface-level diversity refers to external differences you can generally observe in others, like ethnicity, race, gender, age, culture, language, disability, body size, etc. They are also aspects you cannot change about yourself or have any control over. You can quickly and easily observe these features in a person. And people often do just that, making assumptions and subtle judgments at the same time, which can lead to bias or discrimination. For example, if a teacher believes that older students perform better than younger students, she may give slightly higher grades to the older students than the younger students. This bias is based on perception of the attribute of age, which is surface-level diversity.

Deep-level diversity, on the other hand, reflects differences that are less visible, like personality, attitude, beliefs, and values. Traits that are invisible include immigration status, neurodiversity, and disabilities. These attributes are generally communicated verbally and nonverbally, so they are not easily noticeable or measurable. You may not detect deep-level diversity in a classmate, for example, until you get to know them, at which point you may find that you are either comfortable with these deeper character levels, or perhaps not. But once you gain this deeper level of awareness, you may focus less on surface diversity. For example, at the beginning of a term, a classmate belonging to a minoritized ethnic group, whose native language is not English (surface diversity), may be treated differently by fellow classmates in another ethnic group. The surface-level diversity leads to stereotyping and “othering”.  But over time, classmates begin interacting with the person and learn about their values and beliefs (deep-level diversity) and multiple aspects of their identities or intersectionality. When the surface-level attributes of language and perhaps skin color become more “transparent” (less important),  a recognition of deep-level diversity will challenge your thinking and preconceptions.

Positive Effects of Diversity in an Educational Setting

Why does diversity matter in college?  How might diversity differentially impact Black and white students? It matters because when you are exposed to new ideas, viewpoints, customs, and perspectives—which invariably happens when you come in contact with diverse groups of people—you expand your frame of reference for understanding the world. Your thinking becomes more open and global. You become comfortable working and interacting with different people. You gain a new knowledge base as you learn from people who are different from yourself. You think “harder” and more creatively. You perceive in new ways, seeing issues and problems from new angles. You can absorb and consider a wider range of options, and your values may be enriched. In short, it contributes to your education.

In other words, diversity of perspective for white students is a commodity. Black students favor diversity because it ensures they belong, they are included, and they have an equitable experience. Attention to equity and inclusion ensures that support and resources are provided to increase graduation rates of Black students.

Consider the following facts about diversity in the United States:

  • More than half of all U.S. babies today are people of color, and by 2050 the U.S. will have no clear racial or ethnic majority. As communities of color are tomorrow’s leaders, college campuses play a major role in helping prepare these leaders.
  • But in 2009, while 28 percent of Americans older than 25 years of age had a four-year college degree, only 17 percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Hispanics had a four-year degree. More must be done to adequately educate the population and help prepare students to enter the workforce.
  • Today, people of color make up about 36 percent of the workforce (roughly one in three workers). But by 2050, half the workforce (one in two workers) will be a person of color. Again, college campuses can help navigate these changes.

With in-depth consideration, increased diversity can help overcome the structural and cultural obstacles so all students reap the benefits.

Activity 33-1: Cultural Sensitivity and Inclusivity in Practice


  • Identify ways in which you can make diversity more personal.


This activity will help you examine ways in which you can develop your awareness of and commitment to diversity on campus. Answer the following questions to the best of your ability:

  • What are my personal and intellectual goals in college?
  • What kind of community will help me expand most fully with diversity as a factor in my expansion?
  • What are my comfort zones? How might I expand them to connect more diversely?
  • How can I be challenged by new viewpoints? How can I resist connecting with people who are like me?
  • What are my biggest questions about diversity?
  • Write several paragraphs reflecting on the questions above.
  • Submit this assignment according to directions from your instructor.

Consider the following strategies to help you answer the questions:

  • Examine co-curricular activities. How can you get involved with clubs or organizations that promote and expand diversity?
  • Review your college’s curriculum. In what ways does it reflect diversity? Does it have departments and courses on historically unrepresented peoples, e.g., cultural and ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies. Look for study abroad programs as well.
  • Read your college’s mission statement. Read the mission statement of other colleges. How do they match up with your values and beliefs? How do they align with the value of diversity?
  • Inquire with friends, faculty, colleagues, and family. Ask people about diversity. What does it mean to others? What positive effects has it had on them?
  • Research can help. You might consult college literature, websites, resource centers and organizations on campus, etc.

Accessibility and Diversity on Campus

The idea of “accessibility” is an important force of change on college campuses today. Progress on “accessibility,” both visible disabilities and hidden ones, in spaces on college campuses has been limited. Accessibility is about making education accessible to all, and it’s particularly focused on providing educational support to a diverse group of students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. According to the American with Disabilities Act, you can be considered disabled if you meet one of the following criteria:

  • You have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, learning, and others.
  • You have a history of such impairment.
  • Others perceive that you have such impairment.

If you meet one of these criteria, you have legal rights to certain accommodations on your campus. These accommodations may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Academic accommodations, like alternate format for print materials, classroom captioning, arranging for priority registration, reducing a course load, substituting one course for another, providing note takers, recording devices, sign language interpreters, a TTY in your dorm room, and equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice recognition, or other adaptive software or hardware.
  • Exam accommodations, like extended time on exams
  • Financial support and assistance
  • Priority access to housing
  • Transportation and access, like Wheelchair-accessible community shuttles

Disability as an identity is about the whole college experience, including intersection with other identities, and goes beyond minimum compliance with the law.

Intellectual disability

Students with cognitive disabilities, low reading literacy, and people who are encountering an unknown topic or language need content that is meaningful and understandable to them. For example, plain language is clear, simple communication for audiences with a range of fluency in English, and even learning or cognitive skills. The video below provides the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) example, which is 100-questions, and 80-pages of instruction.

Video: Demand to Understand: How Plain Language Makes Life Simpler, Deborah Bosley TED Talk

Assistive technologies and Web-accessibility accommodations are critical in today’s technology-driven economy and society. The following are some examples of assistive technologies:

  • Software like Dragon Naturally Speaking, Kurzweil, Zoom Text, CCTV Magnifier, Inspiration Software
  • Computer input devices, like keyboards, electronic pointing devices, sip-and-puff systems, wands and sticks, joysticks, trackballs, and touch screens
  • Other Web-accessibility aids, like screen readers, screen enlargers, and screen magnifiers, speech recognition or voice recognition programs, and Text-to-Speech (TTS) or speech synthesizers

Students in the following video share some of their experiences with the Web-accessibility.

Video: Experiences of Students with Disabilities

For more information about Web-accessibility, visit http://webaim.org/.

For further information about race and ethnicity, visit Chapter 11 (Race and Ethnicity) of the OpenStax Sociology 2E OER textbook: https://cnx.org/contents/AgQDEnLI@12.3:H023hgwT@7/Introduction-to-Race-and-Ethnicity.

For further information about gender, sex, and sexuality, visit Chapter 12 (Gender, Sex, and Sexuality) of the OpenStax Sociology 2E OER textbook: https://cnx.org/contents/AgQDEnLI@12.3:T_-LTWXd@7/Introduction-to-Gender-Sex-and-Sexuality.

Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, Shared previously:

All rights reserved content:

License: CC-BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.

License: CC-BY–NC–ND 4.0 International.

Public domain content:

Adaptions: Relocated learning objectives, added videos, removed Foundations of Academic Success: Words of Wisdom video as it appears elsewhere in the text. Added link to OpenStax Sociology 2E Chapter 11: Race and Ethnicity.

OpenStax, Introduction to Sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Feb 19, 2019 http://cnx.org/contents/02040312-72c8-441e-a685-20e9333f3e1d@12.3

Added link to OpenStax Sociology 2E Chapter 12: Gender, Sex, and Sexuality.

OpenStax, Introduction to Sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Feb 19, 2019 http://cnx.org/contents/02040312-72c8-441e-a685-20e9333f3e1d@12.3


  1. “How Would You Define Diversity?,” Open Ended Student Survey on How to Define Diversity, April 28, 2010, https://sph.unc.edu/files/2013/07/define_diversity.pdf.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Blueprint for Success in College and Career Copyright © 2019 by Lumen Learning; Linda Bruce Hill; and Dave Dillon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book