Rebecca Mushtare, associate dean of graduate studies at SUNY Oswego, was recently named to the SUNY Empowering Students With Disabilities Task Force

The task force, formed in early 2021, is designed to uplift the voices of students with disabilities on SUNY campuses and address the issues impacting disabled individuals within the SUNY system. 

Per the task force mission, it will “focus on improving physical access on campus for individuals with disabilities, fighting stigmas associated with disability inclusivity, addressing ableism on campuses and fielding feedback from people with disabilities to improve their overall learning experience.”

“The task force is taking a holistic approach to the student experience,” Mushtare said. “For example, physical accessibility would include spaces like housing and classrooms with a strong emphasis on universal design of those spaces, especially as new spaces are being developed.”

The task force includes students, faculty, administrative staff, community stakeholders and experts on disability rights, accessibility and accommodations. “There’s a good, diverse group of people who have varying expertise,” Mushtare said. “And because of that, the conversations are really rich -- there’s a lot of good listening going on.” 

Mushtare also notes that the students involved on the task force are students with self-identified disabilities to avoid the “nothing about us without us” pitfall that many task forces and advocacy groups fall into, and to ensure the task force’s true mission of student empowerment is carried out.

“Empowerment means students have agency, they have choice and they are supported in making choices,” Mushtare said. “Empowerment is supporting them in learning how to navigate systems while also removing barriers within those systems. The only way we are going to empower students with disabilities is by inviting them to the conversation.” 

Longtime accessibility advocate

The conversation around disability accessibility was in the forefront of Mushtare’s mind even before coming to SUNY Oswego. While teaching at her previous college, Marymount Manhattan College, chatter surrounding accessibility began after the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 were released. 

“It really raised my attention to digital accessibility early on,” Mushtare said. “From there, I started incorporating it into my teaching.”

Mushtare began her career with SUNY Oswego's art faculty in 2012. In 2016, Mushtare began collaborating with former SUNY Oswego staff member Kristen Flint on accessibility. Together, they provided workshops on accessibility practices and formed the current existing accessibility workgroup, which is open to students, faculty and staff. 

Mushtare is regularly invited by colleagues to present on digital accessibility. Recently in November 2021, Mushtare took her expertise to the higher education community and presented alongside SUNY Geneseo colleague Amy Fisk in a presentation titled “A Qualitative Analysis of Remote Learning Benefits and Barriers Among Students With Disabilities” at the 2021 Accessing Higher Ground conference.

The presentation centered around a study both Mushtare and Fisk completed, which involved 40 students with disabilities on both Oswego’s and Geneseo’s campuses about remote learning during the pandemic.

“We found that a lot of the inclusive teaching practices that we advocate through our Centers for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) are exactly what the students want and need,” Mushtare said. “Things like highly structured courses -- especially when they are online -- accessible materials that you can use a wide variety of techniques to engage with those materials, flexibility with engaging with the materials -- and flexibility in general -- was an important theme. And really, compassion and feeling a sense of belonging was a really important theme too.”

Mushtare’s interest and passion in moving the needle on accessibility is from an understanding that most systems, including the higher education system, were originally established without disabled individuals in mind, and because of that, so much more work needs to be done to ensure equity and inclusion.  

“Systems are in place to keep people out already, and we have to work really hard to change that,” Mushtare said. “This includes a wide variety of people too who have been excluded historically from education -- disabled people are one of those groups.” 

Disability and academia

Although the CDC reports that one in four American adults live with a disability, the number of disabled individuals self-reporting in academia is lower. In a study conducted in 2016, only 19 percent of those in post-secondary education self-reported as having a disability. 

And even though disabled individuals represent the largest minority, the stigma around what it means to be disabled is still harshly perpetuated in society and across campuses in the United States. Further perpetuating this stigma, notes Mushtare, is the ableism that is present in the higher education system due to the low number of disabled individuals involved in the decision-making process.

“It’s not to say that we’re not here, because we are here,” Mushtare said, “But often, we’re in situations where we may feel we can’t disclose that. We may not feel safe to bring up situations or policy in a meeting because our own job security will be at risk.”  

Due to the combined fear of ableism and stigma, and lack of representation in leadership, many students won’t report they have a disability or that they may need an accomodation. Furthermore, some students may not have had an opportunity to receive a diagnosis that allows them the opportunity to receive assistance or supports.

“If you’ve never received services before, you may not know how a service works, or that a system even exists,” Mushtare said. “Maybe you needed the supports before and nobody mentioned they existed, or you were in a situation where they just weren’t available to you -- for example you were in a low-income household and couldn’t get the diagnosis that meant you could request an accommodation -- these issues and barriers are system wide.”

Even more important is moving towards an understanding of what accessibility means versus accommodations. Frequently, these terms are conflated and confused in society and in campus communities which only leads to isolation among disabled students and lack of action on behalf of administration. 

“Accessibility sets up a space, whether virtual or physical, where as many people can use it without requesting any additional supports,” Mushtare said. “Accommodations are meant for when things are accessible, but individuals still need some additional supports. Accessibility is proactive, and accommodations are reactive.”

SUNY Oswego accessibility

SUNY Oswego has made strides in work towards improving accessibility over the past few years, including the formation of several workgroups such as the Digital Accessibility Committee, the Workgroup on Accessibility Practices and the Faculty Accessibility Fellows Program. The school has also rolled out a number of initiatives, including the 10-day Accessibility Challenge completed in 2021, and the five-day 2022 Accessibility Challenge in January. 

If you are interested in joining one of the SUNY Oswego accessibility workgroups, you can find more information on the accessibility website or contact Mushtare at

If you are in need of an accommodation or have questions regarding accessibility, you can contact the Office of Accessibility Resources at or 315-315-3358.