by Eva Sweeney, Hannah Langlie, Julie McGinnity and GimpGirl Community
Transitioning from adolescence to college (or university) life is scary at times for most students. However, being a college student with a disability definitely comes with its own unique challenges. This article explores many of the common pitfalls experienced by students, and how individuals successfully addressed these barriers.
Although high schools in some countries (such as the United States) are required to assist young adults with disabilities transitioning to a successful adulthood, many of these programs aren’t designed for a transition to college. These programs are often built around the false assumptions that disabled students are not going to attend college, or have aspirations beyond menial jobs and living at home (or in a group home). These programs are also staffed by adult, able-bodied professionals who do not have first-hand experience with living as a disabled person, and role models who have experience are rarely introduced.
As a high school student, these well-meaning programs can be a tremendously disempowering experience. Individual needs can get lost in a sea of bureaucracy and paperwork, and are often not addressed in meaningful ways. The system is not designed to give students all the tools needed to take charge of their lives and truly live independently.
Not surprisingly, in the United States only 53% of students with disabilities have completed a degree or vocational program, as opposed to 64% of their nondisabled peers (Cole, pg. 2). Students with disabilities don’t finish for many reasons, including lack of educational programs, not having access to funding, problems with coordinating support services like personal care attendants (PCAs) and medical care, unexpected medical complications, geographical access barriers like snow or long commutes, and physical access barriers like inaccessible classrooms or student housing.
We have put together a list of helpful tips for navigating the confusing landscape of college life. These tips are taken from our own experiences, as women with various disabilities, and should in no way be taken to represent all access needs. Eva attended a small, liberal arts college in Los Angeles. She uses a wheelchair to get around and speaks with a letter board since she is non-verbal. Hannah is currently a third-year college student in Seattle studying journalism. She uses a power chair most of the time and lives on campus. Julie is a master’s degree student studying music, and utilizes Braille and readers.
Balancing Academics and Practical Needs
Managing practical needs (such as personal care or navigating between classes) is critical to succeeding in college, so it is important to know what supports and accommodations are available. It is important to remember that every situation is a little different, depending on your personal needs and the college you choose. The quotes below relate each of our personal experiences.
Coordinating Disability Services
The vast majority of post-secondary schools (in the United States and other countries) have a disability services office that is suppose to coordinate all of the support services and accommodations needed by students to be successful. However, the responsiveness of the staff and quality of the services provided in each disability services office varies widely. We had very different experiences:
“My college’s disability services person was god awful. All my professors trusted me, so when I needed more time for tests, I just took the test in the cafeteria. I also couldn’t stay in the same room since my aide voiced what I’d be spelling out on my letter board and therefore, giving everyone my answers. My professors knew I wouldn’t cheat or copy the test for others. When I was done, I would just drop it off in their office. If I had used disability services, it would have been tons of unnecessary paperwork and time for each test. When I started each semester, I would email my professors and introduce myself. I would briefly explain cerebral palsy and that I would have an aide accompany me to class. I would also troubleshoot any potential issues. For example, my Human Anatomy class did a lot of work handling model bones. I can’t use my hands so instead, my professor would explain where certain bones are in my body. When I took painting, my professor was worried at first about how I would participate. But with an explanation and one or two classes, she quickly got it and I became one of her favorite students.” — Eva
“I choose to meet with each of my professors that I don’t already know before the quarter starts to go over my accommodations. Although I do use disability services, I don’t always use the accommodations for every class, I am able to customize them for what classes I need. Usually, a face-to-face meeting will help offset any anxiety that a professor might have. Because I use dictation software to write most of my papers and tests, I have a similar situation that I can’t be in the class with all of the other students, so sometimes I have to work this out, depending on what the test entails.” — Hannah
“I have always used disability services. Since I don’t have the time or energy to scan my books into accessible formats, I find them useful for this purpose. I have also worked with them to get Braille, which is very important to me. Since the college is obligated to pay for Braille, I prefer to go through them rather than trying to pay for it on my own. I try not to take tests through Disability Services though. It is much easier to arrange to take a test with a reader in a professor’s office or just take the test with the rest of the class.” — Julie
Managing Support Staff
Different people handle the integration of support staff (such as PCAs and readers) in to their educational experience in different ways. We talk about how we handled support staff:
“It is important to find a reader who has knowledge of your subject area. I am a music major, and as such, I need a reader who understands how to read music and interpret it. It is important to get a reader who is ahead of you in their major, so that they understand what you are telling them. I have found that working with a reader who is paid by disability services works the best. It is easy to get a friend to read your mail or help you label something in your home, but when it comes to your school work, I have always wanted something more reliable.” — Julie
“Typically, I don’t have my aides accompany me to class, unless, as in several instances, my power chair or some other technological implement is broken, as I find that, for me, it creates unnecessary awkwardness, as in the professor saying “why is that person sitting here?”, and then I have to explain.” — Hannah
“Sometimes, especially if the class had a big discussion component, I would ask for three minutes at the first class. During that time, me and my aide would introduce ourselves and briefly explain what cerebral palsy (CP) is and how I communicate. I think especially for discussion classes where I would use my letter board a lot, the explanation gave others a sense of what was going on. People may have been confused if my aide just started saying random letters. I took one class that was more casual and was just us voicing our opinions. I chose not to have my aide accompany me. I think aides are great but sometimes they create an unintended barrier between students. Instead, I asked for volunteers to read my letter board, each class. It was a great way to get to know other students (and quite hilarious when all the football players fought over who got to read).” — Eva
Despite doing everything possible to coordinate supports and accommodations, things still happen. Readers or aides don’t show up when they are supposed to, and professors fail to follow through on accommodations.
“Sometimes it takes a lot of strength to balance between managing accommodations and academic success. When it becomes a struggle to learn, this is when it has always been the most difficult for me. We go to school to learn, not to fight for the rights we should have as soon as we walk in the door. I have received books late, articles and assignments weeks after they were assigned, and had to sit through music classes without the music in front of me because the professor did not give it to me on time. As blind students (me included), we are told to just sit and listen. This would never be ok for a sighted student.” — Julie
It is important to know that we all experience these frustrations. It is vital to not only prepare, but to connect with others who have been where you are, and have accomplished similar goals.
Know all accessibility routes around campus. Your disability services office may have an access map of the campus to help you find all those hidden ramps and elevators. It may also help to find someone who can give you the lay of the land.
“Mobility around campus can seem like a daunting prospect. I had to learn first of all that I would get lost. Once I accepted this fact, I was able to navigate campus without worrying as much about the possibility of losing my way. There are always people to ask, a GPS to consult, or your own brain to use in these situations. I always went to campus a few times before school started to familiarize myself with the layout, and this was helpful.” — Julie
Managing accommodations can make academic success difficult, but it is very possible to achieve. It is important to always be in open communication with the professor or instructor. A good working relationship with the instructor is critical when addressing problems that come up.
“I have always worked with professors so that they understand how important it is that I have my materials at the same time as everyone else. Sometimes this does not happen, despite my efforts. This can be extremely frustrating. The worst feeling in the world is wanting to do your homework but being unable to do any part of your assignment because it requires inaccessible technology or the use of materials you never received. That is not learning.” — Julie
Consider taking a lighter course load if a full course load is difficult to manage. Even though it takes longer to finish your degree, it may increase your overall likelihood of success.
“I only took two or three classes a semester because writing takes me a little longer. If I took a full class load, all I would have done would be homework. While that prolonged my collegiate career, it made me less stressed and allowed me to have a social life outside of school work. I had to petition each semester to be a part-time student, but that was not a big deal.” — Eva
Be realistic, but don’t sell yourself short. Academic professionals will try to convince you that school is not the place for you, but it is your right to go to school if that is your decision.
“It is not necessarily true that all blind people take more time to do their homework. I do not. As a blind person, no field of study is too visual or too difficult. I was encouraged not to pursue a performance degree because of the staging and movement involved, but I can deal with these things successfully. I have always been open with my professors about what I need, how I do things, and any questions I have. In return, I encourage them to ask any questions about my disability. It is always good to promote a dialogue of open communication.” — Julie
Students must insist on getting the tools needed to succeed. You are the person who is an expert in your own life. You know your needs better than anyone else.
“I don’t know where I would be academically without Braille. As a music major, it is very important that I use the music. I also had to learn to read it, understand theory based on visual (Braille) examples, and understand the layout of a score. I also needed Braille as a German major in order to be proficient in spelling and reading fluency. For any major, there is a reason to use Braille along with screen reading technologies. Braille is literacy.” — Julie
Have a backup for when things go wrong, because they will at times! Succeeding at academics requires a flexible, multilayered approach to fulfilling your needs, no matter what your disability is.
“As a blind student, you will encounter some form of inaccessible technology. I always had a connection with disability services, whom I could ask to help if I needed to submit something on Blackboard or add graphics to an assignment. Sometimes you will need to fill out an application that is inaccessible. I have never used a reader for this, but it is also an option. I recently found that our campus accessibility map was inaccessible to screen readers, so things that claim to be accessible aren’t necessarily so. I would compare the barriers of inaccessible technology to the barriers a wheelchair user would face when trying to go to class. You need to access something, and you simply can’t, though sometimes there are ridiculously complicated work-arounds.” — Julie
If you live on campus, make friends with your Resident Advisor (RA). These people are an excellent resource for you and anyone who helps you. If you have substitute PCAs or other support staff that needs entry to your apartment, an RA can assist them if he or she is aware of your situation.
Remember, you are your own person, and everybody should treat you that way. Often times, especially if dealing with new aides or people who are not familiar with your capabilities and needs, they may need a reminder that you are in charge of your own life.
“I always (jokingly but seriously) say that I did not come to college in order to have five more people try to be my mother. It’s funny, but it’s true. I have to often remind people that I am not the “child” that some people refer to me as and I am still in charge.” — Hannah
Have an emergency evacuation plan. This may sound unnecessary, but what happens if you find yourself in an emergency situation with no support staff?
“I speak from experience when I say that having a plan in case of an emergency and everyone understanding that plan does not go without saying. Even when the plan is not practical, I always know who I can call as backup.” — Hannah
Know who you can count on when things don’t go as planned. This may be a friend, roommate, a classmate to take notes for you if you’re sick or absent, or your neighbor downstairs or across the hall. You never know when you’re going to need them. They may be lifesavers when you least expect it. And don’t forget to do what you can for the people you count on as well!
“I had three different roommates in three years. Since I have a guide dog, I always told the housing staff to ensure that my future roommate would be ok with this. I know I have the right to room wherever I want, but I don’t want to have a roommate who is allergic or hates dogs. This would not make for a good living situation. I also talked with my roommates about my talking devices, how I do things, like cook or clean, and answered any questions they had.” — Julie
Especially if you are living on-campus, it is important that you work on developing a social circle. Get involved in clubs, go to events on- and off-campus, and get out and explore! So much of what you may have the chance to learn takes place outside of the classroom. Social networks will allow you to learn your way around new environments, give you emotional support, and help you succeed in school and after. You have a life too! Remember that!
“Coming from a different state, where I didn’t know my way around, and the only person I knew being my PCA at the time, this did not do much for my newly independent self-esteem. It wasn’t until I started getting involved in school clubs and advocacy work that I found the people who keep me going every day, the people that make me laugh, and the ones who I can whine to about unnecessary scheduling drama (because it will happen!). They are the ones who see me as an equal, a grown woman capable of the same achievements and mistakes as any other college student.” — Hannah
“I made friends with people in my major as well as people I met through the disability services office. Making friends in college can be difficult, especially if you are afraid everyone thinks of you as the poor helpless blind girl. I learned that it was up to me to get out there and be myself.” — Julie
Don’t take no for an answer. In the past, we’ve had many people tell us that we were not ready to come to college because of our circumstances. Working toward something that you are really passionate about can help relieve some of the anxiety of this huge transition. Your first term will be the most awkward, uncomfortable, and terrifying experience of your life. And that’s okay — it gets better, we promise. You will feel like you don’t know what you’re doing — and maybe you don’t — but the more you surround yourself with people who encourage you, the more likely you will be to stick with it. You worked hard to get here, so congratulate yourself!
Remember, the things that work for others might not work for you. Keep in mind that while it is very important to have a network of friends and mentors, each person can only speak from their own experiences. Even if they’re trying to help, only you know what is best for you. Find other people who have been where you’re going. With all the extra steps and hoops that students with disabilities have to go through just to get to the same stage as their peers, students may often feel frustrated and alone. It is very important to know that this could not be farther from the truth. Although it may be less common, we are out there fighting the same fight!
Check out the resources section of our website for more useful info!
What tips would you share for succeeding in college as a student with a disability? What was your experience going to college? Comment below!
Cole, J. (n.d.). Teens with Disabilities Need Transition Services.