Applying to College as a Wheelchair User

Why was finding a college so difficult, asks Valerie Piro, even though all I needed was basic wheelchair access and a dorm room large enough for my physical therapy equipment?

April 6, 2017
 
iStock/simonkr
 

When I applied to college, I had used a wheelchair  --  the result of a spinal cord injury that paralyzed me from the chest down  --  for a little over half a year. I believed that every higher education institution was wheelchair accessible (after all, I was certainly not the first wheelchair user to go to college), and so I applied to colleges as if I were able-bodied. This, I quickly found out, was a mistake. I applied to eight institutions but only had the time and resources to visit two, one of which was a large research university.

The visit was a disaster. Multiple entrances to the main campus included staircases, and I had to circle around the campus before I found a flat entrance. Once I made it to the main campus, I wheeled over an unstable wooden plank placed over a short staircase. This, a tour guide explained, was a ramp.

I needed to use an elevator to get to another part of the campus, which was fine, except that the elevator was locked and campus security had the key. I pressed a button calling for security that was located by the elevator and waited about 15 minutes before a security guard who was doing his rounds showed up. He said the button I had been pressing was broken.

Later during that visit, I noticed an elevator to get into one of the libraries, but it was too small for my wheelchair. As if I didn’t have enough warning signs, I watched a student use his power chair across a section of cobblestones on the campus. As his chair bounced and jostled along the dangerously uneven surface, I wondered if I could withdraw my application and get a refund on the application fee. (You can’t.)

“How do wheelchair-using students get around?” I asked a tour guide.

He shrugged. “They manage.” I suppose I could’ve managed, too, for four years. But I had no guarantee that the situation wouldn’t get worse  --  like at Boston College, which, in part because of renovations, has faced federal and state investigations for possible violations of accessibility laws.

Besides, the lack of concern for my needs made me feel unwelcome. Physical space and a well-functioning infrastructure on a campus cannot be overlooked, especially when one has a disability. What better way to tell a wheelchair user that they don’t belong at a college or university than by strewing the campus with stairs, broken help buttons and pitiful excuses for ramps?

Although institutions of higher education are legally required to accommodate students with disabilities, in practice much of the responsibility for finding proper accommodations falls on the students themselves. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation recommends that college applicants who are living with paralysis “visit the campus beforehand whenever possible, to determine if all of your needs and concerns can be addressed” and provides a number of questions that wheelchair-using students should ask administrators to ensure that they can practically attend a particular institution. For example, how accessible is the campus, and what are the rules with regard to relocating courses in inaccessible buildings? While this advice is useful, it also presupposes that not all colleges and universities can provide sufficient accommodations for students with disabilities.

College administrations can get away with shirking their responsibilities because the legal requirements are so vaguely worded. The Americans With Disabilities Act has been around for over 25 years, and one would think that this law would prevent any roadblocks that students with disabilities face in their quest for higher education. But the legal language of the ADA requires “reasonable accommodations,” a phrase that is very much open to interpretation.

The disability services office at the second institution I visited assured me that a wheelchair-accessible dorm room was available, and they were more than happy to show me a room. But the room was small and could not have fit my physical therapy equipment (which I use regularly to prevent blood clots, muscle atrophy and pressure sores  --  some of which could result in hospitalization). It was also in a building at the bottom of a steep hill. Disability services said that this was because there was also a food court at the bottom of the hill  --  but the main library, classroom buildings and another food court were at the top. To the administration, this room, with its accessible bathroom and location within an accessible building that was near food, was a reasonable accommodation. But for a wheelchair-using student who also has to get to the library and to class, it was anything but.

Two unsuccessful campus visits later, it was obvious that I would have to vet both campuses and disability services offices before I committed to attend a college or university. If campus disability services and I disagreed on what constituted a reasonable accommodation before enrollment, then that did not bode well for the following four years.

Further, I needed to know that the disability services office was going to work with other administrative bodies and the faculty. In 2014, Inside Higher Ed reported that ignorance among faculty and staff members at certain colleges and universities made it difficult for students with disabilities to receive accommodations. Moreover, some students with invisible disabilities (like bipolar disorder) anticipated so much resistance that they were uncomfortable even disclosing that they needed assistance.

When students receive little administrative help, they must advocate for themselves in order to make college achievable. A Rutgers University study from 2012 found that students with disabilities are successful in college in large part due to self-advocating, mentoring and perseverance. As the tour guide at the large research university said, “They manage”  --  on their own.

Yet many new college students have just barely reached legal adulthood, and self-advocacy is as new to some of them as college life is to any freshman. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, students do not need to advocate for their needs in a K-12 setting because schools must serve their educational needs. In college, students suddenly need to manage their living arrangements as well as their educational needs, and having to fight for accommodation adds extra complication to an already difficult adjustment. College also introduces new bureaucracies, and, often, larger staffs and faculties, which can be overwhelming for any student, regardless of ability.

Down With Barriers

I took the Reeve Foundation’s advice seriously and sought out a college that could accommodate my disability. After I heard from the institutions that accepted me, I made a rule for myself: if I couldn’t find the disability services website on an institution’s page within two minutes, it was probably a bad fit. Whenever I could, I checked campus accessibility maps, shuttle schedules and other transportation services -- and even topographic gradients. (It turns out that one of my potential colleges was located on a hill, so there was another application fee I wasn’t getting back.) I reached out to disability services offices to get their perspective on what constituted a reasonable accommodation, and I eventually found a fit.

The thing that boggles my mind most about the experience is that finding a college was so difficult, even though all I needed was basic wheelchair access and a room large enough for my physical therapy equipment. What if my disability had more specialized requirements? What if my disability was invisible, or what if I was concerned about disclosing my disability? What would I have done, and how would I have decided on a college?

The mainstream attitude toward applying to college dictates that students with disabilities are responsible for finding an institution that accommodates them. Currently, students with disabilities must visit every college campus they’re seriously considering  --  a costly endeavor  --  and although some may have never had to advocate for themselves before, they must navigate university bureaucracies and vet disability services offices to ensure a good fit. Even if the disability services office is on top of its game, students may still encounter issues with a lack of services or general ignorance of their condition among faculty members and others.

This reality is completely unacceptable. Colleges and universities should be responsible for providing and improving existing accommodations. They need to get better at this, and they need to get better soon, because a growing number of students with disabilities are enrolling in institutions of higher education.

My wheelchair should never have been a barrier to higher education. Nobody’s should. If a student has been accepted to a college, their ability to attend should never be in question. It’s time to take the burden off students with disabilities in the application process and ensure that all college and universities can accommodate their needs.

Bio

Valerie Piro is an Ed.M. student in higher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This article originally appeared on The Establishment, a multimedia site run and funded by women.

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