By Madi Tortora
College is a time for students to slowly become more mature and independent while developing within their surroundings. It can be an extremely stressful time for all students, but particularly for students with disabilities.
Making sure that colleges have certain accommodations is completely in the hands of the student, according to the ADA, or the Americans with Disabilities Act. This act basically states that once a student arrives on campus, it is their responsibility to disclose their disability and voice the accommodations they need to properly succeed on campus.
“The limitations an individual may encounter while attending any university, whether it be Washtenaw Community College or going on to a four year program, depends upon what functional assistance they need in order to adapt to the changes that may exist in the university setting,” said Carolyn Grawi, director and CEO of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. “If they have the appropriate support, then they’re going to be successful wherever they’re attending. Not everybody with a disability needs support, but each individual needs to decide what support they may need to be successful.”
According to most recent government figures, about 11 percent of undergraduates, or over 2 million students, have a disability. Most have learning disabilities, like dyslexia or attention deficit disorder, but 15 percent have an orthopedic or mobility impairment, 6 percent have a hearing impairment, and 3 percent are blind or visually impaired.
High schools and elementary schools alike are under the IDEA, or the Individual Disability Education Act, which essentially requires schools to provide the correct accommodations for their students to have a successful high school career. This differs once they enter college, among other things.
Claire Abraham, the entrepreneurship center coordinator at WCC, lived on campus at University of Michigan during her undergrad. After having a difficult time with the resource office, she learned that living on campus with spinal muscular atrophy actually made her more independent.
“There weren’t really any other people with that severe of a disability living on campus, so (the disability resources) just didn’t really know where to point me to. It took me about two years to figure out living independently, and I am now living in an apartment and still living independently, so that was a great experience,” Abraham said. “I feel like if I had continued commuting or went to more of a commuter school, maybe I would’ve felt more included, but I’m glad I didn’t do that because I was then able to move out of my parents’ house and be independent.”
Many college’s disability offices recommend submitting forms right after acceptance or even before applying, just to make sure that their requests are met in time and to make sure that the college is right for the student. Students with mobile disabilities that require a wheelchair may have a harder time on campuses with larger hills, and the disability offices can help advise on that.
“When students are new to a university, they have to do orientation to see where buildings are and how to get around them. So, if you’re a person who was using a wheelchair, you would need to know where curb ramps are, where accessible bathrooms are, where accessible doors are, and how to get to point A to B in the limited time that you have between class,” Grawi said.
Grawi also highlighted how cutting across campus between tight class transitions can be easier for students who don’t have mobility issues, and thus disabled students have to take this time constraint into account.
Students who have other types of disabilities, such as being blind or deaf, also have to take extra steps to make sure that they’re in the driver’s seat of their education. Blind students are in charge of making sure that they are aware of cues from how to get from building to building, which could be in braille or large print. Deaf students need to make sure that there is an option for sign language interpreting, or to use CART. CART stands for Communication Access Realtime Translation, and that is when everything that is spoken in a room is placed on a screen, and the student can then read what they see.
When colleges accept people with disabilities, they say that they will make essential spaces accessible, like libraries or certain classrooms. Being able to change desks with attached chairs into tables with detachable chairs is an example of an easy fix that could affect someone’s educational opportunities.
“At U-M, a lot of the classrooms had desks where the chairs were attached. The tables were more ideal,” Abraham said. “I would have to tell the disability office all of the classrooms I was in each semester, and they would find a table to bring to the classrooms. They put a sticker on it that said ‘please do not move from this room,’ but a lot of the time they would get moved, which was a little frustrating.”
It is extremely important that colleges take the struggles that students with disabilities face seriously, and go the extra mile to make sure that they feel comfortable on campus. As Grawi said, it’s pertinent that students are able to be in the driver’s seat of their education and are in charge of asking for what they need to be successful.
“I’ve learned that the label of disability is rarely something you’re born with. Too often, it’s something that other people decide for you. Though I sometimes feel the burden of my existence, I will not be bound by the limitations set before me, by those of my body or by those of this world,” said Ola Ojewumi in a column about her disability for CNN. “I will continue to tell the world that when you lessen the opportunities and expectations of young people, their disability is not what’s crippling them.”