What I Wish Colleges Understood About Disability and Financial Aid
All students face challenges and come across difficulties when it comes to their education and learning. As a disabled student who has both neurological and rheumatic conditions, I can easily say that the biggest adversity I face is inaccessibility. When I wake up on a college day, the first thing that crosses my mind is the pain I have to put myself through to get there. I dread the travel, complications caused by weather, and the fact that my college has poor disability access throughout its campus. And I know I’m not alone.
Under the U.K. Equality Act of 2010, all universities and colleges are required to make reasonable adjustments so disabled people can access their services and campus grounds. It is illegal in the U.K. for an educational system to treat disabled students unfavorably. Despite this, research completed by the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign shows that 40 percent of university inter-campus transport is inaccessible to disabled students, and 30 percent of university social and leisure facilities are not accessible to students with mobility problems.
Across America, an average of only 63 percent of disabled students were able to graduate from high school in the year of 2014. This rate was roughly 20 percent lower than the national average. In Nevada, Georgia and Mississippi, students with disabilities graduated from high school at half the rate of those without. In 20 states, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is lower than 60 percent.
Speaking from personal experience, I can firmly say that the college I attend does not have suitable disability access. There are three floors in total, with a lift that is difficult to get to and only reaches the second floor. This means that disabled students are left in a lot of pain from multiple flights of stairs, few of which have support rails or banisters. There is no wheelchair access to the main reception of the college and other entrance points, nor are there any ramps. There is no wheelchair route inside of the college either. You are expected to get out of your wheelchair when you arrive, go up steps and inclines to get into the college, and then you must spend the rest of your day without your wheelchair. People who cannot walk can’t get into the college at all, and it leaves part-time wheelchair users without the safety of their chair, having to go through pain and fatigue.
There aren’t directions or signs throughout the college for those with learning difficulties, and some of the few messages which are available aren’t in multiple formats for people with different needs. When getting around the college, you’re met with steep inclines, heavy doors without automatic systems, flights of stairs and narrow hallways. It feels like a dangerous maze. This leaves students with muscle weakness needing supervision to get up a single flight of stairs, and somebody to open doors for them. A walker is not suitable to be used, nor are crutches, due to the size of certain corridors and the leveling of the ground at some parts of the college. And, of course, the dreaded stairs. My independence is taken away and there is no access that allows disabled students to feel safe. There are countless times I’ve been left breathless, hurt, struggling and sore at the end of my day from the fact that students with disabilities and limited mobility are not cared for. Flares have been triggered and I’ve been without my regular mobility aids.
On the bright, lovely, sunny side, one thing comforted me when it came to accessing college. When I started my studies, I was given support regarding finance – a lump sum paid into my bank account that paid for my travel to and from college for the first term. Each week I would purchase a bus pass, which gave me unlimited travel for seven days. This allowed me to get to college on my timetabled days, as well as any other days I could manage to use the library, access college resources, and attend special events and college catch-up sessions. This was a huge help to me, as I could use my own savings (that come from my disability benefit) to cover any other health-related or college costs, including taxi fares to offsite locations, splints, braces and bandages, self-treatment for any injuries, therapy for during flares, support and aids, and books and stationary, to name a few. Originally, I would not have been able to afford these things as I would have only had enough for the travel to college, since I am from a low-income family.
However, this financial help only remains available to those who keep their attendance above 90 percent, no matter what the reason for absence.
I was unable to do this. Making my way around a college with poor disability access, in a busy main city, during the season when my conditions are at their worst, took its toll on me. I missed a lot of my timetabled days and completed a lot of assignments and work at home.
Anybody with a chronic illness, disability or medical condition knows you are often faced with unexpected circumstances. Things don’t always run smoothly. You could suddenly start experiencing a flare, medication side effects, or your current medication could randomly stop working. You could be in need of an emergency doctor’s appointment. Most conditions vary day-by-day, so what you can do changes very quickly. You could be left housebound, or unable to manage and balance personal care as well as your education. My point is, you don’t know what you might have to face. And if you’re having to push yourself, or if you’re having to travel to a place without the disability support you need, you will probably be left feeling at your worst.
That’s why I’m writing this article. Because I want people to know that. I want my college to know that. I wish my college would have considered these unexpected circumstances before they took my student financial aid away.
My second term starts this new year. I am going to fight to get my aid back, so I can complete my course and care for myself to the best of my ability. In the meantime, there is a lot of support I won’t be able to afford, and a lot of ways I will continue to struggle. So I will search for a new bright, lovely, sunny side and hope that one day, all colleges and universities will be thinking about their disabled students when determining how to qualify for aid.
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