Tips for Telling Your 'Disability Story' as a College Student

For the last several years, my time living and working on college campuses as a student and now administrator has led me to think of August as a time of new beginnings. The sight of new students beginning their college journeys makes me think of all I have learned, and all I am still learning, about living with a disability since I started college almost 10 years ago. In that spirit, here’s my best piece of advice for students with disabilities who are starting college: Tell your story — disability and all  — the way you want to!

It almost goes without saying that college will be an adjustment for everyone, but those feelings can be heightened if you are trying to navigate your disability in a new environment. As much as I had accepted — and even been comfortable with — cerebral palsy as part of my identity before I went to college, the process of helping classmates and professors understand what CP meant for me and to me was sometimes overwhelming. I learned three important lessons from this experience that I still try to live by today:

• Talk about your disability in a way that works for you. It’s always important to advocate for what you need with both friends and professors; however, you always have the freedom to talk about your disability as much or as little as you want. Only you know how your disability fits into your story — don’t be afraid to own it, and don’t feel like you need to either hide it or disclose information you are not comfortable with for the sake of the new people in your life. You will find people who are interested in embracing all of you for the great person you are!

• It’s not your job to make your disability OK for other people. While you’ll meet many people who appreciate and you for who you are and give you the respect you deserve, you may encounter people who use your disability as an excuse to be rude or unkind. Their ignorance is not your fault or your responsibility. Please don’t feel as though you need to minimize or justify your disability in an attempt to smooth things over. If someone on your campus makes you feel uncomfortable because of your disability, there are plenty of people, from your RA to your school’s office for students with disabilities who will be happy to offer you guidance and make sure you get the support you need and deserve.

• Remember — it’s a process, and that’s OK! Sometimes, especially in the beginning of college, my feelings about how CP impacted my experience changed by the day. Some days I would be able to laugh everything off, and other days I would take a friend’s innocent comment entirely the wrong way. My best advice for this is to be gentle with yourself and the people who care about you. Everyone has ups and downs regardless of ability, and that’s what makes life interesting. Do the best you can one day at a time. Learn what picks you up when you’re feeling down, whether that’s a Netflix marathon, chocolate, or a call to your mom, and don’t be afraid to treat yourself!

Like I said, the new school year can be a time for new beginnings. Remember that whatever your college journey has in store for you, you are more than capable of fulfilling your dreams. Good luck and have a great year!

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Thinkstock photo by Jack Hollingsworth. 

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