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My Tips for Going to College With a Physical Disability

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Going to college can be a challenge for everyone. It’s especially hard for someone with a physical disability to find a college that checks off not only academics, affordability, and location from their list of needs, but accommodations for their disability as well.

My experience as someone with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones, has been an interesting one. In high school, I had no idea of where I wanted to go, let alone what I wanted to study in college. My mother was insistent that we start looking for accessible colleges sooner rather than later. I started researching colleges and looking at their websites sophomore year, and then we started going on tours, both individually and with a group. My mom knew the right questions to ask, and I tested my wheelchair out on each campus.

We made a list of some of the things we deemed necessary for me to be able to go to college. It had to have a good disabilities coordinator, someone willing to go above and beyond to make college possible for me. Since I’m frequently in and out of a wheelchair, accessible housing and campus in general were musts. It had to be somewhat close to home in case of an emergency, and it also had to have a good program for my field of interest.

I got everything I wanted at Wisconsin Lutheran College. It’s small enough so that I can easily walk around campus and get around easily enough during those periods when I’m in a wheelchair. It has enough elevators and alternate routes to places so I can go anywhere I need to in a wheelchair. It’s got a great Christian atmosphere – very nurturing and loving for all types of people, not just disabled people. When I get tired wheeling myself, there’s always someone ready to help me get to class. It’s also right across the street from the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which just so happens to be where my specialists are. WLC also has a great history and English program, both of which are my majors.

My main takeaway from the college decision process is to know your strengths, but also know your weaknesses. Don’t feel left out just because you use a wheelchair or a walker, or because you need extra time to take tests. College is hard, but it’s doable too. The rewards you receive while at a physical college are too great to pass up. I’ve made incredible friends – most of whom are nursing majors, funny enough. I’m an officer of two different campus organizations, and I work as a Spanish tutor, all opportunities I would’ve missed had I not attended WLC.

A real college experience awaits you – just make sure you take your time and research all of your options first. Do you need underground tunnels to avoid winter weather? If you’re worried about financials, perhaps look at private colleges and universities that give out academic awards (money off of your tuition) for being a good student in high school – WLC does this, and it’s a lifesaver. Do you need wheelchair accessible residence halls? Perhaps you need a different meal plan, or you need to record all of your lectures because you can’t take written notes – that’s fine! That’s exactly what a disability coordinator is there for – to help you succeed! They are the link between you and getting to college. Meet with him or her early on in the process – you can even request to meet with your college’s coordinator while on a tour.

If you don’t feel comfortable with a college for whatever reason, don’t go there. Keep looking. I promise you, if it is meant to be, the right college will find you, and it may be where you weren’t looking. I did not think I wanted to come to Wisconsin Lutheran College, but as soon as I toured it, I knew. I felt at home in the Christian environment, and the freshman residence halls come equipped with wheelchair-accessible rooms for each floor. They’re also rated one of the best dorms in Wisconsin.

I’ve been lucky to have had only one fracture during these last three years at WLC; one that put me in a wheelchair for three weeks during the February of my freshman year. I’m not going to lie to you – that really sucked. It was hard being so independent at first – it was like I could forget about my disease, pretend that I was just a normal young woman having the time of her life – and then have to take a few steps backward again. But I did all right. I had friends help push me through the winter weather to most of my classes, and when I couldn’t find friends to help me, WLC’s amazing disabilities coordinator pushed me to class herself!

My professors are also more than willing to accommodate their classes for me should I need them to do so. Professors can even switch classrooms if for some reason their assigned room isn’t accessible for one of their students. I even requested a one-person wheelchair-accessible dorm before attending the college, which they were eager to make happen for me.

I’ve had a very rare opportunity to attend an incredible college, study what I love to learn, and grow as an optimistic young woman with a physical disability, all in an environment that is accessible for me. I think everyone deserves that opportunity.

Here are some tips on searching for disability-accessible colleges:

1. Start your search early in high school. This will give you the time you need to fully search and think about what is necessary for you to attend a college.

2. Visit colleges near you. Some people with physical disabilities need to be close to specific hospitals or areas close to where their family lives. Use the colleges in your area for your first choices. Even if you feel like living close by would be a drag, never fear! Living close by gives you the opportunity to come home during weekends, while also giving you the freedom to explore the area on your own and practice being independent.

3. Besides researching things like financial aid and academic programs, also research their campus. Is every building ADA accessible? And even deeper: is every building accessible for you, specifically? What about the size of the campus? Meet with the college’s disabilities coordinator to talk over living situations and ask questions. If a college does not have a disabilities coordinator, then chances are they’re not going to be the right college for you.

4. Get in touch with other people with physical disabilities who may have gone to the colleges you’re thinking about. What do they say about accessibility, both on-campus and off-campus? What about the res halls? What about the food?

5. Finally, go with your gut decision. If you fall in love with a college that has almost everything on your list, and the disabilities coordinator is willing to work with you so you can have a successful experience, then definitely go for it. However, if you don’t feel sure, it’s OK to take a step back and look at other possible alternatives. When you get there, don’t forget to be your own advocate – that’s what college is meant to do, to help you find your own voice. Use it wisely, and don’t be afraid to speak out.

Getty image by Noiponpan.

Originally published: July 1, 2019
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