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Colleges Often Aren't Prepared for Disabled Individuals

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This place that’s intended to be a vast opportunity for personal and academic growth.

We spend our entire youth being a student. For me, middle school was that turning point of understanding the implications my education, grades and effort put forth had on my entire future. So from the time I was maybe 13 to senior year of high school, I strove to be the best in all areas. I wanted to be a well-rounded student with a diverse set of activities and clubs so that when it came time to go off to college, I’d be at an advantage.

I discovered early on that I didn’t need to take every AP class to get exactly what I wanted. Hell, I didn’t even attend the AP class I did take, and still had a perfect grade and an 4 on the AP exam.

I don’t remember studying for anything other than Honors World History and Chemistry. I vividly remember my valedictorian level friends joking about how angry I made them when I finished assignments quicker or got answers more easily in math classes.

But I did everything I was supposed to.

I remember laughing when I was rejected from National Honor Society because at my school you had play a sport to truly be considered – funny they didn’t care that I had a knee injury. They didn’t want kids who excelled in classes and also had jobs outside of school. It didn’t fit the image. But I was president of the math honor society and my engineering club, so it didn’t hurt my feelings.

Yet none of this mattered.

It didn’t matter that I was accepted to Clemson before I’d applied.

It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d gone to Duke or started my journey at Mount Mary instead.

Because even though I’m a student and have always loved every aspect of learning and furthering my education, colleges can’t provide me with an education.

Why not?

I sit back and look at the picture taken from the top of Strode Tower on Clemson’s campus. You can barely see a third of the campus.

Everything about Clemson was supposed to be full of smiles and joy and everyone’s blood should have been orange, because that’s how much pride they have in the school. But I almost failed calculus because I took a test blinded by a migraine and had to battle the entire mathematics department for some sort of accommodation. That second semester, I had to battle the accommodations office to get some sort of letter in hopes of making my migraines less of a barrier to my education.

I remember the first few meetings I had with professors, trying to awkwardly explain the letter. I don’t even truly remember what kind of accommodation it provided me with, I think it may have been something small like an extra absence with medical proof — medical proof I couldn’t receive because I wasn’t in a Tricare Prime service area.

I remember one of my professors looked at me at the beginning of the conversation and flat out told me she didn’t want an explanation. That hurt my feelings, because I felt like I had to give an explanation and she wouldn’t let me.

I look at the rest of campus. I look at other conditions and disabilities. I can’t imagine trying to maneuver my way around Clemson’s giant campus using a wheelchair. Sure, you can do it. There are accessible paths everywhere. But in the 15 minutes between classes?

Now you’re a wheelchair user and you enter your lecture class from the top of the hall, because odds are the doors at the front of the lecture room are locked — so you’re stuck. You’ve now got a seat at the very back. Can you even hear the lecture? You certainly can’t get down to the professor after class is over.

And the doors. There are so many doors, and old campuses have heavy doors. And large buildings have heavy doors as fire precautions. I’m not a wheelchair user, but I struggle with doors constantly.

Clemson’s accessibility and accommodations were a joke. I was left feeling as if my migraines weren’t real because they couldn’t assist me further than an extra absence. I felt that they didn’t want me to get an education there, they just wouldn’t say it out loud.

And so my journey landed me at a much smaller school. A school that had tunnels connecting the three main buildings so I never had to attempt to go outside.

There would be plenty of time between classes to move around campus in a wheelchair, except the ramps weren’t up to code. The one wheelchair elevator was extremely inconvenient to use. The halls in this old building were narrow.

But the accessibility office was truly a gift. There was one counselor and she knew everything about each one of her students. She took the time to understand our medical history. She took the time to see where we were having issues; she wanted our input as to how things could be adapted. All accessibility went through her. If we had an issue with a teacher, she would handle it or advise us on how to approach it.

If we missed too many days in a row, you could count on receiving a phone call just to check in and see if there was anything she could do on her end to help.

My first semester my accommodations weren’t perfect, but we took various incidents from that semester and rewrote my accommodation letter to ensure they wouldn’t be a problem the next semester.

She was the reason I didn’t have to medically withdraw during the spring. She showed me that I had the power to put my education in my own hands and make my own decisions that best fit my health situation.

But there comes a time where commuting to campus isn’t an option. So then what?

I remember speaking on the phone with the Art Institute and their online division. This was the only school I could find that had my existing program and offered it online. However, this online program was vigorous. You had to be a very special kind of student that was dedicated and on top of everything all the time to succeed.

It sounded like Clemson’s Architecture program, except online.

They didn’t like when I asked about accommodations. I mean, I was considering leaving my existing program because of my health, but with their words it became increasingly clear that this program was just an alternative, not a place welcoming to the disabled community. And it cost an arm and a leg and they truly expressed no interest in providing a financial incentive to switching into their program.

Maybe it’d be different now that I have the official “disabled” label, but from everything I’ve encountered schools often use disabled students to enhance their diversity, not to benefit the students.

So yes, I’m a student. But I can’t be a student at a university.

There isn’t a program that can be completed on my own schedule. There isn’t a financial counselor available unless I’m already paying into their school system. There isn’t a program that allows me to use my disability to my advantage and find a career perfect for me.

I want a career. I want a job I can love and that I can pursue regardless of my migraines. But the jobs they share in those monthly “jobs hiring for disabled or work from home positions” require a degree or years of experience.

A degree I cannot get. Experience that rides on that degree.

It doesn’t matter that I was the perfect student. It doesn’t matter how many people look down on me because I’m “wasting my talent” being disabled.

Because I’m disabled, I’m supposed to just accept what I can do. Which isn’t much considering how inconsiderate every institution is when it comes to disabilities.

Because I’m not the picture perfect student, the education system has decided I really can’t be a student at all. So just like that quirk within the National Honor Society application that caused it to favor athletes, my disability is the quirk that keeps me out of the education system.

Getty image by Denis Tangney Jr.

Originally published: March 18, 2019
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