Ten Questions for College Students with Physical Disabilities
There are many concerns in choosing a college–especially for students whose mobility is compromised by physical disabilities. While the newest college buildings on college campuses have been designed and built in compliance with the Federal Americans with Disabilities Act, most campuses also have older buildings that were designed over a century before. I have been to schools that are built into hills, for example. A wheelchair-bound student would have tremendous difficulty going up those hills. Clearly the topography of a campus should be a consideration for a student who must travel in a wheelchair or use a cane.
But I’ve come to learn that there are several other questions such as:
- What do I need to do to request accommodations? Every school has forms and processes, though you may find some that will take immediate steps when the disability is obvious.
- Does the college have a physical education requirement? If so, am I exempt or is there another way to fulfill it? Most schools have a large choice of physical education courses, including several that do not involve competitive sports. Are there accommodations in classes to be aware of?
- Are all lavatories in residence halls and student apartments handicapped-accessible, or are some floors and units set aside to accommodate them? It’s possible to see this on a campus tour, if the residence hall you see has such accommodations. Otherwise, it is prudent to ask the admissions office if a tour guide could show you a hall that has the accommodations you’re most likely to need.
- Are disabled students charged the same,or more,for rooms or apartments that offer special accommodations? In theory they should not pay more than students without disabilities, especially if the space can be used by students with or without disabilities.
- Are disabled students given single rooms? Again, living arrangements vary. But a single room can be a lonely situation for anyone going away to college for the first time.
- Is physical therapy delivered on campus by trained professionals, or by professionals nearby? Some schools have paid professionals, and if they offer a degree in their field, student assistants. If there are no professionals employed on campus, you should find out how transportation arrangements can be made to see them off campus.
- Are campus buses wheelchair and/or handicapped accessible? I went to Rutgers, a school where campus buses are a part of daily life, so I had to ask this question. The school operates the second-largest bus system in New Jersey. The newest buses have lifts and mounts for wheelchair-bound students.
- How easy/difficult is it for a freshman to get a handicapped parking permit? Very important on campuses where parking for everyone is scarce.
- Are access ramps among the first paths cleared in the event of freezing rain or snow? Some schools clear everything right away, especially those in cold-weather states where people are used to icy conditions or snow. Then there are schools like Purdue that have tunnels connecting buildings.
- Does the off-campus housing office maintain a list of landlords who provide proper access in their buildings? This is not an obligation of most colleges, including those that have a high percentage of students who live off campus. If you plan to attend such a school, usually a large public university or a school based in a very large city, pick up the rental apartment circulars. While some schools may guarantee housing to college students with physical disabilities for the duration of their education, others may not own enough spaces to fulfill such a promise.
I am fortunate to have earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one of the most accommodating schools for college students with physical disabilities. Not only is the campus flat; walkways are well-marked and well-lit and access ramps are part of every building. The mass transit district has very good customer service. The housing office has worked with private landlords on a regular basis since GIs arrived on campus after World War II. Not all schools are as barrier-free as the University of Illinois. But I’m proud that they set a high bar for the rest to follow.