On Monday I went with my in-laws to drop my sister-in-law off at college. I was so excited that you would have thought I was the one starting on a new adventure. My sister-in-law has chosen to attend my alma mater, Grand Valley State University, and I can’t help but feel like her experiences there are partially my responsibility. I know that’s silly, but I just want her to have a great experience.
I loved college; it was easily four of the best years of my life, part of that is probably because high school was pretty terrible for me. I was the first person in my immediate family to attend a four year university. Having a disability seemed to make this accomplishment even more important, although I didn’t particularly think so. College was always something I knew I would do, but there were still some challenges that needed to be overcome. If you have a disability, and plan to attend college, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Every college has an office that is supposed to tend to the needs of students with disabilities. My advice is to contact these offices before you are admitted. That’s right, research the services that are provided for students with disabilities and make that research part of your decision to attend. Accessibility should not be the only reason you attend a college, but it should probably outweigh the male to female student ratio, or the food selections.
My second piece of advice is to visit the campus, more than once, before accepting admittance. Especially if you have a disability that will affect how you navigate the campus. Because I had visited Grand Valley several times before becoming a student, I knew I would need a power chair in order to be fully independent. I never considered a power chair before, at this point I had only been using a manual chair for a few years; this was not something I would have thought of had I not thoroughly toured the campus. When you visit campuses you might discover that you will want an aid, a service dog, or another accommodation to help you navigate. You may also discover that the campus is not as accessible as you had been led to believe.
My last piece of advice, do not be afraid to speak up and ask for the things you need. In my first year at GVSU, I found out that there were many small things that made it difficult for me; doors that had no buttons, counters that were too high, restroom stalls that were too small. I wrote a letter to a school newspaper called The Rant. Days after it was published, I was contacted by the dean who wanted to tour the school with me; I was able to point out the things that were not accessible and explain why they needed to be adjusted (which is not always obvious to those who don’t have disabilities). Not only were these things improved, my advice was used for future projects.
College can be a great experience. It can also be a not so great experience. Sometimes situations will be out of your control; but embrace the things you can control to make it the best experience possible. College isn’t just about getting a degree. It is also where you learn about yourself, your needs, your strengths, your weaknesses and really grow into yourself.