March 10, 2021

Searching for College With a Disability

Advising Leaders

This article was a collaboration between youth guest contributors Jaelyn Parker, Anaiss Arreola, Caleb Tighe from the inclusive design consultancy Make Just Right, and brightspotter Kate Ganim.

Many colleges and universities are expressing an increased interest in equity and recruiting diverse student populations. However, the process of searching for and applying to college remains inequitable and full of barriers for underrepresented students. In brightspot’s pre-COVID assessment of How Colleges and Universities Can Better Sustain Students of Color and Historically Underserved Students from April 2020, students with disabilities reported the lowest sense of personal growth and self-confidence, and the least positive experience with student services and facilities such as the library, athletic center, health center, and dining facilities. In a brightspot survey of 500 students in May 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, 82% reported being satisfied overall, compared with the 75% overall average. However, students with disabilities reported the largest percent increase in negative view of the value of their education, moving from 15% before COVID-19 to 30% after. 

In order to make true progress on equity and inclusion, higher education must consider and address the unique challenges of underrepresented students, including students with physical disabilities.

By taking some simple steps, higher-ed institutions can let students know that they are seen and accounted for, during the application process and beyond.

This requires a reversal of the question “Are students college-ready?” to a student-ready institution that meets students where they are, focuses on student support, and works towards equitable outcomes.

What follows are insights from three students: Anaiss, a high school senior, competitive swimmer, and wheelchair user based in northern California; Jaelyn, a high school junior and aspiring physician with cerebral palsy who is also based in northern California; and Caleb, a transgender 20-year old graphic designer with an upper limb difference who is based in Boston. Anaiss has submitted college applications and is eagerly waiting to hear back, Jaelyn is planning and preparing to apply to college, and Caleb has foregone his pursuit of a college degree due to the obstacles he faced in taking several college courses during high school.

These youths developed these insights to help institutions better understand the perspective of those searching for a college with a disability, and the unique challenges they face.

Our Perspective

We are Jaelyn, Anaiss, and Caleb: youth with mobility issues or limb difference. While we can confidently say that we are not alone in experiencing the following barriers, our experience does not reflect the experience of all underrepresented students, or all youth with disabilities. We recognize that other groups face their own unique set of barriers as they pursue higher education.

We share our perspective with the intention of bringing the “invisible barriers” we face to light. Our hope is that those of you in higher ed will take action to reduce the barriers that we, and so many others, face in pursuing our education. The accessibility of your college or university is going to make or break whether we enroll there.

The accessibility we are looking for goes far beyond physical access and ADA requirements. The qualities of inclusion that we evaluate fall into four main categories: physical accessibility, academic accommodations, social and cultural inclusion, and adjustment to independent living.

Physical Accessibility

While ADA requirements are a helpful start, they are not universally available on campuses because of exemptions (e.g., legacy buildings or religious institutions), or gaps in facilities maintenance. In an ADA compliant building, the alternatives offered, such as elevators or ramps, are not always convenient. Movable furniture is not regulated by the ADA, so classrooms do not always have furniture that is comfortable or appropriately located for us.

Based on these types of factors, our impression is that an institution’s degree of physical accessibility is based on their willingness to invest in being inclusive.

The topography of a campus and the surrounding area can also play a big role, as we need to be able to go to the grocery store, doctor’s office, out with friends, and on dates. This freedom is critical for us to be able to participate in college life like anyone else.

Academic Accommodations

Institutions often do not provide enough information on how to transition to new academic accommodations, such as preparing our IEPs. This lack of information has made some majors feel prohibitive to us: for Caleb, who has one hand, was not permitted to join an American Sign Language (ASL) college course because the professor believed two hands are required for ASL. For Anaiss and Jaelyn, wheelchair users interested in pursuing medicine, both are uncertain about the accommodations that they can expect, including having lab benches at an appropriate height and wide enough clearances in lab classrooms to fit their wheelchairs.

Social and Cultural Inclusion

When we visit campus, we will be hyper aware of how people react to us. We want to be seen as peers, not the token disabled students. Seeing other students with disabilities and learning about affinity groups and clubs sends a strong message to us that the campus and courses are accessible and welcoming. This sense of feeling comfortable and accepted also extends to faculty. We have loved working with faculty who know that they don’t fully understand our experience, know that we do things differently, and continue to push us without sacrificing their expectations about what we can accomplish.

Adjustment to Independent Living

Some of us rely on our parents for daily basics and managing medications and doctor appointments, so living independently is a significant change. On-campus housing introduces a number of challenges, such as the proximity to a bathroom and laundry room, since we can’t carry the necessary items very far. Sharing a dorm room or bathroom requires negotiating space (our medical equipment can take up a lot of room) and potentially puts us in a vulnerable position if we are living with a student who is insensitive or unaware. Securing a job is another pain point for us, as most entry-level jobs are highly physical or require typing very quickly.

“Medical equipment can take up a lot of space.” This image shows the medical equipment that is regularly used by one of our authors.

Making Invisible Barriers Visible

In normal times, campus tours are the most helpful—though far from ideal—tool for us to begin evaluating a college. Restricted access to college campuses because of the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the already elevated levels of stress that prospective students with disabilities face. Anaiss expects that she will have one month from when she gets accepted to when she must make a decision. This gives her a very short span of time to assess the accessibility and inclusivity of potential schools that she has not been able to visit, with no clear way to gather the information she needs.

As we evaluate colleges, we are also planning for our accommodation requests. In our experience, faculty are generally unprepared to support students with disabilities, which means we have to reach out, arrange our own accommodations, and educate them on how to best support us. This places a significant administrative and emotional burden on us that should be taken on, or at least shared, by the institution.

These additional invisible barriers can be insurmountable to some students with disabilities and cause them to give up on attending college altogether. This results in further exclusion from society, particularly from the job market, and can severely undermine their ability to live independently in the long term.

Screenshot of a dorm room from a typical virtual university tour, with questions we are wondering

How Institutions Can Change

There are some small changes higher ed institutions can make to reduce stress and lower these invisible barriers, and send a clear message to students with disabilities that they belong on your campus:

  1. Offer individual campus tours upon request. When we visit campus, we’re evaluating navigability and access. General group tours are helpful, but often don’t focus on the information we really need. We are also worried about keeping up with the group.
  2. Provide digital resources and events on campus inclusion. Especially when we aren’t physically able to go to campus, provide resources and events that realistically portray accessibility and inclusion on your campus, including clubs and affinity groups. Share information about specific programs that might seem restrictive to students with disabilities (e.g., labs).
  3. Have current students with disabilities share their experience. Create a space for current students with disabilities to post content or host events to answer questions about accessibility and the social and cultural scene on campus in an authentic way.
  4. Represent students with disabilities as being part of your campus culture. Seeing diversity in your student body in the literature, on your website, and on campus helps us feel like we would not be the only student with a disability on campus.
  5. Conversation with a Counselor/SAS Office. Have counselors reach out to accepted students to provide information on switching IEP’s and student support plans, setting up course accommodations, and to help think through how they would live on or off campus. Provide support to reduce students’ administrative burdens, including helping to coordinate OT, PT, speech services, and psychology services.
  6. Provide a peer mentor program. Connect enrolled students with disabilities with a current student with a similar disability to help them navigate the transition to college and share how they were able to successfully address the multitude of challenges they faced.
  7. Faculty training and awareness programs. Lift the burden of educating others about their disability off of students by giving faculty a basic set of tools for supporting students with disabilities in their classes.
  8. Listen to your underrepresented students. Invite them to share the challenges they faced when applying to your school and to co-create solutions to improve your institution’s process for future students.

Moving Towards Equity

This article reflects the perspectives of three young adults with limb difference or mobility issues, and is not intended to address the challenges of all underrepresented students or students with disabilities, who have their own unique challenges when applying to college.

DEI starts long before students get onto your campus. Consider what the experience might be like looking through someone else’s lens and be intentional about the early touchpoints in your recruitment and application process. Get input from underrepresented students on your campus—they will know best what the challenges are.

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