Choosing a college isn't a simple process. When you have special
needs, it seems even harder. Even the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't
mean that all schools are created equal when it comes to the services they
offer disabled students. Most schools have disability offices or departments,
but each school's budget and benefactors impact how many services they're
able to offer. Some schools even have scholarships for students with specific
"There are some dynamic differences from school to school,
depending on size and resources, and to some extent the amount of investment
they're making in fully including people," says Michael Hudson, director of
the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD) at Michigan State
RCPD was founded before the Rehabilitation Act
of 1973, a federal mandate protecting disabled people from being discriminated
against. At the time, MSU understood mobility issues and visual and hearing
impairments. "By the 1980s, we saw the rise of the 'invisible disability'
with learning disabilities. And in the 1990s, we saw a newer
trend of psychiatric disabilities," Hudson says.
"The biggest challenge
now is the influx of students with mental health-related disabilities, such
as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), depression, anxiety and ADHD (attention-deficit
hyperactivity disorder)," says Jack Trammell, director of disability support
services at Randolph-Macon College.
In the past decade, Hudson says
less than 30 percent of MSU students registered with the RCPD had visible
disabilities. More than half of those registered had a type of learning disability.
"The newest disabilities on our radar screen are some of the autism
spectrum disabilities, like Asperger's syndrome, that require a different
type of accommodation," Hudson says. Students with intellectual disabilities
can attend college too. Good candidates for this have a strong desire and
motivation to be part of a college program.
"The Career and Community
Studies (CCS) program accepts students who have a cognitive or intellectual
disability," says Rebecca Daley, program coordinator of CCS at the College
of New Jersey. "Students in CCS have a variety of disabilities -- autism,
ADHD, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, Williams syndrome, etcetera."
any student, the first thing a disabled student should ask is if the school
has an academic program that interests them.
"The things I looked
into, honestly, had nothing to do with disability," says Jessica Espinoza,
a legally blind student at Southwestern University. "Of course I asked about
their Center of Academic Services, but mostly what I looked at was the atmosphere
and size of the campus."
Espinoza chose a small campus that suited
her. However, smaller campuses don't always have the funding or experience
to deal with students with serious disabilities.
Randolph-Macon is a small campus. "Randolph-Macon College makes academic,
housing and environmental accommodations for students with disabilities,"
Trammell says. "This is something that simply wasn't done formally 15 years
Hudson says disabled students shouldn't dismiss larger schools
because of campus size. "The 'bigness' brings with it resources and a broad
range of possibilities. We're big, but we can still offer a small campus feel."
Students can choose residence halls near where their classes will
be held, and transit options are available on most large campuses. "Yes, there
are challenges with larger campuses, but challenges end up helping us develop
our skills too," Hudson says.
Many students -- disabled or not --
arrive at college having been used to things being prearranged for them. "We
call on a student to use these four years to develop the ability to advocate
for themselves, learn how to communicate about their needs, and learn how
to organize the services and accommodations that they'll need for the rest
of their lives," Hudson says, adding, "We're there as a backdrop if they need
Programs like RCPD and CCS offer disabled students support and
a sense of community. "CCS has a very strong mentor program that creates opportunities
for CCS students to become very involved in campus life, as well as receive
academic support in their classes," Daley says. In addition to academic skills,
the program focuses on career development and life skills enhancement.
emphasizes ability and opportunity. "First we start by framing things in a
positive way," Hudson says. "Yes, you've got disabilities or challenges or
issues that you've got to work around. But we won't get very far if we just
talk about what you can't do. Let's talk about what you can do. Let's talk
about the opportunity that higher education represents."
typical questions about academics and campus life, there are additional concerns
for disabled students. Parents and students want to be sure that it will be
possible to flourish there.
"Parents and students should visit each
potential campus and ask blunt questions about how disability is viewed on
campus," Trammell says.
"What is the attitude about disability at
the school?" Hudson adds. "Is it seen as something we have to do, so we do
it? Or is it an attitude of, we really want to see people with disabilities
excel, and we're investing in that vision of ability and opportunity?"
the school's official position, Trammell says to ask how other students and
faculty respond to the disabled. "Does it seem to be a school where various
types of students are welcome and appreciated? Or is the student body one-dimensional?"
The physical landscape should be considered too. If it's a large school,
does it have the transportation you need? Is this particular school suited
to your specific needs? Are there others on campus with disabilities similar
Hudson says that the most important question is, "What are
my skills, and are there any skill development areas I need to build?"
spent several weeks over the summer working with an orientation and mobility
specialist, learning her way around Southwestern's campus.
here once or twice a week and just walked the campus so I could figure out
how each building related to the other buildings," Espinoza says. "Orientation
and mobility is a great start, but so much is trial and error field work,
because you can't put all of that ... theory into practice until the campus
is fully populated."
Visually impaired students should order accessible
textbooks -- in Braille, large print or audio -- early, since can they take
a long time to arrive. Before ordering, Hudson suggests checking that the
professor hasn't changed texts at the last minute.
setting up readers since textbooks never arrive in time, and arranging for
scribes if necessary. But her biggest piece of advice for any disabled student
is: Don't be afraid.
"We go into college believing there are insurmountable
obstacles we'll have to conquer. But they're really not insurmountable," Espinoza
says. "They're tiny hurdles at [worst]. And you don't realize how many hurdles
you can best until you get to college. Don't be afraid of hurdles. Take risks
-- they're good for you."