Eva Sweeney, Hannah Langlie, Julie McGinnity and GimpGirl Community (posted by Jennifer Cole) - March 28, 2014
This is one of the best articles advising students with disabilities in college that I have ever read. The core of the piece is the tips and stories of three women with different physical and sensory disabilities who are at various stages of higher education. I made a few notes as I read:
- I’m not sure the focus in high school transition planning for disabled students on “menial jobs” is because teachers and counselors assume students won’t go to college. College is truly not for everyone. It might be more accurate to say that schools from K-12 are still not very good at identifying disabled students who should go to college and have the ability to do so if they have the right supports. By the time students reach “transition” age … generally age 13 and older … a lot of the key decisions have already been made, and it’s very hard to turn a student around from a vocational path to a college path in four years or less.
- Some transition programs are staffed by disabled adults and include peer mentoring, but surprisingly few. Most are just as the article describes … staffed by able-bodied professionals. There is nothing wrong with being an able-bodied educational professional, but it means that certain key qualities will be missing from the program.
- Ironically, a lot of the bureaucracy and paperwork they cite in school transition programs is there to make sure schools don't ignore transition planning completely. Before rules and regulations were developed to require it, most schools didn’t bother with transition planning at all. Unfortunately it is true that teachers end up spending at least as much time making sure they document their work as they do actually doing their work with students. It is less of a problem with teachers who believe in their students’ potential, because they will generally find it easier to write meaningful plans when they actually believe in them. It’s much worse with teachers and counselors who are disillusioned or profoundly skeptical that their students can achieve higher levels of learning and functioning.
- I found it interesting that the only positive things either of the three women say about the disability services offices of their colleges was about their logistical support … like maintaining campus accessibility maps and obtaining braille and other accessible technologies. None of them mentioned counseling, tutoring, or even arranging accommodations with professors. All three women say that they arranged their own accommodations directly with professors, and in fact they underscored the importance of keeping up a constant communication with professors about their needs and procedures. Yet, most college disability offices say that it is their job to arrange accommodations and act as mediators between students and professors. It seems like there is a perception gap between what disability offices define as their mission, and what disabled students actually want.
- For me, the most meaningful and eloquent quote in the article was from Hannah, about managing personal care attendants:
“I always (jokingly but seriously) say that I did not come to college in order to have five more people try to be my mother. It’s funny, but it’s true. I have to often remind people that I am not the “child” that some people refer to me as and I am still in charge.”
- The women also each talked about strategies for putting professors and fellow students at ease, to make social life better, but also to facilitate discussion and full participation in class.
- Overall, the three women in the article took responsibility for their accommodation needs, and didn't seem to mind it. What they wanted from their disability services offices wasn't someone to fix everything, but simple cooperation and follow-through.
I don’t know much about current practices at college disability services offices. My impression from limited exposure to them is that 80-90% of their time and attention is on tutoring and academic accommodations for large numbers of students with learning disabilities, and that the logistical needs of physically disabled students tend to be afterthoughts. To the extent this is accurate, there are probably somewhat understandable reasons for this.
For one thing, there are probably a lot more learning disabled students than physically disabled students at most colleges and universities. Second, there may be a perception that physically disabled students are more self-reliant, and that once a campus is largely “accessible”, there isn’t much left to do for them. Third, my sense is that these offices draw in staff who come mostly from the education field, and are therefore most professionally interested in academics, somewhat less comfortable with advocacy and negotiation with other academics (the professors), and even less familiar with accessibility and technology which call for engineering and problem-solving skills, not teaching or advising skills.
When I was in college, my only accommodation needs were physical, and I had almost no interaction with the Academic Skills Center, which was nominally in charge of disability-related services. That was 25 years ago, and I know through a friend in my class that they were doing some really good and probably ahead-of-its-time work in identifying and accommodating learning disabilities. But, for physical accessibility, it didn't seem like there was anyone in particular to go to. Fortunately, most of the places I needed to go were accessible to me, but I didn't push the envelope, either. Looking back, there are several key college experiences I simply skipped because it seemed like too much hassle to try and rig up accommodations for them. I suspect things have changed there, but I wonder how much.
I also wonder if any colleges have separate offices and coordinators for academic accommodations and physical accessibility? Or, they could have distinct and carefully staffed divisions within disability services offices.
I would be very interested in hearing about other disabled peoples' experiences in college. What worked for you and what didn't? What would you change if you could?