An Accessible School Can Be Life Changing. Here’s How to Find One.

Person in wheelchair attending college lecture

By choosing a college or university wisely, those who live with paralysis or another disability can earn an advanced degree in spite of the myriad challenges they face. 

I have spina bifida and graduated with an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Illinois and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. I’ll be the first to say that it wasn’t easy. But if you follow these tips for choosing the right school, you will have fought – and won – half the battle. 

Choose a School Where You Can Be Your Own Advocate

“A student can be their own advocate by touring campuses ahead of time, asking important questions to foster their own success, and requesting needed accommodations from their office of students with disabilities,” says Mary Ann Ehlert, who has worked in various ways with people with disabilities for 30 years and founded Protected Tomorrows.

Find out about services offered to people with disabilities right away, and seek continued counseling and support.

For example, ask for accommodations like reserved seating in an otherwise inaccessible classroom. Even better, ask that a class be moved to an accessible building and classroom.

College professor helping student with disability

Choose a School That Understands the Needs of People With Disabilities

Select a school with faculty who understand what people with disabilities need and are ready and willing to help. In the U.S., understanding needs means more than just knowing what the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says, because the ADA’s provisions aren’t always enough.

“Education is critical,” Ehlert says. “The ADA is not always the same as accessibility. The ADA is the minimum, but making an environment actually accessible goes beyond it. There are architects and consultants who might help the college identify the simple things that could be done, and a team of people with disabilities could support that effort to put real-life solutions in place.”

“The ADA is not always the same as accessibility,” Ehlert says. “The ADA is the minimum, but making an environment actually accessible goes beyond it.”

Alex Anderson-Kahl, a nationally certified school psychologist who specializes in helping children and young adults with disabilities in educational settings, says to look for a school with programs similar to the “Faculty Awareness and Training in the Classroom” program at the University of Arkansas. This program educates faculty about disabilities and offers teaching strategies.

He also says that workshops similar to those offered by the Association on Higher Education and Disability can help educate faculty. These workshops could, for example, include case studies showcasing the benefits of providing accommodations, he says.

Ideally, schools should have a system for anonymously reporting when accommodations are denied or students with disabilities feel discriminated against. Make sure that such a system has teeth.

“A three-strike rule could be introduced, where professors who consistently fail to accommodate students face disciplinary actions, ranging from mandatory retraining to suspension,” Anderson-Kahl says.

Wheelchair access ramp at college

Choose a School With Accessible Transportation and Facilities

This one is obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. When you visit a school, make sure you can get everywhere you would need to go if you were a student there. 

Find out if campus buses and other modes of transportation are accessible.

The same goes for campus facilities, including classroom buildings, dorms, libraries, common areas, etc. For starters, ask:

  • Are there enough curb cuts, ramps, and elevators?

  • Can the hallways and bathrooms accommodate wheelchairs?

  • How will you get into a building if, for example, it only has one ramp to a back door, and that door is locked at night when you might have a class or need to study?

Choose a School That Offers the Support Services You Need

Does a school you might attend have anyone to support you, or will you essentially be on your own? A robust support network is crucial, especially if you’re going away to college and will be far from your friends and family for the first time.

Support services for people with disabilities can include a variety of things like sports and fitness programs, healthcare services, exam accommodations, personal care assistance, note-taking services, and priority enrollment.

Financial support could mirror programs like the National Federation of the Blind’s scholarship program, which offers financial aid to blind college students, Anderson-Kahl says.

The point here is to determine exactly what help you will need and whether there would be someone to provide it.

University of Illinois Rehabilitation Education Center

I Was Happy With My Choices

I attended the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign for college, in part because it’s one of the most accessible universities in the U.S.

The entire campus is accessible, plus there are world-class recreation and athletic facilities for people with disabilities. And professors are generally mindful of accommodations that can and should be made.

I still had to figure out how to get myself around campus. All of the buses were accessible, but I chose to use a wheelchair (I normally walk with crutches) and push from class to class for some exercise.

The entire University of Illinois campus is accessible, plus there are world-class recreation and athletic facilities for people with disabilities.

Once I got to a building, I could park my wheelchair outside and walk in. Those who didn’t have that luxury could use the plentiful curb cuts, ramps, and elevators.

Unfortunately, not all colleges are as accessible as the University of Illinois, including the University of Pennsylvania where I went to law school (although it was accessible enough for me).  

Narrowing Your Search

Where should you start looking for an accessible college or university? One helpful resource is the Campus Disability Resource Database, which offers disability-related information from degree-granting colleges and universities across the U.S. (although some campuses only provide contact information).

Also talk to family and friends in the disability community who may know more about accessible schools in a given area. Take advantage of disability groups on social media. And if there are government-funded schools that interest you, talk to whatever agency provides the funding.

Once you’ve chosen a few schools that seem like a good fit, visit all of them in person. If you ask the right questions and explain your needs as you tour campuses, you’re more likely to find one that can work for you.

Have you been able to find an accessible college (or elementary school, middle school, or high school)? If so, how? If not, what frustrated your efforts? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

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