I entered college straight out of being mainstreamed for my entire school career and having fought against every accommodation the practical people who loved me encouraged me to put on my IEP. In school, my parents could insist that I be given the option to use large print material, and the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) put an onus on the school to both identify needs and provide accommodations.
At the college level, the process is different. The burden of requesting and documenting the need for accommodations rests on the student and family. Although my parents met with disability services at the university I attended during orientation week, they could not predict how my needs would change with the transition from high school to college. It would be up to me to ask for accommodations as I needed them. Spoiler alert: I didn’t. Further spoiler alert: This was NOT the right choice.
I have since learned that I was not the only, or first, disabled student to ignore my own needs in favor of blending in during a period of life where it’s acceptable to stand out, or out of a misguided belief that I would be taking up more than my share of resources. I have only myself to blame for the energy it took to drag myself up endless flights of stairs rather than ask for an elevator key, or the stress of hitching rides on a campus where nearly everyone walked.
It was easy for me to justify not contacting disability services at my small school my freshman year when the office was staffed by just one, part-time, employee (although the size of the office did not affect the services they were required to offer). In my senior year, when the now full-time disability services coordinator began seeking out student note-takers – something I also needed in my classes -- my eyes were opened to the number of students who used disability services on campus. If I hadn’t been so determined to fit in I might have met more students with the same needs as I and not felt so alone.
Of course, people with disabilities were still a minority on campus, merely a larger minority than I’d thought. My misjudgment stems from the fact that often the disabilities were invisible and the accommodations provided were academic. And it’s likely there were more students with disabilities than those I saw. Plenty of students have disabilities that go undiagnosed until college and since universities are not required to identify issues in the same way as K-12 schools these students may feel as unworthy as I did, or they simply may not know what assistance the university is required to provide.
Throughout college I, an English major, lugged books around campus, sometimes two copies if the professor’s required edition had text too small for me to read. As it turns out, in addition to providing publisher-approved eBooks, disability services offices can scan entire texts and provide them in multiple formats. Note-takers might be paid or volunteers but they are a common accommodation. Similarly, disability services offices also provide proctors for students who need alternative testing environments. It does happen that a request not encountered before may be fulfilled in a unique way, but so long as a disability is documented, accommodations must be made.
The first time I stepped onto the campus of my alma mater I fell in love. My mother believed the relationship would never work out. Contrarian to the core, I said I would make it work. Unlike a romantic relationship, though, compromise was not the key here. It took me over three years to realize that doing my part in this situation meant spelling out what I needed in a clear and timely manner. I could not assume that someone would anticipate my needs and offer a solution or that just because a disability services office was under-staffed, that it couldn’t help me. This became abundantly clear when I found out that a young actress who uses a wheelchair had graduated from my university within six months of my enrollment. At that time, I would have assumed they had never seen a student with a physical disability.
The system is improving. By graduation, my university had a full-time disability services office. As more and more students use their IEPs as blueprints for accommodations at the college level, accommodations will be easier to come by once they are requested. Professors will no longer be able to pretend they never heard the word “disability” until the passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, or those who do will retire. Likewise, I also became better at acknowledging my needs. After having graduated and moved on to graduate education at a school with a larger disability services office, I afforded myself of its services.
Seeking out accommodations in college is self-advocacy, and may be a young person’s initial endeavor into advocacy that will lead to a passion for speaking up and out about disability rights and finding camaraderie with others on the same road. For those who still find it intimidating to ask if there is a way to move a class to a different room or have a key for the service elevator, remember this: Ed Roberts, the man now known as the godfather of the ADA, began his life as an advocate after enrolling in UC Berkeley and insisting that they provide the academic and residential accommodations he would need to be as successful as his typical peers. There is far more to his story, but in this case the primary takeaway is that, no matter how unlikely it seems, you are not the first, and you are not alone.