Should my disability impact where I choose to study?

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Those of us who are disabled wish to have the same freedom of choice that other citizens enjoy and most people want the freedom to study where ever they would choose to. In reality though, most people do have a number of factors that weigh in their decision of where they will study including their: economics, aptitude, geographic location, desired field of study; and simply their ability to research a limited number of schools before needing to make a decision.

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Those of us who are disabled should also consider factors such as: the size of classes and how that will impact our ability to focus or necessitate being in close contact with large numbers of others; the geographic layout of campus and if this will complicate moving from class to class; the school’s familiarity with our particular disability; the available accommodations and applicable resources at each specific campus. While no one of these considerations is necessarily a deciding factor, it seems realistic to keep these points in mind as we reach a decision of where is the best fit for us to study.

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Individuals who find large numbers of people, or a great deal of noise distracting or distressing are generally poorly served by attending very large universities, where class sizes may be 500 – 2,500 students in their first year or two of study. There are a number of very good medium and small schools where potentially overwhelming numbers will not be a factor in a student’s success.

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Those with mobility issues should consider the availability of public transport or parking spaces if their intended campus is large enough to making traveling between classes a challenge. Climate is also a mitigating factor for many disabilities – snow, humidity, heat can each differently impact a person’s mobility or otherwise complicate a person’s health.

Some students like the challenge of being a trail blazer, which is usually what is required of a student when the school they plan to attend is unfamiliar with the disability the student is living with. In circumstances like this, it is best for the student to be in communication with the disability service provider months before they actually enroll — students may need to be very specific about the kind of accommodations that will be necessary and disability service providers will need to analyze a school’s capacity for being prepared.

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Students may also have a disability which requires them to be near a larger medical center, or a population center were more services are readily available than one would find in remote, rural locations — like the one where I currently work and live.

The institution where I currently work is isolated enough that obtaining sign language services usually means using a computer with camera and students with complex medical needs are required to drive three to five hours to receive services.

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Each disabled student and his or her family will have a comfort level for the kind of programs and services that will be necessary, those that will be desirable, and those that are optional. Students are best prepared for success when they weigh all these considerations before agreeing to sign up for four or five years of study with an institution…although a student can always transfer, most students prefer to find their ‘new home’ and start settling in sooner rather than later.

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Mobility Challenges and College

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One of the things I like about this constantly evolving technological age is the ability to meet and learn about people I would never have encountered otherwise. A young woman I’ve met through blogging recently reminded me about the daily challenges that those with mobility impairments face; this in turn got me thinking about the young people I work with who also live with mobility disabilities.

Whatever field of study a student is interested in, some campuses are going to be easier to navigate than others. Some people choose to weigh the physical challenges of a campus against the strength of the program the campus offers. Others decide that no matter how many obstacles a campus provides, they will find ways to overcome them to study where they choose.

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The campus where I work provides physical challenges due to our geographic and latitudinal location – we’re set in a rocky, hilly, cold, northern location, sandwiched into a valley with a highway splitting our campus in half, and the dormitory half of the campus being built into and onto a hill. Hardly ideal for most people and in the winter an absolute nightmare at times, to navigate around.

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How do students adjust and how has the campus adjusted? We’ve found that rather than wheelchairs,  three wheeled scooters are a better adaptation to the environment. The campus isn’t overly large, which means at least the classroom are all fairly close together – as an institution we can provide students with priority registration, so they can arrange class times/locations in a way that allows for the time in-between classes that makes the individual comfortable.

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I did advocate persistently until we had electronic doors installed on all buildings, and when needed we provided students with remote control openers for these doors – when you have a scooter in winter a remote door opener just works better than trying to get close enough to physically hit a big button to open a door.

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What doesn’t work so well? The highway running between the classroom side of campus and the dorm side of campus remains one of my pet peeves – students with mobility issues need to get across that road in the winter without falling or getting stuck. At least we do have a great grounds crew who tries to keep the route passable. This is hardly ideal however.

Dinning halls can also be problematic. Ask anyone in a wheelchair and they’ll tell you that most dinning halls aren’t designed with them in mind. And someone with balance and stability problems will be challenged to carry a tray through the average dinning hall – sometimes students have to use assistance even if they would prefer to be completely independent.

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My real point though is – universities can make adjustments, even if at first they don’t realize that adjustments need to be made. Sometimes it does take a disabled person speaking out and explaining why something isn’t working, in order for change to happen; once change has happened future students will benefit and the university may even become more diverse as a wider range of people begin to feel comfortable there.

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For an individual’s peace of mind and to lower personal stress, however, I would suggest that before accepting a place at a college one should take a tour of the campus. See for yourself where the challenges will be, then talk to the disability service provider to get a sense of how resistant to change the institution is. Only then are you ready to make a decision about if a particular school is the right place for you.

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