A wheelchair user’s guide to preparing for college

College Friends study outdoors on campus. New Mobility

Annie Tulkin, New Mobility January 31, 2022

“Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that I offer you admission to the college of your choice.”

These are the words that every student wants to read after going through the sometimes grueling and often tedious process of applying to college. For those who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices, there are often more considerations beyond the excitement of acceptance: “Will I be able to navigate the campus?” “Can I continue my physical therapy while I’m at college?” “How do I hire a personal care assistant?” “How will I afford tuition and any disability-related services I need?”

Once you receive acceptance letters, the clock starts ticking to figure out which school is the best fit for you. Colleges provide varying levels of accommodations and support, and most require you to commit by May 1. This may leave you with a short amount of time to make connections and do research, all while finishing up your senior year of high school. If you can, tour the colleges you are interested in before applying. However, that’s not always possible, so once you receive acceptance letters, there are a few items to add to your to-do list.

Connect With the Disability Support Office

Every college has a disability support office or person tasked with administering the accommodation process for students with disabilities. The office may have a different name at each institution. It might be called student accessibility services, disability support services, academic resource center or a variation on those titles.

It’s a good idea to make a list of accommodations you may need on campus. Think about the campus’ physical accessibility, including dorm rooms, adaptive sports and fitness facilities, point-to-point transportation and the availability of lift-equipped buses. Also, consider classroom needs like notetakers, furniture and assistive technology.

With the right accommodations, Lauren Presutti had no problem managing the workload at college. New Mobility

Lauren Presutti, a 29-year-old with muscular dystrophy, is the CEO of River Oaks Psychology and a graduate of Central Michigan University (2016 and 2018) and Grand Valley State University (2020). Presutti’s needs included accessible housing and classrooms, notetakers, scribes for exams, assistance in labs, support with voice dictation, on-campus transportation, a personal assistant in the dining hall, library and recreation facilities and more.

“Connecting with the disability offices on college campuses was a huge part of my decision-making process when exploring colleges. I knew that I wanted to go to school where I felt comfortable with the disability office,” she says. “I also wanted to feel comfortable going to their staff about any concerns or questions I might have, and I wanted to make sure they were friendly and knowledgeable about people with disabilities.”

As Presutti notes, it’s essential for you to feel supported by the staff in the DSO. It is important to connect with the DSO, look at the office’s mission, and understand how they approach their work. Do they take a legal compliance approach, or are they invested in providing students with holistic and legally compliant support? Post-acceptance, you should connect or reconnect with the DSO to make sure they can accommodate your specific needs and to get a sense of how they approach their role and work with students.

This type of connection can also help foster relationships and information sharing between students with physical disabilities. Kayvan Zahiri, a first-year student at the University of San Francisco, was unsure how to navigate the transition to college as a person with spinal arteriovenous malformation who requires personal assistance 24/7. With the help of a project to provide free college transition support services to students with any type of paralysis, run by Accessible College with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, Zahiri received guidance that assisted him in connecting with the disability office before enrolling.

Kayvan Zahiri worked with the University of San Francisco’s disability support office to have his classes placed in accessible locations. NewMobility

“This was extremely helpful, as I was able to ask questions and develop relationships with the staff before committing to enrollment,” he says. “It gave me an idea of the culture of the school and the support I could expect from them. I would recommend other wheelchair users to do this as well to get to know the school more in-depth than their website and general tour.”

Zahiri and the DSO were able to identify how they would address his needs. The DSO assisted him with finding accessible parking, placed his classes in accessible locations, and worked with him and his professors to allow his PCA to assist him in classes.

If you are accepted to several colleges, campus accessibility, accommodations, financial aid, level of support, ability to find and hire personal care assistants and access to healthcare providers may become major factors in your decision-making process. It might be helpful to create a comparison spreadsheet and evaluate these pieces at each college that accepted you.

The DSO may be able to assist you in identifying some of this information, but you’ll likely have to conduct independent research as well. You may also want to ask the DSO if they can connect you with current students who use wheelchairs. Conversations with current students can be illuminating and offer some perspective on what it’s like living as a wheelchair user on campus — the good, the bad and the ugly — and can be an excellent way to start making friends before you get to campus.

Connecting directly with the DSO before committing can provide essential information and be a critical part of your decision. You need to make sure that the school is a good academic fit and that you’re comfortable with the level of support the DSO will provide. The DSO can also help you understand your role in the college accommodations process, where self-advocacy is key.

Environmental Accessibility

In many ways, college campuses are like small cities. It’s important to consider things like accessibility on and around campus, accessible transportation options and housing accommodations.

The University of San Francisco’s campus is situated on the city’s infamous hills, but Kayvan Zahiri was able to find manageable routes to all his classes. New Mobility

To evaluate campus accessibility, first ask the admissions department or the DSO if there is a campus map that indicates the accessible routes and entrances. If possible, go on a tour to get a sense of how navigable the campus is for you. Zahiri was able to take a tour with DSO staff to find out if he could manage San Francisco’s infamous hills.

Weather is also important. Before attending college in Michigan, Presutti asked the DSO about snow removal procedures and discussed this with current wheelchair users on campus. “Even if the college says they take care of that, it’s helpful to ask current students about how this works, because in the winter, if sidewalks are not typically cleared until the afternoon, you may want to think about this information for your class schedule,” she says.

Some colleges offer transportation on campus, and some provide dedicated accessible options for students with disabilities that range from buses to vans to golf carts. It’s also important to explore the area around campus to make sure that it’s navigable and that shops, restaurants and bars in the area are accessible. You should also look at local public transportation options and whether there are free or reduced-cost options for people with disabilities.

Continuity of Care

You may want to continue any ongoing rehab services, such as occupational or physical therapy, and transition to healthcare providers on or near campus. Before committing to a college, it’s important to research the options and not only investigate the providers but think through how you will access them, as anyone who needs specialized services will likely be reliant on off-campus providers. It’s important to ensure that it’s logistically and physically possible for you to get to the provider while managing your studies. Some colleges offer transportation to surrounding cities, pharmacies and hospitals, and you may need to connect with the student health office to inquire about these options.

Housing

Whitney Weldon was able to find accessible housing that let her make the most of campus life. New Mobility

Campus housing varies from college to college. Typically, students with disabilities who require housing accommodations make those requests through a process that is usually coordinated between the DSO and the office of residential living. There are a variety of requests that you can make related to housing.

For example, you can request an ADA accessible room with a private bathroom, a room on a lower/ground level floor, a central location and the ability to have a personal care assistant. “I needed to make sure my living situation was wheelchair accessible, with a roll-in shower and automatic door opening,” says Whitney Weldon, a 2015 graduate of Georgetown University and a 2017 graduate of New York University who has fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive.

Weldon worked with the DSO and housing department to identify a space that would work for her, complete with a garage door style opener since she could not push the blue button to open doors. Since you may be living on campus nine months out of the year, away from your typical support systems, it’s critical that the housing you wind up in works well for you.

Think through how you navigate your world at home and what that might look like on a college campus. This could include evaluating your ability to turn a handle on a door or use a key to do laundry. Think through all your daily living needs and consider how you will complete them on a college campus in the dorm setting and what support, if any, you’d need.

Lauren Presutti needs help with some everyday tasks, and was able to find the assistance she need by working with her college’s DSO office. New Mobility

It’s important to note that most colleges do not provide personal care assistance for daily living activities like bathing, dressing and toileting. Currently, only the University of Illinois-Champaign and Wright State provide residence hall PCA support. Most students who need a PCA must identify and hire their attendants independently.

Models for hiring a PCA include hiring independently, using a home health agency for hiring and management, finding a friend or family members who can assist you or hiring students to provide personal assistance services. Some DSOs will provide support with finding assistants. They might provide a list of local home health agencies, or they may be able to support you by posting an ad on campus or circulating an ad for you. You will need to talk with the DSO about the college’s process for allowing a PCA to live in the dorm or how to give assistants access to your room.

Moving Forward

As you decide on a college, be sure to connect with your state Vocational Rehabilitation office to see if you are eligible for services, support or funding to support your college education. Services vary state by state and are evaluated case by case. Involving VR in high school as a part of the transition planning process can be beneficial both to you and the state VR agency, which may be able to predict the availability of funding. This may impact your decision, so it’s important to start this process as early as possible, ideally before your senior year of high school, if not earlier. You should also try to start your college research early to gather as much information as possible before the crush of senior year. It can take time to visit campus and do research. “It can be a daunting process but starting early is very helpful,” says Zahiri. “Connecting with the student disability office even before you apply is valuable.”

By employing these strategies, I hope you’re able to select the right college for you.

For more information on inclusive colleges, see New Mobility’s Wheels on Campus: A Guide to Wheelchair-Friendly Higher Education.
Annie Tulkin is the founder of Accessible College, which supports students with disabilities and their families to ensure a successful transition to and through higher education.

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