There are about 1.1 million physically disabled undergraduates in the United States, according to Steve Kaye, research director of the Disability Statistics Center at University of California—San Francisco, citing data from the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau.
While this figure represents about 5.9 percent of all students, most colleges and universities aren't meeting their needs. This is particularly true if the students' physical disabilities are so serious that they drastically impact daily living, according Chris Wise Tiedemann, who coauthors the website Disability Friendly Colleges with her son Tom, who has cerebral palsy.
According to Tiedemann, author of the forthcoming book College Success for Students with Physical Disabilities, only five schools—Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, University of California—Berkeley, University of Houston, University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign, and Wright State University—offer enough services for a student with serious physical disabilities to live on campus.
Tiedemann says seriously disabled applicants should consider one of the five schools. Tom, for example, studies at Edinboro. But students with less serious disabilities have more options if they do their research properly. Here are four tips for disabled applicants and students.
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1. Prepare early: Tiedemann says disabled students should start contacting college disability services offices as freshmen and sophomores in high school. "The earlier [students] can start planning and visit campuses, the better," she says.
Gabe Trujillo, a quadriplegic who has been in a wheelchair for more than 14 years and is an alumnus and current graduate student at Arizona State University, says part of applicants' preparation should be researching whether target schools have support groups, clubs, and adaptive sports for disabled students. "It's important to get out and mingle with your classmates," he says.
Diane Austin, vice president of student affairs at Lasell College in Newton, Mass., notes that when applicants interact with administrators, they should plan on having to be repetitive.
"[D]o not assume that information provided to one person [or] functional unit at an institution will necessarily be shared with other units [or] individuals at the institution," she says, "[B]e your own advocate, and you will undoubtedly be well-received."
2. Visit prospective campuses if possible: Tiedemann, who writes the disability-friendly schools website, advises disabled applicants and parents to check campuses for handicapped parking availability, accessible buildings with elevators, and curb cuts (ramps leading up to sidewalks).
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"If these things are not easily available, attitudes about handicapped students may not be what they should be," she says.