By Annie Tulkin, Founder and Director, Accessible College
July 2019 marks the 29th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law has improved access to many aspects of life, including access to higher education. The ADA, in addition to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), provide legal guidelines for universities on “reasonable accommodations” to support students’ functional limitations. Data from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that students with physical disabilities make up more than nine percent of the total population of students with disabilities in college, accounting for approximately one percent of the total number of college students in the U.S. (Department of Education, 2014). Although students with physical disabilities, specifically wheelchair users, were some of the first students to enter into institutions of higher education, many universities are still not entirely physically or programmatically accessible.
Students with physical disabilities who are transitioning to college will need to apply extra scrutiny to the college selection process to identify a school that is physically accessible for them. This article offers a roadmap of some often overlooked aspects of physical accessibility for students.
One obstacle that students with disabilities may encounter is the accessibility of the tour. Take proactive measures and do not leave this to chance! Contact the Admissions Office and tell them about the student’s needs.
- Ask if the Admissions Office is accessible. This may seem unbelievable, but some universities still house their admissions departments in inaccessible buildings. Students should contact the admissions office ahead of time to make sure that they can literally get in the door.
- Ask if the tour is accessible. If the student needs something specific, the student should request it in advance. Here are some guiding questions:
- Is there a campus map that shows accessible paths and entrances?
- Has the tour guide been trained to navigate the accessible campus routes?
- Ask about the tour length. Some campuses are quite large and/or topographically challenging. If the student is not using a power device, they should get a sense of the tour length to make sure they are prepared.
If the student intends to live on campus, the student will need to start a conversation with the colleges Disability Support Office (DSO) and the Housing Office. Create a list of items the student needs in order to make sure that the residence hall (dorm) room is accessible for them. Ask the Housing and DSO office if they can give the student a tour of accessible residence halls rooms. If they are unable to, ask them if they have photos of the accessible rooms.
- Ask for an ADA accessible room. The student should be specific in the request. If the student needs push-button or keyless entry, they should ask for it.
- Ask about the bathroom. Some residence hall rooms have private bathrooms and others have a shared “community” bathrooms. If the student needs a private bathroom to be able to easily maintain hygiene and privacy, be sure to request it.
- Ask about access for your Personal Care Attendant (PCA). If the student requires the services of a PCA to assist with daily living activities, they will want to ask about housing for that person. Typically, universities will allow the PCA to share a room with the student at no charge. If the student would like a joined room or some other configuration, they will need to discuss that with the DSO and Housing offices.
The college setting offers a lot more flexibility in scheduling classes, which is helpful for students with disabilities. There are a few issues related to physical access to academics that students should enquire about:
- Priority registration. This accommodation will help ensure that the student gets access to classes that allow the student to have enough time to prepare and travel to classes.
- Classroom furniture. If the student needs an accessible desk, the student will have to request that from the DSO.
- Classroom location. Although the buildings may be technically ADA compliant, they may not be easily accessible. Work with the DSO to see if the student’s classes can be held in a location that is easily accessible to the student.
An important piece of the college life is the social setting. When students are looking at schools, they should ask current students what they do for fun and where they like to hang out. This can help students get a sense of the social scene.
- Consider accessibility just off campus. Check out the area around campus to see if it’s accessible. Visit local restaurants and bars to see if they are accessible. Ask about the accessibility of school/city public transit.
- Ask about the accessibility of other residence halls. The student’s room and residence hall might be ADA compliant, but that does not mean that all residence halls on campus are. This may impact the student’s ability to visit friends.
- Sporting events/concerts/theater/campus activities: If students are interested in social events they should look at the facilities and ask about regulations around bringing a PCA. Sometimes, sports teams play at large arenas off campus and the college provides transportation. Ask if there is accessible transport.
In the 29 years since the ADA’s passage, accessibility on college campuses have come a long way! However, there are still issues related to physical accessibility of college campuses. Using the roadmap in this blog can help mitigate some of the challenges that students may face.
Annie Tulkin is the Founder and Director of Accessible College, where she provides college transition support for students with physical disabilities and health conditions nationally. Annie was the Associate Director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown University for nearly six years. In that position she supported undergraduate, graduate and medical students with physical disabilities and health conditions and oversaw academic support services for the entire student body. Annie has worked in the field of disability for more than 10 years. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Education from DePaul University, a Masters in Special Education from The University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a Certificate in Health Coaching from Georgetown University. Annie was a Peace Corps Volunteer (Mongolia, ‘03-’05) and a Fulbright Fellow (Mongolia, ‘07-’08). She resides in Silver Spring, MD with her husband and toddler. Facebook: @AccessibleCollege, Twitter: @AcssCollege