Hi, friends. In today’s post, I’ll share some background along with three stories about my struggles to obtain handicapped accommodations in college. [If I told you everything, this post would become a memoir.] This post is still quite long, but I hope my stories are entertaining enough to keep you reading. 😉 If not, the post is broken up to make skipping around easy.
A bit of background: I have Friedreich’s Ataxia, and in this context, you should know that 1) I used a walker or wheelchair for most of my college years, and 2) I can hardly write by hand.
I have heard stories of private institutions going above and beyond to help some of my fellow FA’ers. Well, I wasn’t going to (and still wouldn’t) pay tens of thousands of dollars per semester for a bachelor’s degree. Those of us handicappers who attend big state universities have less positive experiences. Dealing with bureaucrats who can’t be bothered to view people as individuals is nightmare-ish for those like me with special needs.
A Few Sources of Strife
The Location of the Office of Accessibility–Sad Joke Or Just Plain Sad?
The office of accessibility (OARS–Office of Accessibility Resources & Services) is located on the third floor of a large building with minimal parking spots, down several hallways. A school that cared for its handicapped students would designate one of its small, single-department campus buildings with its own parking lot as the OARS (of which there are several). Instead, the office was shoved anywhere it would fit. My school only cares about handicapped students to the extent to which its legally required.
Handicapped Students Get Priority Registration, But They Aren’t Really a Priority
With very limited parking available on college campuses (another enraging issue for another post), handicapped students are given “priority registration” so they can choose classes with location in mind. For example, I liked taking back-to-back classes in the same building or buildings right next to each other. However, handicapped students can only obtain priority registration if they have already been enrolled in school for one semester. In practice, this means that freshman and transfer disabled students are SOL. Because I attended classes in the fall and took off to work in the spring, I faced the same headache every year to convince them to let me register early.
For a brief time, before I needed to use a walker or wheelchair, I worked in the Registrar’s Office. I manually entered students in classes through the school’s system. My coworkers unofficially gave themselves priority registration by placing themselves in classes for the next semester whenever they pleased. So, consider this: Registrar’s Office student employees got priority registration, yet I, standing before them a couple years later, clinging to my walker and pleading with the employees for sympathy, was greeted on multiple occasions with apathetic rejection.
A Few Tales of Strife
Your Limited Mobility Isn’t my Problem
Here is one of the testing policies in OARS: after a student takes an exam, they personally deliver it (sealed in an envelope) to the professor’s mailbox. This required me to park outside the building, walk all the way to OARS with my rollator walker to take the exam, print it out and trek back to my car, drive to another building, get out and walk all the way to the professor’s mailbox (usually tucked back somewhere on an upper floor), then walk back to my car. I became exhausted every time I did it.
After doing this a few times, I asked an employee in the disability office about potentially emailing my exams to my professors; they were English exams typed in Microsoft Word, after all. God bless him–he is one of the only people in that office without a heart of stone. After I shared my request with him, he went to an adjacent room to speak with one of his superiors. When he calmly broached the subject with her, her loud, angry, snide response carried throughout the office: “Well, I don’t see how that’s possible, unless you want to deliver it YOURSELF!”
I did end up getting that accommodation, but this is the kind of spiteful attitude I’ve had to deal with many times.
A Meltdown with a Side of Irony
I once took a course in the library basement, which led to my getting a job in the same location. The parking situation is awful; for a school of almost 20,000 students along with all the faculty members, there are about seven handicap parking spots. Also, the lot is positioned on a semi-steep hill that routinely threatened to throw me off balance. A library staff member told me in my first week that I’d be “lucky” to ever secure a spot, and that turned out to be true; I was often forced to park in other lots and roll my wheelchair for twenty minutes to reach class/work, or I would park in a makeshift spot and earn a parking ticket.
One day, I drove back there to find that, once again, every spot was full. I had already acquired multiple tickets for parking in my makeshift spots, and as I prepared to do so again, the endless frustration of simply getting to class overwhelmed me that day. As I heave-hoed my walker up a hill, struggling to balance and knowing my windshield would likely have another yellow strip of paper taped to it after class, the tears welled up in my eyes. By the time I reached the basement door, feeling so helpless and angry, I was full-on sobbing. After taking a few minutes to compose myself and pretend I was fine, I walked on to my classroom.
The head of OARS was scheduled to give a presentation to our class that day. When I entered the room, a small space with about seven people there, he was showing off a nifty technological toy they now offer. My professor eyed me with concern, clearly noticing my tear-stained face and wobbly legs, but the man in charge of the disability office continued as if I didn’t exist. I took my seat and said nothing; my conversations with him in the past had been fruitless, so why bother trying to make him care anymore?
The Not-So-Temporarily Broken Elevator, or When Liability Matters More Than Human Beings
When I worked during the spring, I took a couple community college classes to fulfill random requirements for my degree (to ultimately save money). During my last semester, the only elevator in the building broke (and remained out-of-order for the next couple weeks). Of course, my class was on the second floor.
I needed to make up a test and had studied hard for it. I wound up sitting downstairs with a rep from the accessibility office. I told him that I wanted to take this test and I could walk up the stairs with some help, but he insisted that I wasn’t allowed to do so for liability reasons. I even asked if he would go retrieve the test and fill it out for me by hand if I told him the answers–to no avail. After talking in circles with the rep for several minutes, I got so upset that I fled (hurriedly rolled) to the bathroom in tears.
A girl in the bathroom gently asked, “What’s wrong?”
“I need to go upstairs, but no one will help me!” I wailed pitifully.
So this random girl came with me to the stairs, recruiting one of her friends in the downstairs lobby along the way. Thank the Lord they just happened to be nursing students. The girl from the bathroom walked with me while her friend carried my wheelchair. I took that dang test, too, and made an A.
Later, my entire class helped me walk back down the stairs–some students holding my arms for support, some carrying the wheelchair, the rest of them simply joining for solidarity.
Though I reflect on my English courses and my old professors and fellow students fondly, I’m jaded about my college experience by the constant struggles I underwent. Luckily, some bigger universities have more services for handicapped students than mine did. I feel sorry for anyone with mobility issues who attends a large school. I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with it anymore!
Thanks for reading! Do you have an experience related to disability or knowing a disabled person you’d be willing to share? Have you ever struggled with a form of discrimination or felt like you fell through the cracks? Let me know in the comments.