A lot of blind people flunk out of college. A lot of others with physical disabilities and mental health issues flunk out of college. A lot of affluent able-bodied people flunk out or drop out, because college is crazy hard. Often times, the blame is placed on the individual, rather than the institution. People like to imagine it is simply the individual who failed and not the institution who failed them.
In the rare instances where it is clear the institution was lacking in support of those with disabilities, a significant portion of the blame is still placed upon the individual. People claim they didn’t try hard enough, fight hard enough, or advocate hard enough for themselves and their rights.
Anyone who has been to college remembers the stress of midterm season, the discordance of many a group project, the struggles of maintaining a social life, the panic of final exams, and the occasional internal breakdown from handling way too much. Now add alternate format requests, doubtful emails from professors at a loss of how to grant your accommodations, and constant correspondence from your school’s disability services department. Imagine addressing classroom accessibility issues, like not being able to read a PowerPoint or gaining appropriate wheelchair access, almost every single day. Imagine your overstuffed inbox, your lengthy to-do lists, your scarily depleted bank account, and your ridiculously busy calendar. Now multiply that by ten. That is the life of a college student with a disability.
But that’s okay. We can handle it. We use problems to strengthen our problem solving skills. We use accessibility issues to educate. We make friends by asking for directions or seeing if the student next to us would mind describing the occasional video clip. We end up on a first name basis with most of our professors, because more often than not, the extent of our inclusion and success in their class depends on them. And all this is okay, even fun. What is not okay is when no matter how hard someone tries, they encounter unnecessary roadblocks that could have easily been remedied.
How do I know these roadblocks could be fixed? Because I recently graduated college with a disability. I was a transfer student, meaning I attended two different schools to complete my undergrad. Both of these schools had incredible disability service departments that thrived on creating equal opportunity. With this support at my back, I felt confident and free to take on biochemistry, calculus, and any other difficult subject that struck my fancy. I knew with a few meetings and the necessary planning, funding, and organization, the disability services department would ensure I had an equal or greater chance of surviving the course as my sighted peers.
Unfortunately, many people with disabilities are not as lucky. They enroll in college knowing it will be difficult but not expecting it to be impossible. It shouldn’t be impossible, but some school’s make it seem that way. I have had friends be refused notetakers because there is “not enough funding.” I have seen friends’ scribes for exams flake out on them and watched them receive a zero for not being able to write said exam. I’ve heard of convocation ceremonies that were not wheelchair accessible. The list goes on and on. College is hard enough as it is. It’s a fact that it is tougher on students with disabilities. It’s ridiculously unfair when blame is assigned to the student for dropping out, when they dropped out because of inadequate accommodations.
I am not saying it is the school’s responsibility to ensure every student with a disability succeeds, far from it. That student must be capable and ready to ask for the accommodations they need and the services they require. They must speak up when something goes wrong and work tirelessly with the departments involved to address the issue. They will have to create their own systems, their own shorthand with tutors, and their own study methods. They will have to try harder than everyone around them. But trying and succeeding are a million times easier when there are people behind you, backing you up.
So, just because some people with disabilities drop out of college and others don’t, does not necessarily mean the ones who see it through to graduation are any more capable or more driven than the ones who didn’t make it. Many factors in addition to their disability and personal abilities may have contributed to the decision. Sometimes it’s luck of the draw whether one finds allies or not.
Be kind, and be aware.
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