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Getting the Most Out of College When You Have a Disability

Going off to college is a big step for anyone.  People with disabilities who go to college may have a few more hurdles to jump over. It’s still very possible, though.  Most colleges have been in session for a few weeks now, so this is the perfect time to talk about getting the most out of your experience there.  Don’t let your disability hold you back. Your time at college is an opportunity to try new things, spread your wings and learn how to be your own person. Having a disability doesn’t change that; it adds to the experience. Every college is different and has different resources available to you. WIth that in mind, I’ve compiled some general tips that hopefully can enhance your experience and help you get the most out of college in spite of having a disability.

Your College’s Disability Services

If your office of disability services offers an accommodation that you even slightly think you might possibly be able to benefit from, take them up on it.  It’s better to have something and decide you don’t need it, rather than need it and the deadline for it has passed. Doing so may force you to wait another semester–or even until the next year.  Some things your office of disability services might offer include:

  • Extended time on tests
  • Someone to write for you on a test (you dictate)
  • Private room for test taking
  • In-class note-taker
  • Interpreter 
  • Audio versions/large text versions of your textbooks
  • Extended absence policy for classes
  • Use of voice recorder/computer in class
  • Early access to scheduling for the next semester

Some university’s office of disability services are better than others, so the list will vary. However, these are the most common ones.  Know who to talk to in the office. Don’t hesitate to shoot them an email or pop in if you have questions. They’re there to help you.  Additionally, if you ever have a professor who refuses to give you what you believe is a necessary and reasonable accommodation, the office of disability services is where you’ll want to go first.  

Your Professors

Talk to your professors as soon as possible.  I liked to email them ahead of time if I could.  I’d introduce myself, tell them about my disability, and explain what accommodations I am receiving from the office of disability services.  99% of the time I got a warm response back, saying those accommodations were fine and they were excited to get to know me. The other 1% never gave me a response, and that’s fine too.  At that point I’d done my part. If there was a problem, it wasn’t because I didn’t tell them what accommodations I had.

It’s important to remember that professors are not the enemy.  Just because they might question or initially refuse an accommodation doesn’t mean they don’t want you to succeed. It probably just means they don’t know enough about disability to make the right call.  If a face-to-face meeting isn’t possible or doesn’t solve the problem, then you should take it to the office of disability services.

Above all, communication with your professors is key.  If you get sick and can’t make it to a lecture, email them ahead of time.  I would also highly recommend going to their office hours if you can. There, you can get one on one help if you need it.  Forming a close relationship with your college professors can help you stand out if they need to recommend someone for an opportunity of some kind. In addition, they can be a great reference when looking for jobs after you graduate.

College Dorm Life

Living in a dorm isn’t something everyone is able to do, but if you can you should.  It’s a place to meet people outside of your major, try new things, and just hang out.  A dorm always has something going on, whether it be scheduled programming or an impromptu movie night in the lounge.  It can be tempting in the beginning of the year to just stay in your room and watch Netflix, but you’ll miss out on so many great experiences — usually free ones with food! 

Your RA is a great resource, especially for a freshman.  They know the best places to get food and which computer lab is open latest. They also know which floor of the library is the quietest.  Your RA is the one who is putting on the programming. Getting to know them is a way you can ensure the programming they put on is accessible to you.

Join a Club/Organization

This is my favorite way to get the most out of college, because it offers the most options to work with.  Colleges and universities often, if not always, have a wide array of clubs and organizations to choose from. At my school, this meant anything from clubs pertaining to your major, to sororities and fraternities. They even had clubs for video games, anime, and other similar things.  There’s bound to be something you’re interested in and it’s a great way to meet new people.

Do you have an idea for a club that doesn’t already exist?  Start it! Most offices of student affairs have steps for setting up new organizations. Usually it’s as simple as having 5-10 interested students and a filled out form.  This looks amazing on resumes, and founding an organization is great leadership experience.  You might be surprised at how many people are interested in your idea! In my third year at college, I helped found and was president of a club for disability rights and advocacy. This was one of the best experiences I had at school.  I learned a lot about different disabilities that aren’t my own, and met some amazing people. The club went from 5 people to almost 20 by the time I graduated.

You never know which opportunities you take will turn into something that can help you get a job in the future, either directly or indirectly.  Disability services and your professors are there to help you, so use them. Your dorm and student organizations are amazing ways of meeting new people, so join them!  College is scary and overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. The big thing is to be open to new experiences and be social.