Experiencing college as a student with a disability

Experiencing college as a student with a disability

The author on Princeton’s campus. Steve Hess / Anna Pranger
The author on Princeton’s campus. Steve Hess / Anna Pranger

From moving into a dorm room to making new friends, transitioning to college can be a difficult process for all students. Yet this situation becomes even more challenging for students with disabilities. I’m a freshman at Princeton University, and I have a rare form of muscular dystrophy that affects my muscle strength. Using a wheelchair on a 273-year-old campus causes unique situations that both complicate and enrich my experience at Princeton.

When I was picking a college, the wheelchair accessibility of the campus was at the top of my mind. I tried to meet with the Office of Disability Services (ODS) at every college I toured in order to evaluate the services they could provide and ensure I’d be able to live independently.

Given the fact that my wheelchair comes with me everywhere, one important accommodation involves my ability to get around campus. I purposely decided to go to a small campus, but when I need a ride, all of the campus buses are equipped with wheelchair lifts. I do encounter some difficulty when it snows, but each semester ODS makes sure to clear the paths students with disabilities use to get around campus first. Additionally, ODS will even move the location of my classes if the building isn’t wheelchair accessible.

Like any typical college student, I spend large amounts of time in my dorm room, so most of my other accommodations come in the form of adapting my room to suit my needs. I have a single dorm with an attached bathroom on the first floor of one of the newest dorms on campus, which is big enough to fit the electric wheelchair I use every day, a backup electric wheelchair, and a manual wheelchair. The room has an automatic button on the inside, as well as a remote to open the room from the outside. There are grab bars next to the toilet and inside the shower to ensure my safety.

My disability has not affected my ability to thrive academically and socially at Princeton. I love the small class sizes that allow me to form personal relationships with the professors. In my experiences, the professors are always willing to help students succeed. I’m also involved in several extracurriculars on campus — I write for the Daily Princetonian, the campus newspaper, and I’m active in the Princeton Center for Jewish Life. I even organized and spoke at a Shabbat in honor of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.

I’m not alone in my college journey. According to National Center for Education Statistics, 11.1 percent of undergraduate students reported having a disability in 2011-2012, and this number has only been increasing. Although there are not many students with visible disabilities at Princeton, ODS works with each student to make sure they can have a successful college experience. As Liz Erickson, director of Princeton’s ODS, explained, “The process for determining accommodations is individualized and based on each student’s functional impact of their disability.”

Other students with disabilities at Princeton also work with ODS to receive necessary accommodations. David Loughran ’20 said, “They have provided me with accessible desks in classes that don’t have tables, gone over snow removal maps with me, and made sure my professors are aware of my extra time accommodation.”

I’m fortunate to have made many amazing friends at Princeton. However, my biggest complaint about accessibility on campus is that so many of my friends have old, inaccessible dorm rooms. My friends often have to change their plans to make sure that I’m included. For instance, when I wanted to play board games with them on a cold December night, they came to my room instead of staying warm in their dorm room. Loughran also faces difficulties when he tries to make plans with his friends. “One thing that’s been challenging for me in terms of accessibility is the dorms. Given that the majority of dorms are inaccessible, it impacts my social life and what I’m able to do with my friends and where,” he said.

While Princeton is not perfect in terms of accessibility, I have all the necessary support I need to succeed. “Princeton values the educational experience of all students who attend the university, and this includes students with disabilities,” Erickson said. “Students with disabilities have demonstrated their abilities, as have all students who are accepted to the institution, so we want to provide them with appropriate accommodations to allow them to learn and grow in this environment.”

With the assistance provided by ODS, I’ve proved to myself that I’m more independent than I ever realized. ODS does everything in its power to help students with disabilities succeed here. My peers are always willing to help me, often before I even ask. The campus community adheres to the lesson taught in Deuteronomy 15:7: “If there be among you a person with needs, you shall not harden your heart, but you shall surely open your hand.”

Having a disability at college can be difficult, but it doesn’t prevent success. I’m lucky to have found such a supportive environment, and I look forward to the many adventures that the next three years will bring. 

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.

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