After seeing most of the campus, visiting a class, and weathering the rain without too much difficulty, I was feeling pretty good about what was, at the time, my first choice college. Then I saw the humanities academic building—a beautiful, historic structure that positively frightened me. Why? Because I had to ride a platform lift (which nobody seemed to know how to operate) and a key-operated elevator that was the size of a dumbwaiter (my footrest hit the back wall and my headrest hit the door when turning around) just to get to the second floor. All I could think about was how much time I would have to spend navigating this maze of piecemeal accommodations; after all, I was planning to major in either History or English and both departments were located in this building. Suddenly, number one wasn’t looking so rosy.
Okay, so one sketchy elevator was not what ultimately caused me to turn down my number one school. But I think it goes without saying that the accessibility factor did play a big role in helping me make that final call. At first, having to scope out every school I looked at for accessibility pitfalls seemed like a burden; I wanted to be able to go to the school that fit me best academically and socially, regardless of accessibility. I quickly realized, though, that I was going about it the wrong way. There were dozens upon dozens of academically rigorous schools to choose from and no reason that I shouldn’t be able to find one that also offered top-notch wheelchair accessibility. Instead of seeing it as an unfair encumbrance, I began to recognize “the accessibility factor” as a valuable narrowing tool.
Lesson number one: use your need for an accessible campus to your advantage. If you are having a hard time deciding between two schools with equally impressive and appealing academic programs, take a closer look at accessibility. Which one has an easier campus to navigate? Which one has more automatic doors, elevators, and sidewalk cutouts? Which has built accessibility improvements into its master plan? I found these guiding questions to be paramount to my final decision making process. For me, it was the small details that made all the difference. Furman University, where I am now a freshman, has automatic door openers on all of its buildings (except for a few older residence halls); modern, spacious elevators in all academic buildings, the University Center, the library, and many of the residence halls; and ample accessible sidewalks and parking spaces.
In addition to its physical accessibility attributes, I found at Furman something that I had not necessarily been looking for, but that impressed me immensely and has made a huge difference in my freshman experience thus far: an Office of Disability Services. Furman’s Disability Services Office assisted with my dorm room adaptation and arranged for certain academic accommodations, such as taking major tests with extended time and permission to record lectures using a digital voice recorder. Being able to work out all of the little accessibility details through one central point of contact has made my transition so much smoother—something for those of you still in your decision making stage to consider.
Recap: as you look at schools, use the accessibility gauge to help you weed out those that only have academic appeal; focus on those schools that have academic AND accessibility appeal. In looking for those schools with the BEST accessibility appeal, pay close attention to the details, such as door openers and a disability services office. But once you’ve decided which school to go to, how do you prepare for that whole living away from home thing?
The best answer I can give you is to start early. Arranging for caregiving is a tedious process because it requires the collaborative efforts of your chosen college, your health insurance providers, the individual or agency providing the care, and you. Working out the actual details of my care was not difficult; for me, finding the right company to use and securing funding sources proved to be the most challenging parts of the process. Finding the right company requires some simple research; find out which caregiving agencies serve the area where you will be attending school. Give each of them a call and learn about their company policies and prices. Once you have sufficient comparative data on a handful of companies or state-certified private caregivers, you have to make a decision based on what feels right to you. Even then, be aware that there is an element of trial and error at play. You may go through several caregivers before you find the "right" one or you may have to switch companies for financial reasons.
Finances…ah yes. Paying for care can be overwhelming, so…again…prepare early. Truly, no point is too early. You can never allow yourself too much time. Determine what percentage of care your insurance company will cover, then look into Medicaid waiver programs, assistance from your state’s Vocational Rehabilitation Department, and scholarships for individuals with special needs. There are lots of sources available; you just have to be diligent about pursuing them.
I hope this has given some of you a window into the pre-college process. I can assure you that, while exciting, college preparation is not nearly as fun as college itself, something I look forward to writing about in the future. But it is important. Careful planning can save you a lot of stress in the long run. Being prepared will help make your move-in day an experience not so different from that of every other freshman. And a college experience not markedly different from everyone else’s (in terms of independence and accessibility) is exactly what we all aim for.