Applying to College as a Wheelchair User

Source: By Valerie Piro 

“Why was finding a college so difficult”, asks Valerie Piro, even though all I needed was basic wheelchair access and a dorm room large enough for my physical therapy equipment?

How do wheelchair-using students get around? Valerie asks a tour guide on her college visit. Valerie along with many other individuals with a physical disability around the world are in need of an accessible, friendly, and accepting environment to successfully complete their studies. 

The mainstream attitude toward applying to college dictates that students with disabilities are responsible for finding an institution that accommodates them. Currently, students with disabilities must visit every college campus they’re considering  in person —  a costly endeavor  —  and although some may have never had to advocate for themselves before, they must navigate university bureaucracies and vet disability services offices to ensure a good fit. Even if the disability services office is on top of its game, students may still encounter issues with a lack of services or general ignorance of their condition among faculty members and others.

This reality is completely unacceptable. Colleges and universities should be responsible for providing and improving existing accommodations. They need to get better at this, and they need to get better soon, because a growing number of students with disabilities are enrolling in institutions of higher education.

“My wheelchair should never have been a barrier to higher education. If a student has been accepted to a college, their ability to attend should never be in question. It’s time to take the burden off students with disabilities in the application process and ensure that all colleges and universities can accommodate their needs”.

Not all schools offer a wide range of services. If you are considering a specific college or university, research its disability resources. Be sure to ask detailed questions about disability services and most importantly, accessibility on campus. This is something I do every year at school for my daughter and in every class I enroll her in for extracurriculars. You have rights, know them and push for them- they’re yours. If you need help, holla at your girl. I’m always ready for a conversation on the topic of accommodating all people.

Let’s work together to spread awareness about accessibility in all aspects of life. It takes a village. We are that village. Together we will.


Additional information: ADA 

 What are a public or private college-university’s responsibilities to students with disabilities?

Both public and private colleges and universities must provide equal access to postsecondary education for students with disabilities. Title II of the ADA covers publicly-funded universities, community colleges and vocational schools. Title III of the ADA covers privately-funded schools.  All public or private schools that receive federal funding are required under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act to make their programs accessible to students with disabilities.

Accommodations and modifications of policies and practices are not required when it would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or activity or give rise to an undue financial or administrative burden. Postsecondary institutions often have an office that coordinates accommodations for students with disabilities.  The student should notify the appropriate institutional office well in advance of the needed modification or accommodation.

Top 3 Best Disability Friendly Colleges and Universities

  1. University of Michigan- Ann Arbor: 

Service to the disabled student body came into focus at Michigan just five months after the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when the university officially recognized the Office of Disabled Student Services. The office was renamed Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) in 1989 and since then the organization has advocated for students with disabilities at state, national and even international levels. The SSD was the first to establish “an adaptive technology computing lab and together with the Provost’s office a fund to support mandated accommodations”. These trailblazing efforts have since been repeated by many major universities nationwide. The SSD, whose services are free to students, features Modern Language Aptitude Testing throughout the year and maintains the well-resourced HathiTrust Digital Library.

2. University of Southern California: 

Housed within the Division of Student Affairs, USC offers the Disability Services and Programs (DSP) which “provides support services necessary to enable students with disabilities to develop their maximum academic potential while having the dignity to work independently”. Autonomy is a top priority for the DSP which encourages students who seek their services to focus on self-advocacy within the mainstream of the school’s academic and social culture. “While we provide personal and administrative support, our philosophy encourages students to take responsibility for their academic and co-curricular activities.” The free services provided by DSP include tutoring, note taking, special accommodations for testing, assistive technology and a stress on meeting the unique needs of students based on their specific disabilities.

3. Northeastern University: 

Northeastern’s Disability Resource Center (DRC) is open every weekday and offers an array of services to disabled students free of charge once the register with the office. The Center hosts a sizable group of volunteer students who take notes for DRC supported students. 5 sessions of transitional tutoring are also included that guide DRC students from getting a general overview of the program, becoming a successful self-advocate, resources available on campus, getting the most from the DRC and an overview of the many technological opportunities on the Northeastern campus.

Questions to ask when applying to colleges

Housing and resources:

  • What percentage of the buildings on campus are handicapped accessible?
  • How accessible are the food service and computer facilities?
  • Is equipment repair available? Are there wheelchair loaner or rental services?
  • How many students use your services?
  • If a professor is not in compliance regarding the student’s needed accommodations, how is the situation resolved?
  • What accommodations do you offer? What are the procedures and timelines to receive them?

Student Life: 

  •  What percentage of the student population has a physical disability?
  • How many students with disabilities have graduated from the college in the last few years?
  • What do you consider the most difficult majors/classes for Disabilities Support students on this campus?


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