10 Tips for Navigating College Campuses with a Physical Disability

Having a physical disability can present some unique challenges for college students. Many individuals contend with mobility issues or require special accommodations to facilitate learning. Here are 10 suggestions students with physical disabilities can use to help meet college challenges.

By Douglas Fehlen

physical impairments handicapped students tips for physical disabilities

1. Be informed about the law.

Colleges must abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which demands that post-1992 structures be handicap accessible. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act also gives protections to college students with physical disabilities. Students with impaired motor functioning need to be provided 'reasonable accommodations' for disabilities. Know these important laws so that you can be an advocate for your education.

2. Consider accessibility issues during the college selection process.

Students with physical disabilities should do all they can to find a school that meets their needs. When you're researching schools, connect with a disability counselor at each institution who can answer your questions about building accessibility and special academic services. Use the school visit as an opportunity to get a feel for the types of challenges you may face around campus. Regardless of the type of disability you have, doing your homework at this early stage can help smooth the transition to college.

3. Familiarize yourself with the campus.

When you've decided on a college, work hard to familiarize yourself with the campus. This is particularly important for students with mobility issues for whom getting around on a day-to-day basis may prove difficult. Identify all handicap accessible entrances, restrooms, elevators and parking spaces. Tour residence halls designated for people with motor impairments. Consider how negative effects of weather, hills and other campus features might be mitigated.

4. Familiarize yourself with special services.

If physical impairments make it difficult for you to perform any aspect of your studies, it's important to connect with the disability services department on your college campus. An advisor from this office can make you aware of any accommodations you may be allowed to offset limitations in motor functioning. Talk with university officials about any specific needs you have. For instance, if you have difficulty writing, you may be allowed extra time on tests or provided another format. If speech is difficult, perhaps there are alternative assignments to oral presentations.

5. Utilize assistive technologies.

College students with physical disabilities are typically given access to assistive technologies that can help them to perform any academic activities affected by motor impairments. Tape recorders, adaptive keyboards, mouthsticks, headwands and voice recognition software are only some of the many tools available at colleges throughout the country. Check in with the disabilities service office to learn about tools offered to help students with physical disabilities succeed in the classroom.

6. Be proactive about transportation issues.

Particularly if you have mobility issues, it will be important to have a firm grasp of how you'll get around campus. Find out whether campus buses have lifts for those who use wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, canes or other devices. Inquire as to whether the college has a van service for students who are affected by physical disabilities for those times that alternative modes of transportation may be unavailable.

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7. Get into routines.

Students who have difficulties with mobility are often accustomed to following routines that can help them to get around and be comfortable. For instance, if you move with the assistance of a wheelchair or walker you might base where you sit in a classroom on your use of the device. Perhaps you'll be seated near a door, for example. You may also wish to get to courses early before classrooms have filled up so that you have more space to maneuver. Maybe you'll avoid major thoroughfares during busy periods to make trips as comfortable as possible.

8. Advocate for yourself with faculty members.

Bring up any challenges you may have with instructors and make any necessary arrangements you need to fully participate at school. For instance, if a motor impairment makes it difficult to raise your hand, work with your instructor to come up an alternative signaling method. Tell teachers about any issues you have with a seating or workstation placement. If you have mobility limitations and a class you want to take is scheduled in a non-accessible building, talk with officials about having the classroom changed.

9. Get the support you need.

Many individuals with motor impairments rely on the help of in-class aides, lab assistants, interpreters or other support staff members who can help students overcome academic challenges related to physical disabilities. Check in with the disability services office to learn about any of these resources that you may have available to you. Some students with physical disabilities also choose to hire individuals who can help them to fulfill classroom obligations and get around campus.

10. Enjoy yourself.

College isn't just about doing everything you can to get good grades. There's a lot more to the campus experience, including taking the opportunity to have fun. Hang out in common areas where you're sure to meet other students. Check out hotspots around campus for great entertainment and culture. Get involved in student groups and join an intramural sports league. Many colleges feature popular adaptive sports programs for those who are affected by physical disabilities. Make the college years about pursuing your interests, making friends and having a good time.

Have basic questions about starting your higher ed career? Check out some survival suggestions your first semester of college.

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