Going to college can be a challenge for everyone. It’s especially hard for someone with a physical disability to find a college that checks off not only academics, affordability and location from their list, but accommodations for their disability as well.
By Lacey Pfalz
My experience as someone with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bones, has been an interesting one. In high school, I had no idea of where I wanted to go, let alone what I wanted to study in college. My mother was insistent that we start looking for accessible colleges sooner rather than later. I started researching colleges sophomore year, and then we started going on tours. My mom knew the right questions to ask and I tested my wheelchair out on each campus.
We made a list of some of the things we deemed necessary for me to be able to go to college. It had to have a good disabilities coordinator, someone willing to go above and beyond to make college possible for me. Since I’m frequently in and out of a wheelchair, accessible housing and campus in general were musts. It had to be somewhat close to home in case of an emergency and it also had to have a good program for my field of interest.
I found everything I wanted at Wisconsin Lutheran College. It’s small enough so that I can easily walk around campus and get around enough during those periods when I’m in a wheelchair. It has enough elevators and alternate routes to places so I can go anywhere I need to in a wheelchair. It’s got a great Christian atmosphere—very nurturing and loving for all types of people. When I get tired wheeling myself, there’s always someone ready to help me get to class. It’s also right across the street from the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, which just so happens to be where my specialists are. WLC also has a great history and English program, both of which are my majors.
My main takeaway from the college decision process is to know your strengths, but also know your weaknesses. Don’t feel left out just because you use a wheelchair or a walker, or because you need extra time to take tests. College is hard, but it’s doable too. The rewards you receive while at a physical college are too great to pass up. I’ve made incredible friends, most of whom are nursing majors, funny enough. I’m an officer on two different campus organizations and I work as a Spanish tutor—all opportunities I would’ve missed had I not attended WLC.
A real college experience awaits you! Just make sure you take your time and research all of your options first. Meet with a disability coordinator early on in the process—they are there to help you succeed. And if you don’t feel comfortable with a college for whatever reason, don’t go. Keep looking. I promise you, if it is meant to be, the right college will find you and it may be where you weren’t looking. I did not think I wanted to come to WLC, but as soon as I toured it, I knew.
I’ve been lucky to have only one fracture during these last three years at WLC; one that put me in a wheelchair for three weeks during the February of my freshman year. I’m not going to lie to you—that really sucked. It was hard being so independent at first—it was like I could forget about my disease and pretend that I was just a normal young woman having the time of her life—and then had to take a few steps backward again. But I did all right. I had friends help push me through the winter weather to most of my classes, and when I couldn’t find friends, WLC’s amazing disabilities coordinator pushed me to class herself!
I’ve had a very rare opportunity to attend an incredible college, study what I love and grow as an optimistic young woman with a physical disability—all in an environment that is accessible for me. I think everyone deserves that opportunity.
Here are my tips for finding disability-accessible colleges:
- Start your search early in high school. This will give you time to think about what is necessary for you to attend a college.
- Visit colleges near you. Some people with physical disabilities need to be close to specific hospitals or areas close to where their family lives. Use colleges in your area for your first choices.
- Besides researching things like financial aid and academic programs, also research their campus. Is every building ADA accessible? What about the size of the campus? Meet with the college’s disabilities coordinator to talk over living situations and ask questions.
- Get in touch with other people with physical disabilities who may have gone to the colleges you’re thinking about. What do they say about accessibility, both on-campus and off-campus?
- Finally, go with your gut decision. If you fall in love with a college that has almost everything on your list, and the disabilities coordinator is willing to work with you so you can have a successful experience, then definitely go for it. However, if you don’t feel sure, it’s OK to take a step back and look at other possible alternatives.
Finally, don’t forget to be your own advocate. That’s what college is meant to do—to help you find your own voice. Use it wisely and don’t be afraid to speak out.