For Those Entering College for the First Time
September 19th, 2012
by Lateef McLeod
Entering college can be a challenging and scary time, especially if you have a physical disability. You may feel apprehension about what to expect and how to navigate your new school, and on top of that all new students are expected to learn many things about college life in a short time. When I went to UC Berkeley, it took me a while before I was accustomed to campus life. Fortunately, I was allowed to start living on campus two weeks before the start of classes, which helped me acclimate to the new environment. This illustrates why it is good for people with disabilities to get on campus before the semester starts. It can help ensure that your living arrangements work for you, your personal care assistant (PCA) is hired, and your classroom accommodations are squared away before the first week of classes.
Here is some more information you can use to make your first year of college run more smoothly.
1. Make sure your housing and personal accommodations are straight.
Most big universities provide housing for new students, including rooms that are accessible for people with physical disabilities. At my school, UC Berkeley, students with disabilities are placed in a Disabled Students’ Residence Program (DSRP), where they receive a private dorm room and Special Assistants (SA) to help them with their personal care needs. You also get information on how to hire PCAs. The DSRP really assisted me my first semester at Cal when I needed to hire PCAs. I had the SA staff to fall back on until I completed hiring my own PCA staff, which I did by asking my friends who might be willing to do attendant work with me, placing want ads in local newspapers and on Craigslist, and posting fliers around campus. For those of you who want to access the services of the DSRP, you must apply as a client of the Department of Rehabilitation. You can go on the Department of Rehabilitation website to find out more about the application process. Department of Rehab clients must possess a physical or mental impairment that substantially impedes them from finding a job. I found that it is worth it to apply, because being in the DSRP definitely was an advantage for me. It provided me with accessible housing, attendant care support, and an education around living independently. You usually stay in the DSRP for a year, and after that you are considered capable enough of finding your own housing and PCAs.
2. Have a plan in place to hire your PCAs.
You have many options in your search for PCAs. One benefit that you have in college is that you will come into contact with many young adults who are either friends or colleagues and can become good PCAs. The Disability Students’ Program on campus may also have services to assist you in locating PCAs. As a UC Berkeley participant of the DSRP, I took a course my first semester which taught me how to manage PCAs and provided me with other important information about living independently on campus. For additional information about managing PCAs, you can read my earlier post: PCAs: An Essential Resource.
3. Make sure the accommodations for your courses are in place within the first few weeks of classes.
For accommodations in the classroom, you have to talk to a specialist in your college’s DSP, to determine what type of accommodations you need for each class. The DSP usually has a variety of services and assistive technology to aid you in your courses. For more information about DSPs, you can read my earlier post: Disabled Students’ Programs of the Bay Area.
You should also familiarize yourself with your professor’s office hours. I made sure to personally talk to each one of my professors in a one-on-one setting at least once at the beginning of each semester so they would know my needs in their class, but plans do go awry. One time I was scheduled to take a final in a secluded room, because I take longer to do tests than regular students. After waiting in that secluded room for about two hours, I found out there was a mix up and the DSP said I had to take the test at a later date. I found this unacceptable, so I went to the place where the rest of my class had taken the final and fortunately found a test that someone had left behind. I was able to use that to get the questions and then email my professor with the answers. So the lesson there is that accommodations may fall through, so always have a contingency plan so that you can still succeed, even when additional challenges are thrown your way.
4. Engage in collegiate social activities.
You will also benefit from investigating the student groups on campus. This is a good way to access the many social experiences that colleges offer, and is an opportunity to make new friends in the process. Whether it is joining fraternities and sororities or other more academic organizations (like a pre-law club or an engineering club), you have many activities from which to choose and at least one should from peak your interest. I was very involved on campus. I joined the black student newspaper and became a member of a social fraternity. If there is a Disability Student Union on your campus, I encourage you to join it because it connects you with other students who are facing similar challenges. The Disability Student Union was definitely a major part of UC Berkeley’s disability community when I went there. If there is not a Disability Student Union on your school’s campus, I encourage you to start one, because it is a great way for you and other students with disabilities to advocate for yourselves. The student groups I was part of allowed me to have more social interaction with my peers, and made me feel more engaged in my college experience. My advice to current college students is to have rewarding experiences on campus that will add to your character and future success later in life.
College is what you make of it, so get from it what you can. All of these tips will help you and other students with disabilities to enjoy vibrant college experiences.
That is my view of the Bay.