Students with Disabilities Face New Challenges on Their Own

By Antara Sinha

Eleven percent of undergraduate students in the U.S. had a disability in the 2011-2012 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While the transition to college is difficult and overwhelming for many students as they experience independent decision making for the first time, it can be especially difficult for students with disabilities.

“Originally, I didn’t really think much about it,” said Adreenah Wynn, a senior graphic design and art and technology at the University of Florida. “Freshman year, I went to the [Disability Resource Center] orientation and everything, but I thought to myself, ‘I don’t need this, I did fine in high school.’”

She didn’t realize how much she needed how much DRC assistance until the second semester of her freshman year, and was having a lot more issues transitioning than she thought she would.

“I was used to being at home under my mom and dad, and any time I got sick, they would know it before I would know,” said Wynn. “There’s been times that I’ve been really sick and I’ve been on the phone calling my mom like, ‘my body is shutting down – I don’t know why this is happening,’ and she would tell me, ‘You’re going through a sickle cell crisis.’”

A sickle cell crisis is a major symptom of sickle cell disease during which severe pain episodes – lasting anywhere between a few hours to a few weeks – can be severe enough to warrant hospitalization, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Beth Roland, a learning specialist at the University of Florida’s Disability Resource Center also worked as a school psychologist at the high school level. She’s been able to witness and assist both the transition out of high school, and the transition into college for students with disabilities.

“One of the big differences between high school and the university is that it is completely up to the student to connect with the disability resource center at the university and to get any accommodations and support set up for them,” said Roland. “In high school, it’s a combination of the teachers, school psychologist and parents working together to set up things for the student.”

Students are able to become a part of the care team and have input in decisions once they turn 16 years old, and are able to become the sole decision maker at 18. Making students with disabilities aware of all of the resources at the university level is a major first step for a smooth college experience, according to Roland.

Feeling isolated is another factor that students struggle with.

“I’ve had certain students tell me, ‘I’m not sure if I belong here,’ or feel like having a disability might put them at a disadvantage compared with other students,” said Roland. “But, that doesn’t have to be a case because we do have accommodations available that are meant to level that playing field so that they have equal access.

After her difficult freshman year, the DRC’s stress group was a resource that Wynn said she benefitted the most from. A commitment-free weekly group was a safe space for Wynn to discuss her struggles with students who were going through similar issues, and it was also a gateway for her to gain access to the other amenities and accommodations offered by the DRC.

“There were so many things that I didn’t know were available,” said Wynn. “It was awesome.”

It’s especially important, according to Roland, to make students and parents aware of DRC resources as early as possible – before students arrive for classes. That’s why, for the past two years, the UF DRC has had its own informational session for parents during UF Preview, the mandatory freshmen orientation that all undergraduate students attend the summer before enrolling. Connecting earlier on can ease the transition that so many students experience.

T’Keyah McBride a pre-veterinary theater major at the University of Florida, and a peer mentor at the DRC, didn’t get connected to the DRC until her junior year of college. As the youngest child in a single-parent home and first to go to college in her family, McBride entered UF at full-steam, throwing herself into campus involvement.

At the end of McBride’s sophomore year in college however, after an incredibly draining semester of pre-veterinary classes, being a Resident Assistant, juggling numerous extracurricular activities and a job, McBride was struggling. After failing a class twice, she realized she needed to see a counselor – who then recommended she go to the DRC.

After being tested for mental and psychological disabilities, McBride was able to take advantage of some of the classroom accommodations provided. Because of a short attention-span, she was able to take exams in a low-distraction environment with extended time, and was able to request copies of slideshows and class notes.

She noticed her GPA go up, after that semester.

However, while McBride felt supported by the DRC, she felt something lacking from the rest of the university. When it came to representation in student government, “I just felt like we were in our own world.”

While there are numerous student-run organizations for what feels like every other minority group on campus, attempts at having a similar organization for students with disabilities never got off the ground, said McBride.

McBride also wished for more support from professors and advisers who sometimes questioned whether she would be capable of handling her chosen career path. Some professors and advisers suggested that being a veterinarian wasn’t in McBride’s reach.

“It was very discouraging,” said McBride. “I felt like my whole life’s [plan] was being shattered – just gone. I didn’t like that.”

“Sometimes, the stereotype is that because you have a disability you can’t perform, and there’s sort of this negative stigma around that,” said Roland. “I think that’s completely untrue. We have some of the most capable, amazing students.”

Because of this, more schools are implementing programs to help students with disabilities with another transition – getting out of college, and into the workplace. At UF, the DRC is attempting to connect with the Career Resource Center to get students connected to employers.

Similarly, on Oct. 3, five states, California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont, received $39 million in grants to help better prepare students with disabilities for the transition to employment, according do the U.S. Department of Education.

As to how Roland wishes society would view disability, “It’s just a part of a person’s identity – but doesn’t completely define them.”

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