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Students With Physical Disabilities: 4 Tips For Applying To College

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Applicants should try to visit campuses and prepare, as students, to advocate for their needs.

There are about 1.1 million physically disabled undergraduates in the United States, according to Steve Kaye, research director of the Disability Statistics Center at University of California, San Francisco, citing data from the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau.

While this figure represents about 5.9 percent of all students, most colleges and universities aren't meeting their needs. This is particularly true if the students' physical disabilities are so serious that they drastically impact daily living, according Chris Wise Tiedemann, who coauthors the website Disability Friendly Colleges with her son Tom, who has cerebral palsy.

According to Tiedemann, author of the forthcoming book College Success for Students with Physical Disabilities, only five schools -- Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, University of California at Berkeley, University of Houston, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Wright State University -- offer enough services for a student with serious physical disabilities to live on campus.

Tiedemann says seriously disabled applicants should consider one of the five schools. Tom, for example, studies at Edinboro. But students with less serious disabilities have more options if they do their research properly. Here are four tips for disabled applicants and students.

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1. Prepare early: Tiedemann says disabled students should start contacting college disability services offices as freshmen and sophomores in high school. "The earlier [students] can start planning and visit campuses, the better," she says.

Gabe Trujillo, a quadriplegic who has been in a wheelchair for more than 14 years and is an alumnus and current graduate student at Arizona State University, says part of applicants' preparation should be researching whether target schools have support groups, clubs, and adaptive sports for disabled students. "It's important to get out and mingle with your classmates," he says.

Diane Austin, vice president of student affairs at Lasell College in Newton, Mass., notes that when applicants interact with administrators, they should plan on having to be repetitive.

"[D]o not assume that information provided to one person [or] functional unit at an institution will necessarily be shared with other units [or] individuals at the institution," she says, "[B]e your own advocate, and you will undoubtedly be well-received."

2. Visit prospective campuses if possible: Tiedemann, who writes the disability-friendly schools website, advises disabled applicants and parents to check campuses for handicapped parking availability, accessible buildings with elevators, and curb cuts (ramps leading up to sidewalks).

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"If these things are not easily available, attitudes about handicapped students may not be what they should be," she says.

Lasell College's Austin adds that buildings erected before the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects the rights of disabled people, are often "grandfathered" in and aren't legally bound by the law.

"[T]hat information may not be evident on websites," she says. "[M]any older institutions in the Northeast are difficult to navigate for individuals with mobility challenges."

3. Don't confuse high school and college: Just because high schools accommodated a disability doesn't mean colleges will, even if you specify it in your application, says Matthew Kandel, manager of the online company, Newcastle Tutors, who has worked with many disabled students.

"Students need to proactively contact the office of disabled services at their school and provide ample documentation of the disability in order to receive services," Kandel says.

Tiedemann agrees that applicants shouldn't use high school as a reference for college.

"Parents and students are almost invariably unaware of how much more responsibility is placed upon a college student. And most students do not leave for college with experience in hiring aides to help them get showered [and] dressed," she says. "If they haven't prepared in high school for this, they are sunk."

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4. Advocate for yourself: Corbb O'Connor, who graduated from George Washington University in December 2010, has been blind since birth, which meant he couldn't see professors' PowerPoint slides during class. If professors E-mailed the files to him ahead of time, which most were happy to do, O'Connor was able to view the images roughly if he enlarged them on his laptop, though he wasn't able to see them projected on a screen in front of the class.

One professor refused to share slides, O'Connor says, because he didn't own the image copyrights. "He wouldn't believe me that the law says that if you are going to show [materials] to sighted students, you have to find a way to show them to your blind students, too," O'Connor says.

It can, however, be a challenge to stand up to professors. "Who wants to basically threaten legal action against a person who is going to be determining your grade in a class that you haven't even started yet? Talk about first impressions," O'Connor says.

But being aggressive paid off for him. He worked with GW's General Counsel and it took an entire semester, but the professor finally shared the slides.

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