Thursday, February 7, 2008

Students with Disabilities Speak Out About Campus Life

According to more than 600 students who entered a Scholarship Essay Contest sponsored by 1800wheelchair, being disabled in college means facing both social and physical obstacles.

It’s been 15 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, yet disabled students say they still struggle with accessibility on campus. The challenges don’t end with the physical environment—students say colleges and universities need to improve understanding and acceptance.

This year, the second for the scholarship, entrants were asked to write an essay explaining what changes they would make on campus to better the lives of disabled students. Increased accessibility was the paramount concern. Students not only call for more and better facilities, but for more attentive maintenance programs. Several students reported shocking negligence in the upkeep and planning of automatic doors, elevators and dorm facilities.

Joseph Piekarski, founder of, says it was hearing these kinds of stories that prompted this year’s essay topic. “It always amazes me to hear that accessibility is still an issue in this day and age,” Piekarski says.

Physical obstacles aren’t the only challenges disabled students face day-to-day. There are psychological barriers too. Clay Brand, a Florida State University student, observes that even wheelchair ramps can create feelings of exclusion if disabled students need to circle the building looking for the ramp while their classmates use the main entrance. Other students described similar feelings when confronted with inaccessible gyms and campus hangouts. This pronounced sense of difference, many respondents say, is made worse by a lack of understanding, both on the part of other students and school administrators.

Elijah Carter, a student at Augusta State University in Georgia, says administrators must take responsibility for setting the tone on campus. “Faculty and staff must understand that assistance is an attitude, a daily process of thought and principle that should be perceived by the entire student body.”

Several students called for programs and peer mentoring to raise awareness with the goal of making disabled students feel more welcome. Others plead with school administrators to bring disabled students into the process and listen to their concerns. As Rebecca Abair of Volunteer State Community College writes, “Elevating awareness and creating an atmosphere of acceptance can make all the difference.”

Check back soon for an update on the essay contest winner!