Nearly four years ago, I was a high school graduate who hoped to attend a local university. I went to college with hopes of expanding my worldview and obtaining a meaningful education that would lead to employment after college.
I soon realized there are many barriers for disabled people who want to attend college. For me, the first barrier I faced was a lack of adequate care assistance. In my first three semesters of college, I went through a new PCA every semester. It’s exhausting having to find and then retain personal care assistants. Managing your care can feel like an unpaid job. It was hard because my first PCA was constantly running late. This always made me nervous because I didn’t want to miss classes. This PCA sometimes also made me feel like a burden. It’s not a good feeling when your PCA makes you feel bad just for existing in your disabled body. The subsequent PCA worked well until I let her go due to personal issues. The third PCA had unreliable transportation. It wasn’t until 2018 that I discovered just how difficult it could be to find good PCAs.
My mother and a friend often filled in when PCAs didn’t show up. It saddened me when my mother had to miss work. I felt very guilty. My parents already sacrificed enough of their lives, time, and resources to raise their children. As a 20-year-old, I felt terrible when my mother would miss important meetings or other engagements at work because of me.
In addition, I quickly realized that getting accommodations was a challenge, From getting accommodation on exams to making sure I had accessible materials, nothing was simple. It required a level of advocacy that I wasn’t used to. The process involves lots of e-mails, paperwork, and phone calls. In college, there are no IEPs or 504 Plans. Much of the advocacy also falls on the student because you are treated as an adult. Getting what I needed felt like a full-time job.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I tried to coordinate a work experience with a local press company. Unfortunately, the woman who runs it works from her home, which isn’t accessible. After this, I began to research the employment statistics of disabled people in America.
The more research I did, the more I questioned my decision to attend college in the first place. In 2020, only 17.9% of Americans with disabilities were employed. My whole purpose behind going to college was to get a job. I began to have thoughts of being an unemployed college graduate because of Cerebral Palsy. I didn’t want to have worked hard to earn a bachelor’s degree only to end up unemployed at the end of it. I wanted to be able to use the skills that I’d spent years acquiring. College was not something I pursued so that I’d have something to do during the day.
Just 15.2 percent of disabled people between the ages of 21 and 64 have a bachelor’s degree in this country. But don’t believe for a second that it’s because they aren’t intelligent, talented, or willing. Ableism is so deeply embedded in our society that disabled people have to fight for the education that they are supposed to be entitled to. Growing up, I constantly felt like I needed to prove that I belonged with my non-disabled peers, socially and academically.
Disabled people are worthy of a college education, and it saddens me that many of them feel like they don’t deserve a college education, myself included. We need to remove systemic barriers to higher education for disabled people. Disabled people can do so much if they are given the proper support.
Erickson, W., Lee, C., von Schrader, S. (2022). Disability Statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute (YTI). Retrieved from Cornell University Disability Statistics website: www.disabilitystatistics.org
“Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 24 Feb. 2021, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/disabl.nr0.htm.