Amy Alexander works at the University of California at Los Angeles, raising money for its alumni-supported Annual Fund. After a bad experience at an inaccessible college in New York, Alexander plans to return to school at UCLA, which landed the No. 7 spot on our survey.
If you've got a disability, choosing a college means thinking about a lot more than just academic facilities and social amenities. This may be your first opportunity to live independently. Will the support you need to live on your own be available? Personal assistance services? Accessible classrooms, transportation and living quarters? Adaptive sports? Will you be able to participate fully in campus life?
Although we couldn't rate every university in the country, we've tried to provide you with a baseline to start from. The schools we chose to describe may not be ideal for you, but they will show you what to look for.
Last winter, New Mobility sent a questionnaire to disability resource office (DRO) directors at 50 public universities and colleges selected from the top tier of U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking. The responses varied greatly in detail provided, but a lot of useful information did come in.
Thirty-four schools returned the surveys in time for inclusion in this story, and you'll find that information presented in the charts below. Ten campuses stood out from the crowd, either for some unique program, opportunity or approach to service delivery, or for the less definable attributes that somehow make an environment disability-friendly. We've ranked them in an admittedly arbitrary order. It's important to keep in mind that any one of these schools could be the best for you, or any of hundreds of others we couldn't review.
Some generalizations are possible. Campus focus, for example, has shifted from "physical access" to "programmatic access." That means that every aspect of your major and related studies must be made accessible to you--even if it entails altering locations, field trips or testing procedures--but that not every facility on campus must be fully accessible. The idea is to provide you with equal access to programs, not to fixate on ramps and elevators.
Services range from basic academic resources and accommodations to "one-stop shops" offering strikingly comprehensive services. The disparities sometimes result from funding levels, sometimes from philosophical differences. Many DROs say that, if they take over the functions of other offices--such as tutoring and financial aid--there won't be any incentive for these departments to develop their own staff skills on disability issues. When this theory prevails, the DRO plays a consulting role to faculty and staff, and students with disabilities gain a lot of experience--good and bad--in dealing with the broader university infrastructure. When a DRO takes a more proactive stance by offering a broad range of services, it is usually driven by the desire to tailor services to the individual needs of students with disabilities.
A good but fairly basic menu of services and accommodations might include accessible classrooms and furniture, adaptive equipment assessment and referral, adaptive recreation programs, liaison with faculty and vocational rehabilitation offices, alternative testing formats, grievance resolution, housing advice, TTY network, curriculum modifications, laboratory and library support, mobility assistance, notetakers, paratransit service, parking accommodations, priority or online registration, referrals for personal assistance services, and sign language instruction and interpreters.
More comprehensive services might include career counseling, community mental health programs in residential halls, crisis intervention, disability management advice, electronic access to libraries and course syllabi, specialized tutoring, peer mentors, support groups, PCA pool, on-site therapists and rehabilitation professionals, internships, work-study programs, overseas study, test-taking center, wheelchair rescue/repair/loan programs, and workshops in self-advocacy, financial management and other disability lifestyle issues.
Our best advice on making a final decision is to give particular weight to the academic quality of the school, the accessibility of the campus and surrounding community, and the services and opportunities available--both on- and off-campus--that will make your disability a non-factor in your ability to take part in the university experience.
Herewith, 10 of America's best.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
UIUC has been a leader in services for students with disabilities ever since Tim Nugent founded the Division of Rehabilitation Education Services in 1948. It was the world's first program of its kind (see sidebar for other UIUC firsts). Today, it is UIUC's comprehensive support for students with disabilities, along with its unrivaled wheelchair sports program, that make it our top pick.
Beckwith Hall, the home of UIUC's transitional disability management training program, switched in 1994 from a "provide everything" approach to enabling residents to assume control themselves. For example, staffers still confirm references, conduct background checks and train PCAs, but students do their own interviewing and hiring.
Kat Mayadag, who has spinal muscular atrophy, came to Beckwith as a freshman. "I needed a lot of help," she says, "and my parents had always taken care of me. For somebody who's 18, with absolutely no idea how to screen or interview, it's very overwhelming." For her, Beckwith's services and peer support were lifesavers. "We really bond together," she says. "We push each other to be more independent." Mayadag is now Beckwith's interim director.
Before students finalize course selections, DRES helps them take distance, location and their own endurance into account. Staffers identify travel routes, pinpoint ramps, and stay on top of elevator maintenance and outages. In winter, DRES makes sure students with disabilities have high priority for snow removal.
And there's no ignoring UIUC's athletic programs. Sports were Teresa Brandenburg's lifeblood before her accident during her sophomore year, and they still are. "I can't say enough about this campus," she says. "It's the best coaching I've had in my life." Her hopes now include a berth on the USA Paralympics 2000 team.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
A History of Firsts:
First comprehensive program of post-secondary education for people with severe physical disabilities.
First university with accessible buses.
First independent living center for those dependent on respiratory devices and/or personal assistance services.
First rehabilitation service fraternity, Delta Sigma Omicron.
First formal overseas study program for students with disabilities.
First collegiate wheelchair basketball teams for both men and women, with varsity letters awarded to wheelchair athletes.
notetakers, readers, support groups, peer mentoring, housing assistance, disability awareness activities and workshops, art exhibits, entertainment nights, training on adaptive computer technology, computer lab
UCB is legendary as the school where Ed Roberts and the Rolling Quads envisioned a program to help students with disabilities participate academically while developing the skills they needed to live independently. That was back in the 1960s.
Today, what distinguishes UCB's Disabled Students' Residence Program is its unswerving focus on student empowerment. Designed for freshmen and transfer students who have not previously directed their own personal care, this two-semester training period turns out confident students primed to live independently. As at UIUC, prospective PCAs are screened through the program's attendant referral service and then interviewed by the student, who makes all final decisions on hiring.
Things have come full circle for Tony Germino, a wheelchair-user who came to the residence program at age 18. "I didn't know about SSI, the department of rehabilitation or funding attendant care," Germino says. He went on to graduate, land a career position in the university's financial aid office and, three years ago, become coordinator of the residence program. "I've wanted this job ever since I was a resident," he says. "I learned so much from this program, and now I have a chance to give back."
After the first year, Germino says, residents are assisted in moving to housing where they can live independently--and there's lots of it available both on and off campus. UCB runs a wheelchair rescue and repair service, and Berkeley's Easy Does It program will pick up any disabled person who calls in stuck within city limits.
"The nice thing about UCB is that whenever there is an area of weakness, we work on it," says Germino. "You don't have to beg people to listen to your issues at Berkeley."
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
EUP, about 20 miles from Erie, Pa., has an outstanding on-campus residence program for students with disabilities. Fifty-four PCAs staff the first floors of Scranton and Shaffer halls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Charlotte Mainon, a C6 quad, chose EUP for its strong academic program, but personal assistance services were another strong draw.
Mainon likes the resident mix at Scranton--it includes nondisabled students--and gives the on-site help high marks. "If I just want something pulled out or set up, I can call," she says. "It's very relaxed. The rooms are like any other dorm rooms, but they'll put in any special modifications you need."
The extent of the university's commitment to students with disabilities is evident in the Office for Students with Disabilities' range of services: a fleet of modified vans traveling both on and off campus; a wheelchair repair facility; a life skills center staffed by an occupational therapist and rehabilitation nurse; a physical therapy facility; a recreation center with a full-time coach; and a computer lab with state-of-the-art adaptive technology. The school employs more than 80 people as drivers, wheelchair maintenance technicians, meal aides, academic aides and support staff, and recent renovations have made the campus almost totally accessible.
EUP offers an extensive varsity and intramural wheelchair sports program. Mainon joined the Rolling Scots, the varsity wheelchair athletic team, and competed in the Mid-Atlantic Games last spring. "Who would have known," she marvels. "You get to go places you never dreamed of because you found out you have ability you never knew about. What's being offered here is amazing."
University of Wisconsin:
Madison and Whitewater campuses
Academically, the Madison campus is the crown jewel in the University of Wisconsin educational system, but the Whitewater campus sparkles on its own merits. Profiling one without the other would be remiss.
As the system's only Ph.D.-granting institution, UW-Madison is known more for its academic programs than its disability services--yet the school has commendable accommodations for students with disabilities.
Situated on 900 notoriously hilly acres, UW-Madison is daunting to wheelers. Ken Adell, a C3-4 quad, considered going to the Whitewater campus for its easier access, but wanted to pursue an advanced degree. On nice days, he can travel the hills in his power chair, but he says it's the paratransit system that makes his education possible on wintry days.
Adell also credits UW-Madison's McBurney Disability Resource Center. Its peer mentor program, run in cooperation with the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, offers an impressive array of workshops on all aspects of education.
Here's how accommodations work at UW-Madison: McBurney provides a student with a plan, called a VISA, outlining recommended accommodations. Early each semester, student and professor--guided by the VISA--negotiate the details. "If problems arise," says Trey Duffy, McBurney's director, "the student comes back to us or the professor calls us."
One helpful accommodation is McBurney's electronic reserve system, which saves on trips to the library. The system provides access to all course-related materials submitted by instructors, including syllabi, past exams, problem sets, notes and reading assignments.
According to Adell, whose work as a graduate student involves a major re-engineering of DVR, Wisconsin is the happening place for disability awareness. "The doors are basically being blown open," he says. "It's incredible, and the university system is part of that movement. I couldn't have gotten where I am without it."
In 1973, the Board of Regents gave UW-Whitewater a specific mandate to provide optimal services for students with disabilities. Consequently, it is one of the most accessible campuses in the nation. That, along with lower entrance criteria, makes it an easier place for some students with disabilities to start. Transferring to UW-Madison is always an option later.
The emphasis at UW-Whitewater is on development of independent living and workplace skills, an approach that has made the school an attractive place for DVR to refer clients and funnel grant money. Some have characterized the school as a "chrome ghetto"--a place where DVR sends wheelers regardless of their potential for success at other institutions--but John Truesdale, director of UW-Whitewater's Disabled Student Services, disagrees.
"You're talking about maybe 75 wheelchair-users out of 10,500 students," Truesdale says. "They're scattered through all the residence halls and in different majors throughout the campus. But it's not unusual to see people with disabilities on campus, and I think the students like it that way. There's that critical mass needed to get things done."
What gets done is a vast array of services, including a campus physical therapist, rehabilitation nurse and attendant services coordinator, and a paratransit service that operates seven days a week to support UW-Whitewater's work-experience program. Last year, 95 percent of work-experience graduates found employment, while another 3 percent went on to graduate school.
"Everybody here sees inclusion and accessibility as part of their job," says Truesdale. "It's part of our campus mission and everybody takes ownership of it."
History of Disability Awareness
Disability Awareness Program offered as part of new student orientation:
U. of Colorado, Denver
U. of California, Berkeley
U. of California, San Diego
U. of California, Los Angeles
Salisbury University, Md.
College of New Jersey, Ewing
U. of Connecticut, Storrs
U. of Delaware
Humboldt State U. Calif.
U. of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Offers a Disability Studies program:
Texas A & M, College Station, since 1960
U. of Florida, Gainesville, since 1975
U. of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul (developing a minor)