The pressure is on full tilt for high school seniors in the final weeks of college application season. For students with disabilities, the challenge can be even greater to find a school that’s a good fit.
Isabel Mavrides-Calderon, an 18-year-old at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective-tissue disorder that increases the risk of dislocations and other injuries. She uses a walker or wheelchair, depending on her level of pain on any given day.
She’s looking for a college or university with an accessible campus, and while “every school will say it’s accessible,” in reality many fall short, Mavrides-Calderon said. She has toured 14 schools, and what she’s found has turned her into an activist, her mother, Maria, said last week.
About one in five undergraduates report having a disability, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Advocates say that’s likely an undercount, because not everyone indicates their disability on a college application, some out of fear it will hurt their chances. In fact, only about one-third of students with a disability inform their college, the NCES found.
How can students with disabilities pick a school that won’t leave them stranded? With application deadlines fast approaching, here’s advice we gleaned from students, teachers and other admissions experts from New York, New Jersey and beyond:
Starting the search
“The first step is deciding what you need for accessibility,” Mavrides-Calderon said in an interview last week. “For me, that was a flat, small campus with elevators and an administration that’s knowledgeable about disability. It also has to be close to a medical center.”
Just looking for a compact campus took “tons of colleges out of my search,” she said.
Mavrides-Calderon’s next stop is Instagram, where she searches for a school’s disability student union. “If there is a community of disabled students on campus, that means a lot to me. I try to see what their experiences are.”
In his 2021 book “The Price You Pay For College,” author Ron Lieber has similar advice for students with mental health concerns: Look for a school with a chapter of Active Minds, a nonprofit that provides mental health support for young adults.
Rutgers University professor and disability advocate Javier Robles suggests starting with a school’s website.
“Are they talking about accommodations? That’s a positive sign that they are actively involved in making their students with disabilities feel welcome,” he said.
If accessibility information is hard to find, “that’s a problem,” Robles continued. “If you are blind, and the websites are not accessible, that is another red flag.”
Taking the tour
Think you found a place that might be a match? Take a tour. It’s another chance to get a dose of reality.
“Even when you ask for an accessible tour, a lot of them will go up and down stairs, so a lot of the time you have to ask if the tour can use elevators and ramps instead,” said Mavrides-Calderon.
Accessible entrances should be close to the entrances everyone else uses, according to the U.S. Access Board, a government agency that writes guidelines for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“I was on one tour when I had to go on the ramps or get to the elevator while the tour continued. By the time I found the elevator, which was really far away, I was left behind,” said Mavrides-Calderon. “That really showed how disability was viewed on campus.”
She sees broad, vague answers to questions about accessibility as warning signs.
“If they don’t know off the top of their head, it is not something that they commonly talk about, especially when you are talking to high-level people. To me that says they don’t know what accessibility really is.”
Robles, who directs Rutgers’ Center for Disability Sports, Health and Wellness, says students interested in the sciences should pay close attention to laboratories.
“The age of the campus is always an issue,” he said. “If it’s an old campus, the labs won’t be accessible to somebody in a wheelchair.”
While Mavrides-Calderon didn’t want to mention the names of schools that failed to meet her accessibility expectations in the middle of her application process, she was quick to praise Brandeis University in Massachusetts and Barnard College in New York.
At Brandeis, she hadn’t requested an accessible tour in advance. But “I told them while I was there, and within seconds they had somebody who is super-knowledgeable,” she recalled. “They took me to a lot of accessible places and told me all about accessibility on campus. It was really in-depth”
Mental health resources
The number of teenagers who show up on campus in need of counseling has soared in recent years, putting new burdens on colleges and universities, Lieber said.
Many schools have counseling centers, but Lieber suggests taking a look at the availability of services: Is there a cap on the number of counseling sessions? A wait list to see a therapist? Do centers have a relationship with a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication? Is the staff willing to share data on its caseload — and its success or failure in treating anxiety, depression and other issues.
College administrators have a plea for parents and students as well, Lieber added: Share any mental health concerns when you arrive on campus, so schools can be proactive in offering help.
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Are dorms accessible?
Another important factor: dorm life. Do housing complexes have elevators? A school that provides rooms on the first floor may technically be accessible, but students with mobility impairments would still be at a disadvantage.
“A lot of schools told me they have accessible housing, but their idea of accessible is putting every disabled student on the first floor,” said Mavrides-Calderon. “Maybe that works technically, but that means you won’t have access to an entire social life if you can’t access the other floors.”
Mavrides-Calderon plans to live on campus, and she’s going to ask for a “single,” or a dorm room for one.
“I have a lot of noisy medical equipment. I have mobility aids and an oxygen tank — so many things that I will need in my room,” she said.
Awareness and accommodations
Prospective students should also make a point to speak with a college’s office of disability services. Talk about accommodations you need and pay attention to the responses.
The differences between how K-12 school districts and colleges handle disabilities often surprises students and their families. The Individualized Education Plans that guided them through childhood do not apply to colleges, said Mickie Hayes, who worked in disability services at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Florida, and now hosts a podcast on the topic.
From service dogs to note takers, colleges will make accommodations. They will move inaccessible classrooms, supply coursework in alternative formats, such as e-readers, provide ASL interpreters and extend exam times. But they won’t modify coursework, as local schools might have in a student’s past.
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Make sure to ask students at potential colleges how easy it is to get accommodations and how willing professors are to help.
“Find disabled students on social media, and talk directly to them,” said Mavrides-Calderon.
The “Fiske Guide to Colleges” lists 33 colleges and universities that offer “particularly strong” support for people with learning disabilities. The roster includes local schools such as Fairleigh Dickinson, Marist, Hofstra, Syracuse and Manhattanville. A visit or call to an institution’s LD support office should be part of your search, the authors advise.
“Since many such programs depend on the expertise of one or two people, the quality of the services can change abruptly with changes in staff,” the guide says.
Gene Myers covers disability and mental health for NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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