By Jay Michaels
As a student with a disability, you probably have it tougher than other students. While your high school accommodations helped, the college experience is different.
The campus is larger, the student population is bigger and classes are more difficult. You need to prepare as soon as possible.
South Carolina's numbers suggest that students with disabilities, indeed, have it tough.
Only 40 percent graduated from high school in 2012, according to a survey by the South Carolina Department of Education. Of those, it's estimated that roughly 26 percent enrolled in higher education.
Although it may be difficult for students with disabilities, many go on to become successful.
Cindy Amick is one.
Amick is a senior retailing student in USC's College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management with a concentration in retail management and will receive her bachelor's degree in May.
Because of a spinal cord injury, she has difficulty walking far and depends on a scooter to get around campus. She also leans forward on her scooter to alleviate her back pain.
Getting to graduation wasn't easy. When Amick was 7 years old, she lost her mother to a post-abdominal surgery infection that spread throughout her body. She endured, graduating from Columbia High School in 1981 and studying psychology at Erskine College. But she admits to not studying as much as she should and was suspended after one semester for poor grades.
Amick moved back into her father's house in Columbia and worked odd jobs at a fast-food restaurant and a movie theater until 1984. While she worked part time, Amick regretted her earlier poor college performance.
So in 1984, she decided it was time to try again and enrolled part time in Midlands Technical College's human resource classes to raise her GPA. She quit working at the theater and began full time work at an automotive body shop equipment store.
By 1991, Amick had quit her remaining part-time job and was working full time at the equipment store. Doing better financially, Amick enrolled in night classes in psychology – until night classes were no longer available.
In 2000, Amick started working full time at a boating products company. Amick learned how to water-ski, but she fell often. "Falling is just part of learning," Amick says. "I fell a lot." But the frequent falling injured her back.
Amick tried to heal her injuries with chiropractic care and massage therapy. However, when that failed, she had a laminectomy to relieve spinal cord pressure.
Everything was fine until 2004, when Amick needed another laminectomy. "I suffer from chronic pain due to scar tissue which surrounds my S1 and S2 nerves," Amick says. "I have also suffered some nerve damage from the herniated L5 disc."
The second surgery caused unbearable pain, and Amick was diagnosed with post-laminectomy, or failed back, syndrome. "After 2004, all I did was watch TV, read and work on my family genealogy," Amick says. The pain lasted until 2010, when Amick felt well enough to enroll in USC's retail management program. Her previous experiences made Amick realize she needed a better plan – not just good intentions.
If you're a student with a disability considering college, you need a good plan, too, so we've developed a step-by-step guide to help you make your final college decision.
Step No. 1: Research
Know your rights and advocate for them
You need to understand your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the 1990 law, students are allowed accommodations, but they can't pose undue burden, which is defined as significant difficulty or expense to the school.
Amick made sure she knew the information that could help her on her college journey. She contacted school staff and faculty and advocated for herself.
Able South Carolina can assist in getting helpful information. Executive Director Kimberly Tissot understands the value of advocacy. "Able South Carolina can work with colleges on accessibility issues and also assist students with identifying accessibility concerns, develop ideas for accommodations, and assisting the students with advocating for these accommodations," Tissot says. "There are over 100 consumers in our serving area with education-related cases. There were nearly 700 consumers last year."
The Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. has valuable information about self-advocacy. Kathleen A. Martin is the team leader for PAPD's outreach, information and referral department.
"Depending on the issue, our response may be to direct an individual to a college's office on Student Disability Services," Martin says. "Because of the far more extensive protections afforded younger students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, college can be a difficult adjustment. We may take on an issue. Though, frequently, I provide information on self-advocacy. Rather, it is a one at a time means of assisting."
What size and location is right for you?
Before you decide on a college consider campus size. Big schools, like the University of South Carolina, have 1,600 students registered students with disabilities while Clemson has 819. If you are thinking about smaller schools, USC Upstate's campus has 160 students while USC Aiken's campus has 75 students. Of course, there are schools in the Lowcountry, like Coastal Carolina University, which has 215 students. Smaller campuses can offer one-on-one assistance with staff and faculty. Bigger campuses may have more activities on and around campus.
Because Amick knew the Midlands, she was comfortable with Columbia's big city. Keep in mind the size that suits you and the accessibility in that area. The admissions office at each school will let you know about the neighborhood surrounding the campus.
Campus size, which may also be dictated by campus size or room availability, is important too. Some general education classes have more students than major-specific classes.
What do you want to study?
Amick was considering real estate as a major, not psychology, when she spoke to an admissions counselor. Amick saw the math requirement was too much for her. "I looked at the business calculus requirement and said ‘no,'" Amick says.
If you are thinking about certain majors, contact the admissions office, which will give you class information and required prerequisites. Each major's department has class requirements and may give you previous syllabi.
Amick contacted USC's Student Disability Services and made an appointment to see Disability Resource Coordinator Charlotte Helms and was told to get documented proof of her disability.
"At this point, it's up to the student," Helms says. "It's different in college than it was in high school. Parents need to lay back."
Assistive Technology Coordinator Bradley E. Crain agrees with Helms. "Students need to make their own accommodations," Cain says. Contact every campus' disability services office. The staff will tell you their procedures and discuss the necessary forms.
Make an appointment with your doctor to get documentation about your disability. Your doctor can also recommend any accommodations that will work for your situation.
Contacting every college is tedious. However, more knowledge leads to a more educated decision.
Step No. 2: Visit
Get the lay of the land
After narrowing your choices, schedule a campus tour with an admissions counselor and prepare questions about the campus, neighborhood, classrooms and majors.
Amick met with Helms, who showed her possible accommodations, like low-distraction testing, and showed her the registration process on the SDS website. Helms also told Amick about Delta Alpha Pi, an honor society for college students with disabilities. Through meetings with DAP, Amick met Student Disability Services Director Karen Pettus.
Pettus and Director of Maintenance Service Don Gibson often go around campus to look for possible barriers, which affect students with disabilities. Check with your disability services office for accessible maps that show ways of traversing the campus and avoiding barriers.
USC Upstate's Disability Services Director Margaret Camp understands the need to get around campus: Her office staff uses an accessible golf cart to transport students with disabilities.
Get the lowdown on classes
Now it is time to think about academics.
Amick sought advice from her admissions counselor who understood her dislike for business calculus. Her counselor suggested the retail program and explained the similarities with real estate without the business calculus requirement.
If you have a major in mind, speak to the department head or a professor on each campus you visit. They can discuss every course, its requirements and syllabi, which shows required reading and other assignments. Remember – Not every campus has the same requirements.
Weigh Your Options
Look at all the information you were given and compare the campus' layout, size and any classrooms you might be in.
Step No. 3: You're a (insert school mascot)
Make it official
Now that you know what college you want to attend, register with the disability services office as soon as possible because other students will register for their own accommodations. Getting there quickly will help avoid the rush. Amick and Helms discussed the doctor's documentation and Amick's disability, which resulted in a list of accommodations.
Discuss your doctor's documentation and any high school accommodations you had. You may need to adjust or add to the list according to your needs on campus.
Once you get your accommodations, meet with your academic adviser who will have your program's required classes. Your adviser may also suggest the semester breakdown of classes.
You are now ready to register for classes. Your academic adviser will walk you through your college's registration procedures.
Now that you are part of the campus community, keep communication going. Always speak up in uncomfortable situations, and ask questions when you have them.
Amick and Pettus often discuss possible accessibility improvements for USC. Talking about your concerns helps shed light on other issues that staff may not have thought about before.
For example, Columbia College Provost Dr. Laurie Hopkins works directly with students with disabilities and forbids words like "midget" and "dwarf" in her office. Hopkins is proud of all her students, but one former student became successful by using the communication skills that Hopkins taught her.
Michelle Harter, a former student with cerebral palsy, used crutches and had preconceived notions on how to act. "I always thought that people with disabilities had to be on their best behavior and make sure the other person was comfortable," Harter says.
Harter broke her foot in an accident during one semester and realized she needed to do something about her second-floor science class. After hearing the news, her professor moved the class downstairs along with all necessary equipment.
Harter realized that by speaking up, she helped herself and the people around her. She is now an admissions counselor at Columbia College, and her co-workers accept her as part of the crowd. "It is important for people without disabilities to not just assume, and put limitations, on those with disabilities," Harter says. "Just because I uses a wheelchair, it does not always mean I need help," says Harter.
Amick and Harter are just two examples of people with disabilities who wanted their college degree and fought against the obstacles they faced to get it. If they did it, you can, too.
Students with disabilities excel in many things after graduation
By Jay Michaels
South Carolina conducted a survey of students with disabilities one year after leaving high school. For fiscal year 2012, 7,654 surveys were distributed and 1,791 were returned.
To learn more about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, you may go to the South Carolina's Department of Education IDEA page.
Knowing your rights and resources can help you make an educated decision
By Jay Michaels
Talk to your college's disability services counselor to see if you are eligible for accommodations such as longer time for tests, low-distraction test taking and other possible accommodations.
The Washington Metro Area office serves South Carolina and can be reached at 202-453-6020 or on the Office of Civil Rights website.