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The ABCs of Success for Students with Disabilities 

By Kathie Schneider
UW-Eau Claire Counseling Services

Advocating for Accommodations

Self advocacy for college students with disabilities means recognizing and dealing with the disability-related needs you have without losing sight of the fact that you are a person first and a person with a disability second. Universities are required to provide appropriate accommodations to ensure that they do not discriminate on the basis of disability. However, the university does not have to accommodate until you identify yourself and document your disability adequately. Three keys to getting needed academic accommodations are:

Ask early: For example, ask the bookstore the semester before you’ll be taking a course what the books are, so you can get them taped by RFBD if you need your books on tape. Ask the professor the first day of class to set up test accommodations with you if you need these. By asking early you can prevent crises and lower your stress.

Ask often: Professors and other humans forget your disability accommodation needs. They don’t do this because they’re mean or uncaring; just because they’re human. If you need speakers to face you when lecturing so you can lip read, for example, and your teacher forgets to do this repeatedly, you may need to arrange a nonverbal signal to use with them to remind them.

Ask elsewhere: If a particular professor or staff member does not seem willing or able to meet your accommodation needs, seek assistance elsewhere, from Services for Students with Disabilities, Counseling Services, your adviser, or other campus allies.

Sometimes students with disabilities do not ask for needed accommodations because they don’t want to be identified as a person with a disability or because they think someone else will take care of meeting their needs like they did in high school. Learning to ask for what you need in a relaxed, confident manner takes practice. Taking an assertiveness training class from Counseling Services or practicing with a mentor/adviser/counselor can be helpful. Joining or forming a support group for students with disabilities can give a place to practice asking for what you need and get feedback from people who really understand.

Advocating for yourself extends beyond the classroom to becoming involved with student organizations, and activities. A balanced and rich college experience is open to all students.

Building Allies

That ancient general, Hannibal, said it well: “We will either find a way or make one.” Allies are those friends, family members, faculty/staff members, advisers, and others who are on the team that supports us in finding or making our way through life. Your first potential ally is someone you know well, yourself!

In assessing what kind of ally you are to yourself, you may want to consider some of the following questions:

What are your strengths and limitations, dreams and fears? Motivators and roadblocks? How do you view your disability? As a medical issue? As making you part of a minority group? As a pain in the anatomy? As a blessing that makes you a better person?

What’s different about your life, both positively and negatively because of your disability? How do you ask for help? Wait for it to be offered? Never ask but get mad when it’s not offered? Reject it if offered? Demand? Ask specifically, for many small pieces and from many people? What kind of help do you want? Ideas, emotional support, physical help, social support?

Sometimes looking at yourself and what kind of ally you are for yourself helps in determining what you want from other allies. “No Man is an Island” applies to all of us. Have you looked around your world recently to see who your allies are? Who are you comfortable with and why? How do they deal with your disability? (Ignore it; the elephant in the living room phenomenon? Focus entirely on it and have all the answers for you? See it as a part of you that helps to make you that unique character you are?) How can allies help and how have they helped when you faced discrimination? How could they be more helpful? Building allies also involves being an ally. Who are you an ally for and what do you do to take care of your allies?

Carving Out a Career Niche

Finding a career you’ll love takes a lot of work for everyone and extra work for those of us with disabilities. It’s no secret that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is several times the rate for those without disabilities, even with college degrees. Starting early helps; volunteering, getting paying jobs whether they’re in your field or not, fattening your resume with internships, etc. can make the difference between scoring a job and being part of the unemployed. Also, consider the following tips.

Tips for Job Hunters with Disabilities:

  1. Cast a wide net, especially for your first job. Putting together two part-time jobs, working in a region of the country you might not prefer, working in a setting that is not your top choice, etc. are all ways to get your foot in the door.
  2. Make your job search everyone’s business; mentors from long ago, professors, online job banks; don’t just rely on one source like your vocational rehabilitation counselor or your university’s placement department.
  3. Market your disability as an asset by pointing out what you have gained from it; e.g. fluent in sign language, becoming a good scheduler and supervisor of attendants, etc.
  4. Practice interviewing with friends, faculty, etc. using published lists of interview questions, but also answering questions about your disability, accommodation needs, etc. Add short descriptions of outside activities, accommodations that have worked in similar situations, etc. to show what an active, adaptable, hard-working wonderful employee you’d make.
  5. When to disclose your disability has many “right” answers. Indirect disclosure after an interview is arranged is my favorite, so I don’t shock them as I meet them but so they can’t uninvite me. My line is something about “You’ll recognize me because I have a Golden Retriever guide dog.”
  6. After an interview, do your homework. Write a thank you note, call back when they say they will have decided to find out how their process is going, etc.
  7. Keep trying and keep trying again. You got to this point by beating the odds and persevering so keep up the good work.