Hello, reader! It may appear as though I haven’t been active on the interwebs lately, but the blog has been quiet for good reason. I’ve been writing away and actually had something published on The Establishment. It’s all about applying to college as a wheelchair user, which is a topic that is near and dear to my heart (and a big reason why I’ve decided to get a Masters in Education). I’m starting an internship at a disability services office in the fall, where I will learn all about how to make higher education more accessible to students with disabilities.
[And on an unrelated note, I got my Push to Walk trainer to do planks with me! Hooray, planks!]
I was waiting for The Establishment piece to be published so I could talk about my experience with applying to graduate school programs. Hopefully you clicked on the link in the previous paragraph and have read my Establishment story. If not, then all you need to know is that when I applied to college, many colleges had campuses that were anything but wheelchair friendly, and many disability services offices weren’t actually that accommodating (although they thought they were).
If you can believe it, finding a fit for a Masters or PhD program was far more complicated than applying to college. For starters, when you apply anywhere for grad school, you need to take fit (i.e. how much does the program/faculty align with your own academic interests) into consideration, as well as a school’s ranking. I made the mistake last year of applying to schools that weren’t great fits, but had great rankings. As you can imagine, I was rejected from everywhere (and had multiple fantasies of burning those institutions to the ground…which I would, of course, never do because my sister made me swear never to commit arson). This year, fit was the name of the game. I applied places where professors worked on education and history, or education and disability.
When you have a physical disability, however, you have to take academic fit and actual, physical fit into consideration. It’s not just getting along with your supervisor and their department, but also: does the main academic building that houses my supervisor’s office have an elevator? Is there housing available with wheelchair-accessible options? I’m not asking if there’s a ramp to get into an apartment building. I’m asking if there’s a bathroom I can use with a roll-in shower. Is there a kitchen sink or stove I can realistically use? Where can I live on campus? Wait, can I live on campus? If I can’t, what are my transportation options? Is there paratransit and is it reliable? Do I need to learn how to drive (because, ha, city girl, sorry, what’s a car?)?
After a stressful application season (because they’re all stressful), I got into two Education school programs, and was waitlisted for two. To be fair, one of those waitlists happened in no small part because I declined to go to an interview weekend that ten other people went to (all of whom, I believe, were accepted). Why didn’t I go to the interview weekend? Because I was terrified that the airplane I was going to get on would destroy my wheelchair (airplanes and wheelchairs aren’t the best combination, because wheelchairs get thrown in with the rest of the luggage, and can get beaten up pretty badly – a post for another time). Also, I had already been accepted to a PhD program that was very close to home, so I figured I was going to go to the place closer to home.
One other reason why I avoided the interview weekend at this particular university (Vanderbilt) is because, after a chat with that university’s disability services, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to enjoy 5-7 years on that campus.
First, there was no single disability services office. It was the Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services (EOAADS) office. When I read the list of services that this particular office provided, there was no mention of housing. For those who haven’t read my Establishment piece, the only things I need from disability services are: wheelchair-accessible classrooms, accessible travel options (i.e. shuttles with wheelchair lifts), and wheelchair-friendly housing large enough to fit my physical therapy equipment. These are non-negotiable. I need to be in class, I need to be able to get to class, and I need to do the bare minimum of physical therapy while I’m at school (or else there’s a good chance that I’ll end up in the hospital).
Imagine how disappointed I was when an EOAADS representative told me that there was no graduate housing available at that particular university. It’s supposedly to encourage graduate students to live in their own off-campus apartments. When I asked if there was any wheelchair-friendly housing that they were aware of, they suggested that I contact a realtor.
The office then said (and the realtor who was contacted agreed) that what would most likely happen is that I would have to pay to renovate an apartment, live there for the duration of the PhD program, and then pay to renovate it back to its original condition (because heaven forbid any able-bodied individual live in a place designed for a wheelchair user). There was no university funding available for renovating an apartment and then reverting it back to its original, non-wheelchair-friendly state.
To be clear: even though I would be receiving the same stipend as my able-bodied classmates, I would have to pay for apartment renovations out-of-pocket twice.
At this point, I didn’t care that this was the third-ranked Education school in the country, and that I was crazy about the program. This was unreasonable, and there was no way I was going. Goodbye, interview weekend. Goodbye, acceptance. How dare an Education school, particularly one focused on college access (seriously, this was the one program where the application fee was free, and three of the faculty that I was going to work with specialized in access), expect wheelchair-using students to pay substantially more than their able-bodied colleagues.
Which brings me to the two programs that accepted me. One of them was a PhD program in the History of Education (NYU Steinhardt). I was excited about the program – the professors in this department are amazing scholars and supervisors (their grad students said nothing but lovely things about them).
I met with the disability services office (which was its own office, thank goodness) to discuss housing and transportation (this university has their own shuttles).
This meeting did not go so well.
Me: “Are the shuttles wheelchair-accessible?”
Staff member: “I’m not sure.”
You’re not sure? This is part of your job. You work in the disability services office!
At least she knew that there was graduate housing available. She pulled up a list of dorms at this university, but was not sure which ones were for graduate students, and which ones were for undergraduates. She said that I would have to click on each one individually to find out whether I could live there. Later that night, I went to the same site she showed me and saw that each dormitory had labels that said whether grad students could live there. No extra clicking required. Her unfamiliarity with the housing site was mildly disconcerting. Perhaps this disability services office wasn’t used to working with graduate students who use wheelchairs?
I emailed the disability services office staff member to let her know which dorm I was interested in, and let her know that I was going to need extra space for my physical therapy equipment. Her response was essentially that, because the extra space would require a room normally rented to two people, that I would have to pay the rent for two students. I’m sorry, what? To provide context, the rent for one student for the academic year was already higher than my stipend.
I emailed my potential supervisor and alerted him to this problem. He, in addition to another professor and others in the department, tried to negotiate something with the Housing Office, but alas, nothing could be changed.
I would say that the housing situation made me turn down this PhD program that was such a good academic fit and so close to home (but not close enough that I could commute), but it just so happened that the Masters program at another school ended up being a better fit with regard to my professional goals. As fun as it is to study history, we have a serious problem in disability services in some of the top schools in the country, and I want to learn how to help.
And it doesn’t hurt that my Masters program is at a university that doesn’t penalize me for using a wheelchair (Harvard). I’m going to be living in a university-owned apartment large enough for my physical therapy equipment. My apartment is near a shuttle stop (and yes, all the shuttles have wheelchair lifts). This university’s disability services office made these accommodations seem simple, as if they’d done it before (although to be fair, they have most definitely done this before, because I went here for undergrad, but I digress).
I have to wonder, though, what would I have done if I needed to pay for two students’ rent at one school, or needed to pay for apartment renovations at another school? I understand that some universities want their graduate students to be more independent, but administrative bodies need to understand that the cost of living for an able-bodied student will be different (usually cheaper) from that of a mobility-impaired student. So if a department awards a stipend to a student with a disability, that stipend may run out halfway through the semester, whether because of living costs or the cost of a personal care attendant (which is its own issue dealt with differently depending on which school you attend).
I realize that these problems only pertain to those with certain impairments. If I had a visual or audio impairment, my questions when applying to school would have concerned, among other things, my ability to access appropriate course materials. Whether or not these educational accommodations could be made would determine where I eventually attended school, more so than my interactions with professors or current graduate students (although those are also important).
All this is to say that there is an extra degree of difficulty when applying to graduate programs as a person with a disability, specifically a wheelchair user, and that it is often more difficult than applying to college, because things such as stipends and housing were initially designed for able-bodied students. When you have a disability and require extra housing, or have to renovate a place yourself, the stipend is not altered, and university housing (depending on the institution) can be rather indifferent to your struggles. And then I am essentially reminded that my disability is my problem.
But I’m optimistic. If the program I’m starting in the fall agrees that disability shouldn’t be a barrier to higher education, then perhaps there are other universities that can be convinced.