As a handicapped student, I know exactly how difficult it can be to navigate campus, whether it’s about stairs in places stairs should not have to be or railroad tracks I can’t cross. I’ve spent my whole life dealing with these types of challenges all because of a virus that decided to leave me with permanent side effects.
I contracted poliovirus when I was less than one year old, and now I’m one of the 0.1-0.5% of polio cases that resulted in paralytic poliomyelitis. As a result of this, I use a mobility scooter (most have probably seen me around campus) because I am unable to walk for long distances or stand for long periods of time.
I probably visited 8-10 small colleges across Michigan and Ohio back when I was choosing which school to attend for the next four years of my life. Out of all of them, I felt like Alma fit the best. I chose Alma partially due to its size– larger campuses, even those with public transportation, were simply not going to work. I also thought the disability center really would work with me, unlike some other places that seemed to only pretend to care. Alma was also definitely not the most inaccessible campus of the ones I visited.
Now that I’ve been here for a year, I’m not going to say that sometimes getting around hasn’t been difficult. Even living in the newly-updated Gelston didn’t avert problems like the ramp that never seemed to be salted or walkways that weren’t shoveled before I had to leave for class.
However, I worked closely with Rhonda Linn, the Assistant Director of the CSO for Academic Support and Disability Services, and we figured out ways to make it work. Facilities was extra-vigilant about shoveling and salting when it was snowing. I made alternate arrangements with my professors for when I couldn’t make it to class because of the weather.
Getting around when it’s not winter (though winter takes up about half of the months we’re here every year) is also challenging. Most buildings only have one or two handicap buttons, and some don’t work sometimes. However, I would like to point out that I am lucky enough to live somewhere that even has those accommodations. Try visiting Chicago when you’re wheelchair-bound; you’ll become very aware of just how many small revolving doors that city has.
Installing handicap buttons and elevators is also extremely expensive. Although door-openers range from the cheap $50 to more sophisticated ones at $1,500, installing them on every outside door on campus is unreasonable. Even ADA, which admittedly needs work, does not require that.
Commercial elevators cost between $75,000 to $175,000, and that’s assuming that the building itself can house an elevator without changing the building design. Installing elevators in the dorms would more or less require Alma to knock them down and rebuild them from the ground up.
If you‘re physically handicapped, most dorms are relatively accessible on North Campus. I began talking to Rhonda and housing about the renovations and possible living areas last February in preparation for this year, and I thought everyone did their very best to accomodate me; because of that, I currently live in Mitchell, on the first floor, in a room I hand-picked before the housing portal even opened.
Most, if not all, handicapped people I know are well-aware of their capabilities and limits. I’m not going to go somewhere if I know I can’t physically handle it. I’m not going to try out for the track team, and I won’t be joining a hiking trip any time soon. If I was unable to walk at all, I doubt I would have even gone to a physical college and likely would have enrolled in online classes to get my degree.
The biggest thing about being handicapped here at Alma is that you need to ask for assistance if you need it. The CSO has been an invaluable resource for me, and I highly encourage anyone who needs aid to seek it out. No one can read your mind, so reach out. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help if it makes you more able to succeed.
I want to be independent, yes. Sometimes I need things other people don’t to achieve that. I also believe that part of being an adult is acknowledging that being independent is largely what you’re doing to make yourself independent.
For instance, I’ve taught myself to open doors without buttons while on my scooter. I’ve also learned exactly which entrances in buildings lead up to stairs. These are things I can do to make my experience better because I don’t have to rely on anyone else.
Throughout my time at Alma, I’ve never felt like my disability prevented me from being successful. My peers and professors have always accommodated me, and I’ve never thought that they felt burdened because of it. I see myself as independent because I am; I’m no longer a child who can’t advocate for herself. If I need something, then I need to do the research and find out who can help and how. If anything, being handicapped has helped me learn how to be independent and how to be successful regardless of any obstacles in my way.