Disabled College Students Segregated Despite the ADA

In Education by Guest Contributor

I leaned against the door of my Forms of Fiction class, prepared to push it open with all of my body weight.  It was a semi-fruitless attempt, as the door only opened a third of the way and my muscles spasmed in protest.  I was panting and beginning to sweat.  I’m not out of shape.  I’m actually the healthiest I’ve been in years. 

As a physically disabled college student, I have learned to work out not for aesthetics, but survival.  I work my core muscles daily so that getting out of bed doesn’t take a half hour.  I do pushups to ensure that I am able to carry my backpack and apparently open doors.  My life is different from many college students not because my body is different, but because my school is inaccessible.

I called to my friend, “Timothy, open the door!”  He sauntered over and grabbed the door.  “Is the button not working?”  No, the automatic door opener wasn’t working.

“We don’t have buttons at this school.  They don’t have automatic doors for classrooms.  We don’t have the money for that, yet we have the money to get that new bus for the athletes.”  I rolled my eyes, smirking.  My private alma mater, Loyola University, has not renovated the campus to be fully accessible despite the hefty tuition fees.

Disabled College Students and the ADA

Unfortunately, my experience with inaccessibility and disability-related discrimination in college is not an isolated event.  Despite three decades passing since the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the law that gave millions of disabled Americans civil rights, institutions of higher education across the country still lag behind in accommodating and creating a safe and supportive environment for disabled college students. 

A graduate student says to a reporter from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) student newspaper The Retriever that just because a building complies with the ADA does not mean that it is fully accessible to disabled people. 

In order to go to popular spots on campus like Chick-fil-A and Starbucks, disabled students must use separate entrances from their able-bodied peers.  The ADA does not specify that all entrances are accessible as long as there is an accessible entrance.  This often means that disabled students’ routes are longer and have to block out more time for traveling.  Despite an increase in the percent of disabled students enrolled at UMBC, many students still have difficulty navigating campus.

Edward Verne Roberts, First Disabled College Student

The first man in a wheelchair to attend the University of California was in 1962.  Before Roberts, the only wheelchair-users attending college were disabled veterans enrolled in a special program.  Roberts’s choice to attend Berkeley was groundbreaking. It was the birth of the disability rights movement.  However, at the time, Roberts was meeting with resistance from both college administrators and the local media. One newspaper reported Roberts’s entrance into college with an article titled “Helpless Cripple Goes to School.”  

Unfortunately, societal attitudes are not the only obstacles Roberts faces while attending Berkeley.  Many of his classrooms had stairs and no ramps.  Even the dining hall, one of the places on campus where all students can convene, had steps leading to it.  Friends and personal care assistants would lift Roberts to where he needed to go when there were stairs or the only route was inaccessible.  Roberts also could not reside in the dorms with his able-bodied peers. 

As a result of childhood polio, he had to sleep in an iron lung.  None of the dormitories accommodated this heavy assistive device, forcing Roberts to live in an on-campus hospital.  Roberts’s story inspired other disabled men to apply to Berkeley, which jump-started his activism.  Having other peers to advocate for pushed him to become a leader. 

After some of his disabled peers are threatened with expulsion for mediocre grades, Roberts organizes protests and alerts local media outlets.  Roberts’s legacy has inspired many disabled young adults to attend college and to advocate for themselves.  However, this does not mean that colleges have been receptive to students’ concerns.

Personal Care Assistance for Disabled College Students

Last year, a college renowned for its disability supports, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, announces that it would be discontinuing its long-running personal care assistance program.  This program was appealing to many prospective disabled students because it enabled them to attend an out-of-state school without worrying that their insurance will not cover out-of-state personal care assistance.  I have a personal care attendant shower and dress me each day. 

As a native New-Yorker, I enrolled in a Maryland school knowing that I would have to pay out of pocket for these services.  However, I only need one hour of assistance a day.  For students that cannot feed themselves or toilet independently, twenty-four-hour care is necessary.  Many students are not able to afford this, which means going out-of-state is not an option.  Edinboro became a metropolis for these students—they were able to go out-of-state without needing to worry about the expenses of their care needs. 

Enforce the ADA. Help Disabled College Students.

One alumna and personal friend of mine, Rebecca “Becky” Vassell tells Bill Schackner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that in high school she is branded by her disability, distinguished from other students named Becky as “Becky in the wheelchair,” but at Edinboro, her cerebral palsy was just one of her many attributes. 

When disabled students have the support they need and have peers that are like them, they are able to discover themselves beyond their disabilities.  However, disabled students forced to be advocates when facing issues like program cuts takes away from the college experience that non disabled students experience.

It would be irresponsible and inaccurate to claim that no progress has been made since Ed Roberts first rolled onto Berkeley’s campus.  Many schools have adopted ADA standards and now feature disability support services.  However, even with this progress many disabled students remain segregated, forced to advocate for needs able-bodied students do not even consider, and have inadequate support.  It is important to acknowledge the progression of disability rights on college campuses while remaining aware of what needs to improve.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, Heather, “The Continuing Struggle for Accessibility,” The Retriever. 2019. https://retriever.umbc.edu/

Schackner, Bill, “Edinboro Students with Disabilities Are Pitted Against the School That Has Been Their Champion,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 2018. https://www.post-gazette.com/Shapiro, Joseph P., “From Charity to Independent Living” in No Pity.  New York: Random House, 1993.


Erica Mones is a 23-year-old freelance writer from Long Island, New York. She has written for Rooted in Rights, The Progressive, and Popsugar. Her blog is at www.ericamones.wordpress.com.

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