Report: Students using wheelchairs have thoughts for colleges

Disability offices, accessibility, privacy attractive to students using wheelchairs

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MUNCIE, Indiana – Well-run disability services offices, accessible facilities and private rooms — along with strong academic programming — may be the key to helping students who use wheelchairs succeed on a college campus, says a new report from Ball State University.

“Pre-enrollment Considerations of Undergraduate Wheelchair Users and Their Post-enrollment Transitions” examined how high school students selected a university and how they adjusted to college. The study was recently published by the Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability.

The college decision-making process for students using wheelchairs is more complex than other students, says a new report from a Ball State University team of researchers, composed of Roger Wessel, a higher education professor in the Department of Educational Studies; Darolyn Jones, an English professor, Larry Markle, director of Ball State’s Office of Disability Services, and Christina Blanch, a doctoral candidate in educational studies.

During interviews with students and their parents, researchers found that the transition from high school to college is difficult for some.

“However, after a brief transitional time, the students relished it,” the researchers said. “From being able to get to and from class on their own, to hanging out with friends, a feeling of independence was the key to integrating into college. Just like other students, these students had learned how to navigate the higher education setting and self-advocate for their needs.”

The researchers reported that around 11 percent of students who disclosed a disability enrolled in postsecondary education, totaling 2.15 million in 2003 and 2.27 million in 2008. 

The researchers said disability services was a factor in the college selection process as students noted wide availability of automated doors on buildings and residence hall rooms, special housing for wheelchair users, a community where wheelchair users were visible and prevalent, one-on-one faculty mentorships, a student support group, local accessible transportation and the director of disability services clearly visible on campus.

The researchers also found that half of participants said living in a single room with an accessible single bath was a critical factor, since many have aides who assist with bathing and bedroom routines. 

As a result of the research, the study came up with several recommendations for colleges:

• Create a well-developed disability services office with professional staff that can facilitate appropriate accommodations and also instruct students on how to be independent.

• Invest in making the campus accessible to wheelchair users.

• Provide regular training for admissions staff members on access to college and accessibility issues.

• Provide multiple ways for students who use wheelchairs to become socially integrated.

• The disability services staff and/or housing personnel need to provide information to students regarding attendant care, which many students need to live in a campus residence hall.

“Students in wheelchairs with their families should be encouraged to seek out available resources on campus, especially from disability services offices, to help create a seamless academic and social transition,” Wessel said. “Competent and student-centered staff in a disability services office can make the transition process smoother.

In all of our conversations with students and parents, the researchers felt that one student summed up the college selection and transition process well when he said, “We’re all the same. We just want to find something we want to do for the rest of our lives.”