Wheels on Campus: The First College Guide For Wheelchair Users

opens in a new window The First College Guide For Wheelchair Users

My undergraduate college journey took place decades ago, my time neatly split into freshman-sophomore classes as a nondisabled student and junior-senior classes as a paraplegic. The two halves could not have been more starkly different. Now that NEW MOBILITY’s college guide, Wheels on Campus, has been published, I’m starting to hear from readers who all say the same thing: if only I had a guide like this when I needed it.

In 1998, Barry Corbet, then-editor of NM, wrote a 10-page feature article ranking the top 10 colleges. Now it seems like it came from a different era. Yet readers kept unearthing it from our website and asking for more. In 2019, we decided to create a contemporary guide that would be at least 40 pages long and feature expanded student profiles as well as difficult-to-obtain accessibility information, both physical and programmatic.

opens in a new windowA Guide to Wheelchair-Friendly Higher Education
You can download or read the entire guide for free at opens in a new windownewmobility.com/wheels-on-campus. The excerpt below provides a teaser of what to expect.

As project editor, I created an updated survey, then curated a list of 400 top colleges to receive the survey, which contained 45 “yes or no” questions that could be compiled and scored, along with other questions. When the results were in, I evaluated all the surveys, settled on a list of finalists, and hired nine trusted NM writer-reporters to personally visit our top choices. I joined them. Just as we got started, COVID-19 got a foothold, severely hampering our efforts. But we persevered — a six-month project grew to a year, and we came up with a 68-page magazine-format guide with colorful photos.

We wanted a specific definition of “wheelchair-friendly” — and found that numbers don’t lie. The campuses that scored the highest on the survey had the greatest number of registered wheelchair-using students. The best campuses were also distinguished by adaptive sports and recreation programs, housing that was strictly wheelchair-accessible, disability studies, student and faculty awareness and buy-in, a supportive community, and a high percentage of accessible buildings and services.

Wheels on Campus is the first guide of its kind specifically for wheelchair users — and it is only a beginning. We will keep updating it, adding at least another 10 colleges in the next year and more student profiles and helpful information as it evolves. And make no mistake, despite the current pandemic, physical campuses will continue to be the biggest collegiate draw, despite an inevitable expansion of online offerings. This is the way it should be — equal educational opportunity for all. We invite you, our readers, to share your valuable information with us.
— Tim Gilmer

Wheels On Campus: An Excerpt

A Sprawling Campus with a Long History of Disability Inclusion

by Teal Sherer

Michigan State University

Location: East Lansing, medium city, population 118,427; 5,200-acre campus
Tuition and fees: in-state: $14,460; out-of-state: $39,766
2020 undergraduate enrollment: 39,400; student-faculty ratio:16:1
Popular Majors: business, communication/journalism, biomedical and social sciences
Ranked #34 in Top Public Schools (Best Colleges 2020, U.S. News & World Report)
Number of registered wheelchair users in 2020: 12
Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities: 517-884-7273, [email protected]; opens in a new windowrcpd.msu.edu

Founded in 1855 as the nation’s pioneer land-grant university, Michigan State University is a renowned research institution that offers more than 200 undergraduate, graduate and professional study programs and has graduated 20 Rhodes Scholars. Located in East Lansing, three miles from the state capital, the 5,200-acre campus is one of the largest in the country. It’s known for its world-class museums and beauty, as the Red Cedar River flows through the entirety of the campus. There are also art galleries, concerts and restaurants.

opens in a new windowKathryn Mahoney went back to school soon after her injury but probably needed more time to adjust.
Kathryn Mahoney went back to school soon after her injury but probably needed more time to adjust. (see “First Things First”, below).

MSU has a long history of disability inclusion, starting with providing accommodations to blind and low-vision students in the 1930s. In the 1940s and 1950s, the university accepted students with polio at a time when fear of contagion was running high. “A lot of neighboring universities and colleges were saying no — you use a wheelchair, crutches, walker, an iron lung — you are not coming,” says Virginia Martz, an ability access specialist in the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. “We were like, sure. You meet our criteria for admissions, come on along.”

This inclusive, willing-to-adapt outlook drew Clay Martin, a senior human resources and labor relations major, to the school. “It’s part of the reason I fell in love with the campus when I first visited, how included I felt,” he says. “I was also impressed with what RCPD could offer me.”

Freshmen are not allowed to have a car on campus, but the RCPD arranged for Martin to override the system, a major help since the campus is so sprawling. “That created a sense of independence and freedom for me,” he says. Martin also uses the bus system, which is run by Capital Area Transportation Authority. “All of CATA’s buses are kneeling, so I can roll right on. That’s really nice.” Also, students with disabilities can reserve paratransit ahead of time to take them to and from classes and around campus. This is particularly helpful during icy and snowy winters.

Because of the harsh winters, MSU has a robust snow removal system as well, and students can notify the landscape crew if there is an area they need priority in clearing. There are also infrared sensors for power activation doors — more reliable in the cold than standard push plates.

Kathryn Mahoney, a standout gymnast, was injured during her senior year at MSU in a vaulting accident at a gymnastics team practice. She returned to finish her studies in chemical engineering as a C6 quadriplegic who uses a power wheelchair. With three semesters to finish degree requirements, she took less than a full load and finished in four. “First I lived with friends in an off-campus apartment that was so new the interior hadn’t been finished,” she says. “There was no carpet and no closet door, so we got some fixes in there — the kitchen sink area left open so I could roll under and an accessible bathroom they converted to a roll-in shower. Since I was injured in gymnastics practice, MSU helped with the cost of add-ons.”

opens in a new windowMahoney and her dad show some Spartan spirit.
Mahoney and her dad show some Spartan spirit.

When she returned the following school year to complete her studies, she moved to a mid-campus apartment — now one of a hundred newly renovated wheelchair accessible units — and lived by herself, with help from personal attendants. “I wanted to be on my own, and most of my friends in my college class had moved on,” she says. She had one lab to finish and wondered how she would manage without dexterity in her hands. “It turned out I managed OK. But if I had needed a lab assistant, the RCPD would have provided one.”

The RCPD also arranges for note takers, recording devices, and adaptive furniture, like adding a height-adjustable table to classrooms, and more. “I signed up for a class that turned out to be in a building that didn’t have an elevator,” says Martin, “so I was able to get that class rescheduled for the following semester in a building that was accessible.”

MSU has an impressive Adaptive Sports and Recreation Club with a wide range of wheelchair sports and adaptive recreation options. They also host and participate in disability sports clinics, like sled hockey, water skiing and kayaking, community organized events, and wheelchair sports tournaments.

Scholarships are available for wheelchair users, like the Education Abroad Scholarship for Students with Disabilities, which gives $2,000 awards for those enrolled in a credit-granting study abroad program. MSU has more than 900 student organizations. The Council for Students with Disabilities, whose vice president is Martin, is one of them. “We are an advocacy group that works with administration to make sure the campus is as inclusive and accessible a place as possible.”

Sometimes when a student sustains a disabling condition just prior to entering college or while enrolled as an active college student, a sense of urgency often dictates a return to studies as soon as possible. The feeling of not wanting to be left behind is a strong motivator. Kathryn Mahoney, a C6 quadriplegic from a gymnastics accident late in her junior year, experienced just that. She went back to Michigan State soon after her injury, eager to finish her degree. Now, looking back, she realizes she was not ready for the workaday world even though she had graduated with a degree in chemical engineering.

She returned to her parents’ home in 2013 after graduating and began to take much-needed time to improve her strength and learn how to be truly independent. She had physical therapy three times a week with a goal of being able to live by herself without personal attendants. She also got involved in quad rugby and handcycling, both of which helped, but something was still missing. “I think the thing that bothered me most was my inability to manage my bathroom situation. I used to spend way too much time and get frustrated at the whole process, so I had a Mitrofanoff bladder procedure done so I could cath myself,” she says. “It really helped with independence. I had talked with several women who had it, and it turned out to be a big, life-changing thing.”

The procedure involves the surgical creation of a reservoir and a channel and valve arrangement that prevents leakage and makes cathing much easier, especially for a low quad. “I no longer have to struggle with taking off clothes and making a difficult transfer to a toilet. It frees me up, takes very little time and is safer.”

opens in a new windowRugby helped Mahoney build strength.
Rugby helped Mahoney build strength.

The surgery, combined with her newfound strength and stability, meant she was almost prepared to re-enter the workforce. “But first I had to figure out what I could do.” Now, after a few years of not working, she was ready to return to Michigan State with a clear goal. She moved into a new on-campus apartment with roll-in shower, lower countertops and easy accessibility. “I could now live by myself independently. I decided to get a master’s in business analytics. It got my interest and only took one year. Those words — business analytics — are buzz words,” she says. “It means there is about a 99-100% chance of job placement when you have a master’s.”

With her earlier background in math and science, she got her master’s in December 2017. “I had accepted a job offer before graduating, working with digital marketing on an analytics team. We serve all industries, helping clients understand how their business campaigns are performing. I started in January 2018, and I’m still there.”

Her ultimate goal was to return to her home in Chicago and live independently. Now she lives alone in an apartment downtown, where she works. An aide comes to help her three times a week in the evenings, but she does all her personal care herself. For now she is where she wants to be. Her advice to others navigating the college experience in wheelchairs? “Most campuses have resources on campus. It’s important to connect with them. They help you help yourself to succeed.“

She also credits the SCI community. “The SCI community is very open. It took me a while to know I can ask anyone anything. People are willing to share their experience — you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. A lot comes down to I just have to try this on my own. I had to realize, you are re-learning everything for the daily things, you have to start over. It is easy to get frustrated in the beginning,” she says. “You have to allow yourself the time to know it won’t be easy the first time, but give it time. And keep at it.”

— Tim Gilmer

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