Choosing a college is difficult for almost everyone. You have an idea of what size campus you want, what your intended major is, what the best place to study for it is, your preferred location and distance from your house and how much you can afford versus what you need from financial aid. When you’re someone like me, who is chronically ill and has an invisible disability, choosing a college holds even more challenges because there are more criteria that have to be recognized, and you can’t compromise on any of them. Here are the top six challenges I personally faced choosing a college as a chronically ill student.
The most important criteria for me was finding a school that was 100 percent accessible. That meant every building that had more than one floor had an elevator and an entrance that didn’t require me to walk up a flight of stairs. If there was a small incline between the floor and the doorway, there needed to be a ramp. This also meant my dorm room (if I lived on campus) would either need to be on the first floor or no higher than the second floor, in case the elevator broke down (if it did, I would either not be able to go to or leave my dorm room without assistance from someone else and would face health backlash because of it).
Another part of having an accessible dorm room was that I would need roommates who would be willing to give me either a non-bunk bed or a bottom bunk because I can’t climb the ladder to the top one. To able-bodied, healthy students, not having an elevator or an easy-to-access dorm room is just a slight inconvenience, but for me, it was a defining choice in what colleges I could or could not attend. You’d be surprised by how many schools claim to be 100 percent accessible. Upon attending a college tour, I learned otherwise. Legally, schools don’t have to be accessible unless they were built or renovated after a certain year!
2. Campus Size
The size of a campus relates to accessibility but it is a different concern. I needed to find a campus that wasn’t too large in size and wasn’t spread out throughout a town, but instead was in one closed-in area. For example, Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island fit a lot of my academic and extracurricular needs, but the buildings were spread out within the town instead of in one area. That meant it was too much walking and due to my health restrictions, I couldn’t manage the distance. Some campuses that are on the larger side have shuttles that take you around campus or to local stores. Some might say that is a luxury, but for me, it would be a godsend. On days where my illnesses flared up, it could be the difference between getting to class or not. If the school didn’t offer shuttle services, were there bus stops close by (preferably on the edge of campus) so that I could get around that way? If I was commuting, did the bus stop get off right at the college or did I have to travel a bit more?
3. Nearby (Efficient) Medical Care
Medical care comes in many forms and each one is very important to keeping myself medically stable. When it came to choosing a college, I had a few questions that needed to be answered in regards to healthcare: is the medical center on campus equipped for someone like me? If not, could they manage my medical problems long enough until I could either a) get to a hospital, or b) get picked up by an ambulance? If not, the campus was a no. If the campus was able to handle my less severe flare-ups but not the serious ones, was there a hospital close by? If not, the school was a no. If the hospital was close by, I would also have to research to see if any doctors there were familiar with my rare diseases. If not, I’d risk serious complications.
Furthermore, when looking at a school, I had to see how long it would take for my family to get to me in case something serious happened. And if it would take them a while, was there a relative or family friend nearby who could care for me until my parents got to me? If not, the campus was a no. I take a few different medicines on a regular basis. Would I easily be able to get them sent to the on-campus medical center or a very local pharmacy? If not, the campus was a no for me. So many different factors played into my medical care while at school and all of them had to be met, or else the school wouldn’t work for me.
I want to start off by saying this: accommodations do not give unfair advantages. They level the playing field for students who otherwise would have difficulty doing something without them. And for those who may ask, “Why bother getting accommodations when that won't happen in the ‘real world?'" — according to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the workplace must legally, reasonably accommodate any disabled employee.
Now, I’ve met teachers throughout my life who give students with accommodations a hard time because they don’t agree with them. When choosing a school, I researched how the staff has treated other students like me. Did they follow the accommodations? If not, did the school do anything about it? Was the school likely to give me the accommodations I needed? Having the accommodations could be the difference between me passing a class or not. Not because I’m not doing the work — I always make sure my assignments are completed to the expected standards — but because I’m chronically ill. That means I’m sick 24/7, but some days are far worse than others, and I’ll be absent more than my fellow students. We all hate the professors that make attendance mandatory towards your grade, but no one hates them more than chronically ill students.
5. Jobs On Campus
Part of my financial aid package at most schools was that I qualified for the federal work-study program. A major concern was if the campus had a job that I could do that didn’t involve a lot of standing or moving around. Due to my illnesses, I can't stand for a long period of time or constantly be moving, so I would need a job at a desk. If the school did not offer such a job or wasn't able to guarantee that job for me, then it would be a problem as I tried to carry out part of my financial aid requirements.
6. Temperature Control
As many students know, most schools don’t allow air conditioners because the electricity can’t handle all of the power. They either use central air conditioning where they control the temperature or just allow students to bring fans. I personally would need to be allowed to have an air conditioner in my room because I have a medical problem that makes it difficult to control my body temperature, and the heat isn’t nice to me. Some people dramatically say, “It’s so hot I could faint!” but while they actually won’t, I would.
Being chronically ill has a huge impact on my life and the choices I have to make. Every decision has a five step thought process before it. The extra criteria, without a doubt, left me with more challenges when trying to choose a college. Despite all of that, I was still a student trying to find my new home in the process.
Lead Image Credit: Unsplash
Author's note: these challenges are specific to my needs and experiences. I do not represent all students who are chronically ill and/or disabled in any way.