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Reflection of My College Experience as a Disabled Student

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College Bound 1

As students of all ages begin preparing to go back to school, I decided to reflect on my college experience as a disabled student.  August of 2004 was when I became a freshman at Winthrop University, my alma mater.  It amazes me that it was exactly 10 years ago that I set wheels on that campus, and the memories I had of those 4 years I will proudly carry with me forever.

Embracing the Fear of the Unknown:  Moving Away from Home for the First Time:

I remember vividly the night before I was suppose to arrive on campus – I cried like a baby.  I became emotional because I was scared of the unknown, and the fact that this was the first time I would be away from home, especially from my beloved Grandmother who raised me.  Though I was excited about embarking on this new journey and I had a few friends who were also going to Winthrop, I was still worried about how I would make it alone as a disabled young person.  I am fortunate to possess the kind of independence and mobility I had (and still have) with OI (Osteogenesis Imperfecta), but I had no earthly idea how I would do without my support system nearby.

Fear overtook me that night; however, by the time I entered my residence hall, Margaret Nance, the wall of anxiety became to slowly crumble.  I was welcomed by my resident assistant (RA), and volunteers who helped incoming freshmen like myself move in.  The former disability coordinator for Winthrop (Ms. Gena Smith) also stopped by that day; she checked in on me to see what room accommodations and assistance I needed to get adjusted to campus.  All of those smiling, caring faces I saw that day eased my mind tremendously, and before long, I did not want to come back home after that first week.

Learning a Newfound Level of Independence as a Disabled College Student:

Me, Senior Year at WU, 2008

Senior Year pic at Winthrop

Going off to college was the best thing that I could have ever done for myself as a disabled person.  Being away from home forced me to learn how to truly be responsible for myself.  I did not have my Grandmother to wake me up in the morning to go to school; it was up to me to set an alarm and arrive to my classes on time.  I learned how to live in a community-style setting, and share amenities such as the laundry room and living room area; something that was foreign to me as an only child and coming from a two-person home.  I learned how to do my own laundry, and use those street smart skills I was taught when rolling around on campus at night by myself.  Conquering those new life skills and milestones propelled my confidence in my ability of living on my own successfully.  I was no longer afraid of being on my own because I knew that I could take care of myself, which was an empowering and accomplishing thought.

* * *

Words of Wisdom for the Disabled College Student:

For the new and returning disabled (and non-disabled) college students, I envy you because I wished that I could go back in time, and relive those four years.  I know that I may sound like your parents when I say this, but my college years were the best years of my young adult life.  My college friends and I reminisce about the good, wacky, and strange times during almost every conversation and meet-up we have.

To be young, somewhat carefree (remember, you are there to learn and acquire a degree(s), in the midst of making friends and partying), and discovering who you really are (from your interests, morals/values, possible career paths, etc.) creates the perfect storm for newfound realizations and personal growth to transpire.  Do not fight the unfamiliarities that come along the way; embrace them in their entirety, and live in each moment.  You will thank yourself later for doing so.

Here are a few words of wisdom (WoW) I have for each of you:

Ensure that You Receive the Accommodations You May Need as a Disabled Student:

I am incredibly lucky to have attended an institution that placed such a heavy emphasis on providing the necessary disability accommodations and accessibility to its students.  I ardently believe that this kind of culture was established by the former disability coordinator, who was a person with a disability herself.  I believe that having that kind of life experience (especially since she was a former disabled college student during a time where accommodations were not mandated by law) allowed her to effectively relate to myself, and other disabled students, and ensured that we had the resources and tools needed to succeed and thrive during our collegiate years.

I know that not every campus is as forward thinking about providing an inclusive and accepting environment for disabled students.  Colleges and universities who receive federal funding are required by law to provide disability accommodations and make accessibility a reality, and not an afterthought.  If your school is stuck in the dark ages, take a stand by advocating for yourself, and your fellow disabled peers.  You DESERVE the same chances to prosper as your able-bodied peers; NEVER forget that, or allow others to stand in your way of receiving equal educational and social opportunities.

Befriend Those Who Look Like You, and Those Who Are Your Complete Opposite:

Attending Winthrop was the first time that I met someone who had OI, along with those who knew others with it.  It was also the first time that I made friends who were from different cultures, religions, countries, sexual orientations, and/or had other disabilities.  College is one of the few environments where you will encounter a “melting pot” atmosphere that will challenge the beliefs and ideas you have about certain groups of people and lifestyles, and cause you to realize that your perceived “differences” are insignificant.  I reflect fondly on the plethora of conversations I had in the wee hours of the morning in the Nance and on the Nance’s front porch about American versus International cultural differences; love, sex, and dating; being LGBTQ+ and coming out; wacky professors and hard classes; and countless other topics that were important to us during that time.  Those late-night chats shaped how I viewed the world I lived in, and the realities I learned from the stories shared.  Those moments were priceless.  I cannot fully put into words how dear those memories are to me.

Take Advantage of Everything Your School Has to Offer.  You WILL Regret It If You Don’t:

Taking Human Sexuality senior year and other courses that peaked my interests; signing up for numerous physical education (phys ed) classes such as yoga, aerobic dance, cardio kickboxing, martial arts, weight training, and badminton; and joining a sorority (Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.) afforded me the opportunity to break out of my shell, and discover new things about myself.  Doing such activities that were considered “out of the norm” for those who are disabled allowed me to debunk those stereotypes, too.

I am telling you from experience – DO IT ALL.  I loved the fact that I was the first physically disabled member of my undergrad sorority chapter.  It did not bother me that I was the only disabled person in my yoga class, or any other phys ed class I took.  College is the time to try a variety of things in a safe atmosphere; do not let your worries about what others may say or think deter you from creating spectacular, possibly life-changing moments.

Love Who Are You, Disability And All, & Build a Positive Support System of Friends:

The final WoW points are ones that I want each of you to remember every time you find yourself being the only disabled person in your classes, or having to stand out due to whatever accommodations you may need.  Your disability make set you apart, but it should not hinder you from having an incredible time in college.  If you struggle with accepting your disability status, find others on campus that you can relate to, and build your support system through those interactions.  You are perfectly imperfect just the way you are, and you need to know that, and own it.

Be mindful of who you allow in your new support system, and whom you call your friends.  If you surround yourself with those who accept your perfectly imperfect essence, then you will begin to fully embrace your status, and realize that you are more than the wheels, canes, crutches, accommodations, and/or medications that allow you to function each day.  Folks who claim to be your friends, but make fun of your abilities or talk down about disabled people are toxic, and the poison they possess will slowly begin to affect you.  The title “friend” is a privileged role; only award it to those that have earned it, and have proven to be a positive influence in your life.  Learning that lesson was hard for me during those years, but I am glad that I went through that challenge because I now know what true friendship looks and feels like.

Final Thoughts:

This time of year is hectic for everyone, especially those of you who will be starting new chapters in your lives.  Obtaining a higher education as a disabled person is a privilege that many of us do not have.  Do realize that you have privilege now, an educational one.  Learn all that you can during your college years, and use that knowledge to shatter glass ceilings in your respective fields for those with disabilities ahead of you, and those who are nipping at your heels.  It is an incredible weight to bear, believe me, but it is one that you are built to withstand.  I advocate because I know it is my duty and right to; and I know that my actions and hard work will allow those behind me (you younger Millennials and Digital Natives) to have it easier than I did.  Enjoy this time to the fullest, but know that once you make it across that stage and have that degree in your possession… the real work begins.  College is preparing you for the realities to come; pay close attention; ask tons of questions; keep an open mind about everything, and embrace and love the person you are becoming.

From one [former] disabled student to another, enjoy the new school year and all it has in store for you. ~ Vilissa  🙂

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of College Bound Syllabus on WordPress.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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