When I think about all of the hoops that disabled people have to jump through in order to get an education, my mind is positively boggled. Those who are on public assistance are not allowed to have more than a certain amount of money in their bank account, which makes receiving financial aid cheques problematic. If you are not financially/bureaucratically savvy, you may end up having to choose between being able to complete your degree and getting healthcare or enough money to buy groceries. A lot of people point to services like Vocation Rehabilitation as a means of helping finance your education, but my experience with it tells me that even though the money you get from work study, financial aid, and social security aren’t supposed to work against you under the law, that doesn’t stop some people from making your life difficult for having that much money in your bank account.
I was fortunate enough to qualify for work study, but my previous employer bullied me over my disability, and the lack of a functioning elevator on my side of the building (It was constructed to maximize floor space in the 70s, before ADA, and is criminally out of date) and the errands I was expected to run all across campus and the heavy lifting meant that my scoliosis was aggravated to the point of requiring physical therapy, which I had to pay out of pocket for because my old boss thought I was being greedy for wanting worker’s compensation. If I had been a wheelchair user, then I would have not even been able to reach the floor I was working on.
My experience with work study solidified my idea that I was not cut out for unskilled work, motivating me even further to pursue my degree. I’m not currently on any public assistance, unemployed, and watching my other disabled friends struggle to finance their education is becoming more and more heartbreaking to me. One of them has to do her coursework only during the summers, so that she can get daycare services for her young son. During the regular school year, the daycare plan will not be paid for graduate students, only undergrad, and to qualify for it, she would have to work full time while juggling grad school and motherhood. Not realistic for an able bodied person, let alone a disabled one.
While talking with this friend today, we were joking about how they made it difficult on purpose, so that we would be in the system forever. There’s more than a nugget of truth to that in my opinion. I think that, like society in general, the government is overly fond of damning the disabled with low expectations, and the idea that we will always need to rely on them for assistance. But guess what? Many of us need to rely on the system because they’re failing to realize the power of giving us tools to achieve independence.
One of those tools is a college education. Disability Services on campus are not enough to encourage and empower disabled people towards an education and degree which can help them find and maintain independence. It’s going to take a serious shift in the way we distribute and account Social Security, Voc. Rehab, and other services for the disabled. It is also going to take a real push for universities to go beyond ADA.
While I was at UM, I served on the ADA committee, meaning that we addressed physical barriers on the campus that were causing trouble, and watched architects and building coordinators expanding the campus like hawks, to make sure they knew ADA was meant to be followed, no matter how it interfered with their “artistic vision” (for real, someone said that) But there was very little we could do to address mental barriers, such as the prejudices of a professor who dislikes the idea of wearing an amplifying device around his neck for a hearing-impaired student, or a professor who addresses the class with a presumed universal neurotypical mindset when talking about autism, or a coordinator who thinks it’s a pain to arrange for a classroom to be held in a less noisy room so that a student with SPD can participate equally.
Both Governments and Universities need to change the way they perceive disabled people. Government’s job would be to realize the value that an education (Or an apprenticeship for that matter) would be of considerably greater long-term saving power than holding back disabled people by cutting them off of their necessary access to money and medicaid if they so much as wash dishes at a cafe for peanuts. They could also put some financial assistance/incentives into seeking a degree, without the disabled having to risk losing their medicaid or grocery money. Especially disabled parents, who have so much at stake if they lose their funding, and have an excellent reason to seek higher-paying professional careers, could benefit from such a system. Universities could adopt a system that goes beyond what ADA compels, and look at what can really be done to make sure equal participation isn’t just a slogan, it’s a fact of life.