Finding a good fit in a college can take time for any student, but those with disabilities and their parents face additional challenges.

Parents of Grinnellians with disabilities offer tips on what to look for and how to evaluate the colleges your students are looking at. Tips provided by:

  • Darlene Brooks, parent of Jen Brooks ’15
  • Lori Comparin, parent of Patrick Comparin ’12
  • John Forrest and Melinda Benjamin, parents of Claire Forrest ’13

Start with Your Student

Comparin’s best advice begins “know exactly what your needs are.”

Our parents suggest sitting down with your child and identifying what your child cares most about:

  • Academic needs — the programs your student wants to pursue, including areas of interest, study abroad, and off-campus academics.
  • Extracurriculars — athletics, student groups, volunteer opportunities and other activities your child wants to participate in.
  • Social and residential life — events, concerts, dining, parties, residence halls, and more.
  • Obstacles — things your child may have to overcome.

You may have to eliminate many schools that are not accessible, but don’t let accessibility be your only criteria. Your student deserves a to take part in all the aspects of college life that students enjoy.

Forrest says, “With Claire, it was finding the right school, the right fit, along with meeting her needs.” In her case, that included choosing a school with a coach able to work with the accomplished swimmer, an Olympics qualifier.

Visit the Website

Look for signs that accessibility is an institutional ideal or commitment, such as:

  • an accessible map,
  • a disability coordinator or office,
  • academic and support services, and
  • a disability or accessibility statement.

Four years can be a long time at a college or university where just one or two people are trying to drive accessibility.

Brooks says, “Whenever Jen saw a school she was interested in, the first thing we did was go to the website, click on Disability Services, and see what they had.” She automatically eliminated schools if their website merely said “We try to adhere to the ADA standards.” When she sees this, Brook says, “It’s obvious they don’t want anyone with a disability at this college.”

Meet the Staff

Ask to meet with the staff your child may need to rely on, such as those in:

  • student affairs
  • academic support
  • career services
  • disability or accessibility offices
  • dining
  • facilities management
  • health services

Comparin says, “I think Grinnell is hands-down wonderful because they were willing to adapt. If they didn’t have accessibility, they made it, and if something didn’t work, they switched it.”

Schedule an Admission Interview

An admission interview gives applicants a chance to learn more about the college, as well as share the unique value and perspective they can bring to the campus community.

It also gives your student a chance to see the prevailing attitudes on campus.

At a couple of schools, Benjamin’s daughter had to sit outside or be carried into the admission building. At another “...the directors of admissions asked me to come into the interview in case Claire needed help answering questions. It was shocking,” says Benjamin. “Claire’s interview was a sign that Grinnell respected Claire as a person.”

Tour the Campus

Make time to visit the college or colleges you’re considering. College visits are a great for any student wanting to get a feel for the campus and the community. For students with disabilities, it can be crucial.

When touring the campus, look at the venues and activities that matter to your student, such as:

  • Housing: Are accessible rooms integrated in the campus, or all grouped together?
  • Academic: Do rooms support your student’s needs? Will your student need special accommodations that don’t already exist? Do faculty appear knowledgeable about working with students with disabilities?
  • Social: Will your student be able to dine with others? Attend concerts and events? Participate in student groups?
  • Fitness and athletics: Are the facilities accessible?

Try to identify any obstacles that will need to be addressed before your student attends.

Grinnell was “the first college where Jen was able to get into buildings on her own without someone opening the doors for her,” says Brooks.

Ask Questions

Each student is an individual and has unique needs. If you don’t see what you’re looking for, ask questions. You’ll learn about programs you didn’t know existed, and get a sense of how much support and understanding your child can expect.

Some possible questions:

  • What services are available to support my child?
  • If my child has an issue during off hours, what support is available?
  • If problems arise, what is the school willing to do and how fast are they willing to do it?

Do your homework up front. I think most universities have no idea sometimes what it may or may not take to make the campus accessible. … Every student who has or needs accommodations will require a different scenario. I think the biggest piece Grinnell offered was that they were flexible,” says Forrest.

Get to Know the People

Your child should expect to be treated as an equal to other students, and feel welcomed by students, faculty, and staff.

Brooks says, “Typically a student with a disability can tell right away if they’re accepted or not just by going in and talking to people.”

Look for an Infrastructure That Supports You/Your Student

Check to see if the campus as a whole supports students with disabilities.

  • Are the staff and faculty flexible in learning about and accommodating needs?
  • Can the local medical community meet your student’s needs?
  • Do all staff and faculty consider it part of their job to accommodate student needs?

Recognize excuses like:

  • “Our college is old.”
  • “Our campus is on a hill.”
  • “It snows here.”

None of these is an insurmountable challenge. Look for creative solutions and people willing to help.

Comparin praised the way Grinnell facilities staff “cleared all the paths first thing if it snowed,” a major plus for a student in a wheelchair. In addition, staff prioritized clearing the paths her son would be using. Grinnell has a great regional medical center in town and one of the best hospitals in the United States is just down the road in Iowa City.

Don’t Give Up

It’s a lot of work to find a good fit for a student — with or without a disability. Each student’s needs are specific, and each one is different. And new issues are going to crop up as students learn and grow.

Students with disabilities may not attend college because of fear and worry — theirs or their parents. Don’t give in.

In the beginning, says Benjamin, “I was not even sure if what Claire was looking for in a college existed in any form.” Later she “was worried when Claire was considering study abroad. It was another significant challenge, but it’s important not to let my worries and my fears hold my child back. I didn’t want a college that would hold Claire back either.”

Recognize the Value Your Student Gives the School

The perspective your child can bring to a campus means more than you may know.

Residential life gives those who live, learn, and socialize with each other learn about the challenges they face, their successes, and the ways they see the world. They can challenge each other’s assumptions, and learn from each other. This diversity is incredibly valuable, not just for students, but also for faculty, staff, and community members.

Benjamin says, “A lot of people pulled us aside and said it was a valuable experience to have a student like Claire on campus. As a parent, I know these things, but it was amazing to learn the depth of what other people experienced. They felt fortunate.”

Final Advice

Our parents offer a last bit of advice: Let your child grow.

Benjamin recommends you let your child “develop and make this next step in the best environment they can. It’s a lot of work, research, and gut feelings when you get on the phone or follow along on a tour. You just have to trust that — between the homework you’ve done and your child — that you’ll make the right decision."

Good advice for any parent.