Patrick Comparin, originally from Bettendorf, Iowa, was a Philosophy major from the class of 2012. Patrick was Grinnell College's first full-time power wheelchair user and served as an integral part of the College's efforts to make its campus more accessible. He created this collection of student stories to serve as a record of the College's accessibility improvements through the years and as a useful source of information for prospective students seeking to know what the life of a student with a disability is like at the College.
Making the shift from high school to college is a big change, for anyone. The idea of college and all its possibilities can be exhilarating, but it can also be incredibly daunting and unsettling. Unlike high school, where you may have strict guidance from your parents and teachers, college has more or less none of this guidance. Your adviser will offer guidance and suggestions on which courses to take and your professors will help guide you, especially at a college like Grinnell, where your professors know who you are and care about how you do in class. However, the key difference is that the responsibility falls on your shoulders—your professors will only care about your status in a class if you care. The daunting aspect of college is that there is ultimately no one that will push you to succeed as—your success is entirely up to you. If you chose to ignore your work, you will fail. But if you choose to work your hardest, putting every ounce of energy you have into your work, you will succeed and prosper.
College can be a terrifying reality at first, and this fear is only increased when you're in a wheelchair. The fact of the matter is you're on your own. I know that fear because I once had it when I first began looking at possible college. My condition, compared to some, is fairly minimal. I can't walk and thus I use a power chair to get around. I'm fairly self-sufficient, and I honestly hate asking people for help, but sometimes it's necessary. That was the scary reality—I need help and ultimately I would have to hire some form of aides to help me, something I had never done before and had no experience with. I was just in high school and the mere thought of hiring aides and being an employer was intimidating.
I remember sitting in my high school English class one day, and because many of us had already applied to colleges, my teacher asked the class what each of us looked for in a college. My classmates slowly spoke up, answering how they looked at what majors or classes were offered, what the professors were like, what the social life was like, if the college had any fraternities or sororities. What I found stunning was that all of these concerns of my classmates weren't of uppermost importance to me. Obviously, what majors are offered and what the professors (or even student-to-professor ratio) are like are important, but being in a wheelchair, I had a lot of other concerns that frankly overshadowed the concerns of my classmates. So, I spoke up, and gave a very different list of what I was looking for when visiting a college. I looked at the sidewalks. What were they like? Were they smooth and flat or jagged and crumbling? I looked at the doors to academic buildings, administration buildings, and the residence halls. Did they have handicapped accessible doors? Where was the handicapped button? Was it in plain view or in some obscure location? What was the student community and administration like? Were they receptive to disability concerns? These are the types of questions I had—ones that were very different from my classmates.
These are the types of questions I wondered about when I visited a college. I would take the campus tour to look at the condition of the sidewalks, how easily I could maneuver throughout the campus and its buildings, and how the tour guide and admission personnel reacted to me being there. When I signed up for a campus tour, I told the college I was in a wheelchair, but that's all I did. I let them handle the rest as a test, for how the college handled this accommodation would ultimately reflect how they would possibly handle any other situation I might have if I were to attend that college. Some colleges failed, and failed miserably. They didn't seem to have a clue of my condition and ultimately the poor tour guide had to rapidly change her usual tour to make sure I could get everywhere. I wasn’t even able to get into some buildings on these tours because of steps or steep declines. I took these colleges off my list of possible colleges because these types of issues and overall disorganization would most likely occur when I would be a student. However, there were many colleges that excelled, and Grinnell was one of them.
From the moment I arrived in the town of Grinnell, I fell in love with it. I come from the Quad Cities, Iowa, a decently-sized set of towns along the Mississippi River. In comparison, Grinnell is a lot smaller. Some people may see this as a downfall, for it lacks the abundance of attractions and activities that a big city may host. However, I personally love the small-town feel. The Quad Cities is an odd place because it is a sprawling set of cities, but the population is not big enough to support a good public transportation system. With no public transit, I had to constantly rely on my friends or family to drive me everywhere. Because of that, I more or less had no independence. But in Grinnell, the exact opposite is true. The downtown of Grinnell is near the College and is convenient and easy to get to. If I need something from the store, I can go to the local store, where everyone is incredibly helpful and more than willing to help find anything I need. The local restaurants are also accessible. The key aspect I love about the town of Grinnell is that unlike back home, I have full independence. I don't have to ask anyone to drive me anywhere or help me get somewhere. I can just do what I feel like doing, at any time, and THAT feeling of independence is one that never gets old.
With the town so accessible and friendly, I had high hopes and expectations for Grinnell College, and those expectations were exceeded. When I came to Grinnell, I merely told them that I was in a wheelchair, just as I had done with all the other colleges, and nothing else. I wanted to see how they would accommodate me. From the moment I arrived and met with people in the admission office, I immediately felt like I was wanted—something I didn't necessarily feel at other institutions. The truth is, in some respects, I was wanted. If Grinnell could convince me to attend, I would be the first student wheelchair user since the 90s. For Grinnell, an institution which recognized its campus as inaccessible in many places, having a wheelchair user could be a crucial component in actively remodeling the campus to be accessible and inviting to all individuals, regardless of physical mobility. I could be the catalyst that could help launch a wave of renovations aimed at making the campus more accessible.
This feeling of being wanted was unique to Grinnell. It was truly the only institution where I felt like I could make a difference. I wasn't just another student or merely a number; I was an individual, and a key one. This attention to me as an individual transferred over to the campus tour. Grinnell's tour was impressive, and that's probably an understatement. When it came time for the campus tour, I had my own tour. The tour guide was excellent, paying special attention to walking at a steady pace and talking loud enough for me to hear him. Moreover, if he had to adjust his route so it was accessible, it wasn’t noticeable. Everything was smooth and effortless, which is exactly what I was looking for.
In Grinnell, I had a strong feeling of a home away from home. I felt that I was wanted and that any input I had would be considered useful and actually help make a difference. But more importantly, I felt that Grinnell would adhere to my needs. I felt that Grinnell was the right fit for me—and I couldn’t have been more right.
I am now entering my fourth year here at Grinnell, and looking back through my years here, I can honestly say that I could not have made a better choice of a college to attend. Grinnell has been the right fit for me and has been everything I was looking for in a college. Moreover, it has been everything—and more— that I believed it was going to be when I first visited.
I’ve had so many good experiences while at Grinnell that it is tough to decide where to begin, but I think the student body is a good place. In all of my life, I have never been around a group of people that are so consciously aware of their surroundings and the people around them. I remember in high school, I would be literally right behind another student, and when we came to a door, they rarely ever held the door for me—just walked inside, oblivious to everything around them except for his own world. But when I came to Grinnell, this wasn’t the case. I remember being some 10 to 15 feet behind this girl as I went to my residence hall. She never looked back at me, but when she got to the door, she paused for a few seconds, swiped her P-card, hit the handicapped button for the door, and walked inside. She never said anything or asked if I needed the door opened, she just did it. I’ve had this happen so many times while I’ve been at this College that I’ve lost track of how many times it’s happened, because quite honestly, it happens daily. I’ve even had people hold doors for me when I could have easily pushed the handicapped button myself.
In some classrooms, there are chairs that are attached to little desktops, also known as tablet chairs. Because I cannot sit in the chair, I flip the desk around so that the seat is in front of me, so I can pull my chair up to the desk. I cannot flip the chair myself, so I often ask my fellow students around me to help me (The College recently added accessible seating in these rooms, so this is no longer an issue). In many of my classes, after a week or two, I would come into class, and my chair would already be flipped around. I think that’s the key difference between the Grinnell student community and others. Many times I don’t have to ask people to help me—they just do it without being asked. There is such an aura of kindness and solidarity within the student body.
This attitude of acceptance transfers over to the social life of the school. Each week, there are a multitude of student events on campus, such as sporting events, speakers, symposiums, theme parties, and many others. At all of these events, I have had students, many whom I may have not known beforehand, offer to help me in various ways. At symposiums, I’ve had students offer to get me a drink or food that is available at these events. I’ve had students offer to move chairs or rearrange seating entirely so I could be closer to everyone else rather than off in a corner. At a music concert one year, I found myself stuck in the middle of the crowd, unable to see the concert at all. Two students, who were standing in front of me, turned around and noticed I was unable to see the show. To fix this, they literally parted the crowd and pushed me to the front, right next to the stage, and had everyone stand around and behind me. During the summer months here in Grinnell, many people have hosted house parties, all in off-campus houses that are inaccessible. I went to one of these house parties to meet up with some friends, knowing very well that I would not be able to get into the house. However, I was actually proven wrong. Soon, two students, whom I did not know beforehand, walked up to me and said they wanted to get me into the house. I knew that this was a rather impossible idea, mainly because my power chair is a good 400 pounds of central weight. Many of my friends have tried to lift it up in the past to no avail. However, these guys were committed. These guys found six other people, and all eight together, lifted my chair up a flight of steps and into the house. I was absolutely speechless. I have, in all my life, never been around a student body that cares so much about everyone’s well-being.
This attention to detail and overall compassionate nature exists not only within the student community, but within the professor community as well. At Grinnell, I’ve never had a professor discriminate against me because of my disability. I’ve had professors request to move the class because the classroom wasn’t easy for me to get around in. I’ve had professors make sure that study sessions and out-of-class assignments, such as class movie nights, are in accessible locations. I’ve had professors hold classroom doors open for me or rearrange classroom desk. Every professor I’ve had has more or less bent over his or her back in order to help me.
One of the most impressive aspects of Grinnell has been the administration’s response to accessibility concerns. From 2005 on, Grinnell took a hard stand on campus accessibility, realizing that in many places, the campus was completely inaccessible. When I came in the fall of 2008, I was the first wheelchair user on campus since the early 1990s. Before I arrived, the College went through a flurry of changes in order to prep for my arrival. Steps around my residence hall and in the loggias were converted to ramps. Inaccessible academic buildings, such as Steiner Hall, were made accessible with new handicapped doors. From the very beginning, I could tell Grinnell was going to be everything I wanted it to be: a college that recognized its accessible concerns and sought to change.
Grinnell has become more and more accessible each year. Moreover, the campus community—administration, faculty, and students alike—has become increasingly receptive to accessibility concerns. Numerous handicapped doors have been added to academic buildings, thus making every academic building accessible. Mears Cottage, which houses primarily English and history professors, was completely renovated with a new ramp entrance, making it more accessible than it’s ever been. Ramps have continued to be added and sidewalks have been smoothed out or changed to make travel easier. Grinnell is also looking to the future, completely redoing the Commencement stage, constructing a new, fully accessible permanent outdoor stage. The new stage will also provide other new benefits, such as room for new media outlets. Moreover, the student body as a whole has become increasingly receptive to accessibility concerns. All-campus events funded by the student government are now required to be held in an accessible location. Student groups have reconsidered where they regularly meet, changing meeting locations to lounges that are accessible. Campus-wide events have been adjusted, paying more attention to seating, visual aids, and microphone volume, making it easier for the hearing-impaired. The College has gone through a whirlwind of changes in the past three years, and it continues to make more and more changes and adjustments.
Jennifer Krohn, senior research associate and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) coordinator, has been the catalyst who has helped bring about these drastic changes. Under her guidance, there have been so many changes in my time here that the campus isn’t even recognizable, accessibility-wise. Her leadership, heading both the administration’s accessibility committee and the faculty/student disability awareness committee, has spurred debate and conversation over what the College has already accomplished and what it needs to accomplish in the coming years. She has been pivotal in helping me during my time here to enjoy the full college experience, just like everyone else. Rick Whitney, Associate Director of Facilities Management, has also been instrumental in making the campus more accessible. He has been committed to finding both cost-effective and smart avenues for creating accessibility in previously inaccessible areas, and in making sure that new additions comply with accessibility requirements. Jennifer Krohn, Rick Whitney, and the College in general have far exceeded the expectations I had when I first arrived. I do not know of another college in the country that can boast such a profound sense of community, reaction, and attention to detail about accessibility concerns. Grinnell College is one of a kind and I cannot begin to say how grateful I am for my time here and how difficult it will be to leave this place in the next year.
Adapting to Grinnell
Finding Help (Exploring Aide Options)
A guide to the aide options available in Grinnell: Student aide, professional aide, and personal hires.
Finding personal care attendants is never an easy process. The difficult aspect of the whole process is finding people that are reliable, punctual, and most importantly, trustworthy. But the real question is: How does one go about finding aides? There are a variety of different options—such as hiring fellow students, hiring a company, or hiring independent aides—all with their positives and their drawbacks.
When I first came to Grinnell, I didn’t want outside aides coming in to help me, for fear of being labeled “odd” or an “outsider” by neighbors in my residence hall. A student at another university I visited required around-the-clock aid and so he created an aide system of 10 aides, rotating them on a daily basis. If one of his aides was sick or unavailable, he had at least two that could fill in for the absent aide. The most remarkable aspect of this system was that all the aides were students, not professionals, a system I wanted to copy.
I don’t need nearly as much help as he did, so I figured I could hire three students, having two main student aides and one backup. In hindsight, this was an incredibly stupid and naïve idea. It was stupid because your floor mates .don’t care if you have aides; in fact, your aides are rarely seen. It was naïve because the other student’s system had one key difference: He attended a major university, with a graduate program in medicine and nursing, which is where his aides came from. Here in Grinnell, we do not have any form of graduate program. While Grinnellians are incredibly helpful, they are not an ideal source of aides. You need to explore other aide options.
One seemingly simple way to find aides is to hire a company that provides nursing care. This is usually an option in most cities, Grinnell included. The key advantage of this option is that because you are hiring a company, nursing personal are already trained and have experience with personal care. All of these nurses have had background checks and essentially any other measures to ensure they are reliable and trustworthy. Thus, much of the hard work is already done for you and finding aides is simple.
However, there are distinct drawbacks to hiring aides through a company. Overall, I found these companies to be very structured and inflexible. For example, I personally need very little aide help, roughly 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon. However, these companies, generally, would not provide this minimal amount of care, and usually required that I pay for at least a two-hour session in the morning and in the afternoon. Moreover, on top of this requirement, the sheer price of the services was absolutely astronomical. Each day would end up costing me upwards of $200 a day, or more than $6,000 a month, a price I simply could not afford. Thus, unless you have a fair amount of money, are willing to pay the price, and need a substantial amount of help, these companies are not ideal.
Since these companies were not an option for me, I had to look elsewhere for aide help. I chose to find my own aides, conducting my own interviews and background checks. To begin, I bought an ad in the local paper, advertising: a) I was a Grinnell College student; b) what type of aide I would be needing (i.e. house cleaning, help with personal care, etc.); and c) how much time each session would require. I did not specify in the ad how much I was looking to pay per session because I wanted to discuss that individually with each potential aide.
I received a fair amount of inquiries about my ad. I set up a day to travel to Grinnell and scheduled each potential aide for an interview. I held the interviews in the College’s Spencer Grille, mainly because I wanted to be in an informal, relaxed atmosphere. I knew I wanted to see a few distinct qualities in each aide. I asked each candidate if there were any specific personal obligations that could conflict with working with me. I wanted to know that I could count on them to be able to help me when they were scheduled to help me. I asked was if their schedule was flexible—specifically if they could work either mornings, afternoons, or both. I also wanted to know if I had an emergency, after scheduled hours, would they would be able to assist me? This has only happened twice during my time at Grinnell, but it is an important aspect to take into consideration.
Another key element in the interview process was deciding on how much to pay my aides. I did some research on other people who hired personal aides, and the typical pay per session was $10-$15, depending on the city. I wanted to stay more at the $10-per-session wage. I offered this wage to the two people I wanted to hire and both gladly accepted. I also asked them how they would like to be paid, either bi-monthly or monthly, and both ultimately wanted to be paid each month.
Finding personal care aides is a challenging task. It takes a large investment of time to find the right people for the job. Ultimately, I found that hiring my own aides from the community was more cost-effective and flexible than hiring aides through a company. My aides are more like family than employees, and in the end, I think that is ideal—having a group of people who care a great deal about you and your well-being, and who will be trustworthy and reliable during your time at Grinnell or any other institution.
Housing Accommodations: Making Residence Hall Room Modifications/Repairs
A guide: Who to contact when your residence hall room needs modifications or something breaks down.
Contact: Laura Gogg (Technical Assistant II), Ext. 3713 or GOGGLAU1[at]grinnell[dot]edu
Facilities Management (FM): Ext. 3300
One of the many great aspects of Grinnell is the two specially-equipped handicapped-accessible residence halls. These residence halls in Grinnell are some of the best you’ll find in any college in the country. Along with these great residence halls, the College’s housing department is remarkable as well, primarily for its attention to detail. When I first arrived in Grinnell, we went through my future residence hall room to see if any modifications needed to be made. The room’s door was converted into a powered door, which I can open with a simple click of a button. Moreover, the blind shades were modified to be automatic, opening and closing with the push of a button, and the shower in my bathroom was modified (yes, each room has its own bathroom). The housing department did a fantastic job at modifying my room to my specific needs.
The Housing Department is also quick and receptive to fixing any problem that you may have with your room. For example, in the three years I have been here, my door has broken down twice. Each time, I simply emailed the housing contact, and facilities management was immediately notified of my problem, and my door was fixed the same day, and if not the same day, the next. Housing even set up a backup plan if I needed to leave my room and could not open my door because it was broken. I’ve also had minor problems with my bathroom over the years, and again the problem was fixed promptly. Many times, my emails to the housing contact are answered almost immediately, which showcases the responsive nature of Grinnell in general. I’m not sure of any other institution with such a responsive and compassionate housing department.
Getting to Class with Bad Weather
A guide to navigating through Grinnell in bad weather, specifically: Requesting use of the accessible van, working with facilities management to identify your main class routes, and contacting security in emergency cases.
Student Health and Counseling Services: Ext. 3230
Security: Ext. 4600
Facilities Management (FM): Ext. 3300
One of the few drawbacks of Iowa is the weather, primarily during the winter months, which some years never seem to want to end. Wheelchairs, snow and ice just don’t mix. It’s a pain and in some instances dangerous, especially if you slide into a snow bank and get stuck. Thus, getting to class can seem near impossible depending on the amount of snowfall. With this worry in mind, Grinnell offers an accessible van to transport you to class if the snowfall is too great and the sidewalks are blocked. The van can also be used if it is raining heavily and you do not want to risk flooding your wheelchair battery. To use this service, you simply have to call Student Health and Counseling Services and request the accessible van. Usually, Student Health and Counseling Services likes an hour’s notice to prep the van to transport you. With snow, this is easily done, since you usually know in advance, if there is a large amount of snowfall on the ground. However, heavy rain can begin at a moment’s notice, not allowing you to give an hour’s notice. If this occurs, you can still call Student Health and Counseling Services and state that the van is urgently needed.
There are two other aspects of getting around Grinnell in bad weather. If you ever find yourself stuck in a snow bank, in mud, or if your chair simply breaks down, you can always call security and describe your urgent situation. Luckily, I have never had to do this, but it is always comforting to know that it is an option. Another important suggestion is to get to know the facilities management personal. Before the winter months begin, I usually talk with facilities management to map out my usual routes to class. With this in mind, facilities management highlights my route as a top priority and tries to keep it clear of snow and ice to the best of its ability. I’ve had numerous FM personal ask me during the winter months if I am having any issues getting around the campus—just another example of the extremely caring and compassionate nature of the Grinnell community.
A guide to available dining accommodations and how to order food from the dining hall during bouts of bad weather.
Dining Services: Ext. 3661
The dining hall can be a difficult place to navigate, depending on what type of wheelchair you use. If you use a manual wheelchair, balancing your food tray and wheeling around is next to impossible to do, unless you have some insane balancing skills, which I certainly do not possess. If you use a power chair, it is possible to balance your food tray on your armrests; whenever I’ve done that, I’ve always felt that I was going to drop my tray, and balancing a drink was especially difficult. To solve this dilemma, the dining hall offers a service in which an attendant will carry your tray and help you get any food you wish. All you have to do is ask the front attendant for help with your tray, and he or she will call someone to come and assist you. Since Grinnell hosts such a small and helpful community, many times the front attendant will call for someone to assist you as you walk into the dining hall. During my time here, I’ve gotten to know all the attendants very well, and they are always ready to assist me as I enter the dining hall. They are so helpful and caring that many of them can actually guess what I will have to eat based on the menu!
However, getting to the dining hall can be a problem, particularly during the winter months if there is heavy and constant snowfall. Until my third year at Grinnell (2010-11), the dining hall had no real back-up plan for this type of problem. The only type of “solution” was to have a friend take your p-card and pick you up an Outtake from the Spencer Grill, not always an ideal option. However, I worked with the dining hall to devise a real solution. Now, if you find yourself unable to get to the dining hall, you can call the dining hall directly order the food (since the dining menu is available online). Then, you can either have a friend pick up your food or have a dining hall attendant bring it directly to your dorm room.
Getting Involved / Advocacy through SGA
A guide to: getting involved in student government and forms of student advocacy.
Like many institutions, Grinnell has its own Student Government Association, or SGA. However, Grinnell’s SGA is unique in that it boasts a large budget, with this budget at the complete discretion of the student-elected SGA cabinet and senators. All student-led activities, such as theme parties, movies, concerts, and other groups such as club sports and volunteer organizations, are funded by SGA. Because of this, SGA is a key organization of student advocacy and opinion, since SGA is also closely linked with the administration. SGA is a crucial key to advocating for issues such as accessibility and disability awareness.
I’ve been a senator within SGA for the past year. Whenever a student leader or group proposes a budget to SGA for an event/club/volunteer opportunity, etc., the budget comes before the entire SGA group, cabinet and senators combined, and it is either approved, disapproved, or amended (some items are eliminated, the price is adjusted, etc.). As I sat through these budget proposals, I began to notice a flaw: Some of these events, which were meant to be “all-campus events,” were held in handicapped-inaccessible locations, even when they could have been held in accessible locations. The inaccessible events included the pre-and post-parties for the Winterer and Spring Waltz held at the end of each semester. SGA funds appetizers and desserts for these parties. However, while there are usually two to three pre-parties, with at least one accessible party, there is only one post-party, traditionally held in Younker Hall, which is completely inaccessible. When this budget came to SGA, I questioned why so called “all-campus events” were continually held in inaccessible areas, which conflicts with the ideal of providing a memorable experience for everyone. This motion was met with such strong support from my fellow senators that the event location was changed. The following semester, I created a resolution that every SGA-funded event must be held in an accessible location, with exceptions granted if the group has a valid argument to hold it in an inaccessible location. This was met with a tremendous amount support and the resolution was passed. Since the passing of the resolution, SGA has been very active and adamant about making sure that every event is held in accessible location.
Grinnell’s community has always been an active and vibrant one. In the years I have been here, the community has become more and more aware of accessibility issues and has strived to make everything more accessible for everyone. They key thing to remember, however, is that you have to voice your opinion. If I didn’t voice my opinion and create my resolution, events might not be as accessible as they are now. The Grinnell community is incredibly receptive and caring, but it is up to you, as a fellow student and community member, to point out flaws and help create solutions.
Joyce Stern: Ext. 3702 or STERNJM[at]grinnell[dot]edu
Ann Isgrig: ISGRIGA[at]grinnell[dot]edu
The staff in the Academic Advising Office do an amazing job of working with students needing academic accommodations. I encourage you to talk to Joyce Stern, Dean for Student Success and Academic Advising, as soon as possible if you think you need specific accommodations in order to flourish in your studies. She and Ann Isgrig support students with disabilities in a variety of ways.
Angie Story: story[at]grinnell[dot]edu
Claire Forrest, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, was an English major from the class of 2013. Claire has cerebral palsy, and used a motorized scooter and manual wheelchair to navigate the campus. While at Grinnell, Claire was a 4-year member of the Varsity Women's Swim Team, and participated in Paralympic swimming competitions during her career. She also served on the campus' Disability Awareness Committee. Claire studied with the Grinnell-in-London 2011 program, making her the first student to study abroad requiring wheelchair accommodation. Claire's narrative explains her decision to attend Grinnell, and her experiences living on campus, studying abroad, and being a student-athlete.
When I began searching for a college, I was filled with nervous excitement. Like many of my peers, I was excited to be independent, but I also feared how I would handle the responsibility and independence of college.
Everyone who goes to college has these feelings. But my nerves were due in part to my disability. Despite having cerebral palsy, I've lived a very independent life. I can walk some, and I use a combination of manual wheelchair and motorized scooter to get around.
I knew that a small college was the right fit for me from the start. I work best in small settings and enjoy getting to know people one-on-one.
I loved the environment of a small college. I toured large universities, where I would have to be picked up by a campus van and driven to class. I didn't want to depend on others to get around campus. From an accessibility standpoint, Grinnell's small, compact campus was an advantage. I could navigate the campus on my own.
Coming from Minneapolis, Minn., the town of Grinnell was also exciting to me. The small town was a new experience and refreshing. I saw it was easy to get to most places you need, even when using a wheelchair or scooter.
As part of my college search, before I visited any campus I looked on its website for clues as to how receptive it might be to accessibility. I was impressed that Grinnell dedicated an entire page of its website to accessibility, explaining much more than just where to park on campus.
From the moment I stepped on campus at Grinnell, I felt welcome. The students are some of the friendliest people I have met. As a senior in high school, I remember sitting in on a class on a prospective-student day. The class was sitting around a large, long table. I sat in the middle, but as students came in, I started to get nervous and tried to retreat to the back of the classroom, away from the table. "No, stay!" said a girl next to me, and several of her friends shifted their chairs at the table to accommodate my wheelchair. They told me about their class, the material they were discussing, and even held their books open toward me during class so that I could look on.
I also felt welcome as a student with a disability. Having been on many college tours, I saw a key difference in how Grinnell reacted to me being on campus. I visited lots of schools that wanted to be more accessible but had only just begun to make changes or even realize that their campus was inaccessible. Though I considered Grinnell to already be quite accessible, the people at Grinnell recognized that there was still progress to be made. The College had a lot of goals in mind and planned many renovations to become more accessible. The key difference was that not only was Grinnell committed to change, it was actively making these changes. Since I have been a student, great strides in accessibility have been made on campus, such as the addition of a ramp at Mears Cottage, home of the English and history departments. I have no doubt that Grinnell will continue to strive toward a completely universal, accessible design.
In addition to an institution with strong academics and accessibility, athletics was an important part of my college decision. I have been a competitive swimmer since elementary school, and it is an extremely important part of my life.
I knew it was going to be a challenge to find a college that fit my three criterions: academic rigor, accessibility, and athletics. Grinnell College fit all three, and I had high expectations for this school. It has met every one of them. I can't imagine a better, more accepting place to spend four years of my life. I feel so fortunate to be a part of the Grinnell community. It is the community that makes this place so accepting, and so willing to support you in every way it can. That sense of support is invaluable.
As a college student, most all of the responsibility falls to you to seek out support when you need it. What I've learned is that the professors, faculty, and students are all willing to lend a hand whenever you ask for it.
Grinnell professors really get to know you and are responsive to your needs as a student with a disability, both physically and academically. I have never had a professor be anything but incredibly willing to work with my classroom needs, such as use of the testing room or a Livescribe smart pen for note-taking. However, it is my responsibility to discuss accommodations with my professors at the beginning of each semester, and to tell them when I need accommodations.
What I really appreciate is how responsive professors are to making the classroom experience easy and accessible. Some have moved classes from inaccessible rooms to accessible locations.
Since I park my scooter outside the door and walk into the classroom, I have had professors offer to carry my backpack or offer an arm if I need help to balance. I have noticed that by the second week of classes each semester, the students always take over this role, often without being asked. In one of my classes, I always took the seat nearest the door, since it was easiest for me to get to. Once, I arrived to class to find that seat taken; the available seats were at the other end of room. My professor simply asked my classmate if he would give up his chair for me, to which he responded, "Absolutely!" and did it without complaint. For the rest of the semester, the students made sure that chair remained available to me.
This attitude is shared by other member of the faculty and staff. From facilities management to the dining hall, I never worry that I won't be able to get assistance I need. Facilities management works to clear paths to class in the wintertime. The dining hall staff puts food on my tray and carries it. They have gotten so good over the years that they often can predict what time I will come to the dining hall and what I will eat based on that day's menu!
It never fails to amaze me how helpful and observant Grinnell students are. Going into campus buildings, people walking several feet ahead of me will always hit the automatic door button so that the door is open before I get there. Once, while going to class on my scooter, my keys fell from my lap into a snow bank. A student saw me struggling to pick them up, picked them up, and wiped the snow off them before he gave them back to me. Another time, a mechanical error with my scooter caused the battery to die without warning. A group of three students switched the scooter from drive mode to manual and proceeded to push me what was the probably the equivalent of three blocks' distance to my dorm. I was so grateful, but felt bad about the physical strain of having to push the heavy scooter plus me. They told me to stop apologizing; they would do this anytime. I did not even know them personally. They even pushed me into my dorm room, and I had to convince them multiple times that everything was now all right before they would leave. Never before Grinnell have I encountered a community like this. As a testament to this, when I pass the students who helped with my scooter on campus after that, we always acknowledge each other and wave.
With inclement weather common in Iowa, the health center has an accessible van that is available to drive you to class if the weather is particularly bad. It is helpful to speak with facilities management at the start of every semester to outline the routes you use most during the semester. They mark these routes on a map and give them priority when clearing a heavy snowfall. Arrangements can be made to have food delivered to you if you are unable to get to the dining hall during blizzard conditions —rare but it has happened.
Your wheelchair can still get stuck in snow banks, but I've found students are willing to help. If the situation is dire —if your chair breaks or malfunctions — campus security can be called to assist.
These resources are always there and willing to help you if you need it, but you have to be the one to seek it out. You have to tell them exactly what you need.
I have countless stories that I could share about how supportive the Grinnell community is. I am proud to be a part of this community because of how we help and care for one another.
Being a Grinnell Athlete
Competing on the swim team is one of the favorite parts of my life as a Grinnellian. The swim team is one of the largest teams on campus, and it is great to be a member of an incredibly diverse and interesting team. We really are one big family.
Collegiate athletics is a huge time commitment, and the commitment increases significantly for an athlete with a disability. During the swim season, from mid-October to mid-February, we practice two hours a day Monday through Friday, often with practice or a meet on Saturdays. It takes me longer to get to and from practice. I am often the last one in the locker room and the last member of the team to arrive at dinner after practice. It takes me longer to shower and dress following practice. While my teammates are able to rush after practice and get to their homework, that is not an option for me.
That being said, I do not regret my decision to be a collegiate swimmer. Sacrifice and discipline are part of being an athlete, and they are essential to being a disabled athlete. Yes, sometimes I wish I had more free time. But swimming is my favorite activity; it is how I keep my body strong, functioning, and healthy. I have to sacrifice a lot for swimming, but I'm getting so much more back from it.
I've found that the balance of school and swimming essential to my success. Swimming clears my mind and makes it easier for me to focus on my schoolwork. Swimmingmakes me fit, healthy, and, above all, happy. Like any college student, I work to find the best balance between school, athletics, social life, and sleep. Swimming helps me with this, because it limits the amount of free time that I have. If I don't schedule my time wisely during swim season, my work simply will not get done. Since I am often tired from practices, I never want to sacrifice my sleep. Scheduling my time wisely and learning to stay disciplined are important skills I've learned as a result of being an athlete.
When the team travels to compete, I ride the bus with the team, and the compartment underneath the bus is large enough to store my wheelchair. If we stay overnight, I room with my teammates just like the rest of the team, in an accessible hotel room.
Thinking about Studying Abroad
Studying abroad was something I thought about before I even began college. I thought it might be an experience that would give me more confidence and independence. While this turned out to amazingly true, I found that once I got to Grinnell and the idea became more real, I grew apprehensive and wondered if this goal was possible. I had traveled to other countries, and I knew many places were less accessible than the United States.
During the last week of my first year at Grinnell, I sent an email to the directors of off-campus study. I explained that I was interested in studying abroad, particularly in London, and asked for any resources available. My tone in the email was very noncommittal, very much a message of "This might not work, but maybe?" Off-campus study staff met with me that week, and their response shocked me. "If you want to do this," they said, "we will make it happen." Their confidence came before fully knowing all of my needs or obstacles I might face in London.
From that point on, I viewed studying abroad as achievable. Throughout the summer, I was in contact with off-campus study, sharing questions and researching the city of London and the study-abroad program in terms of accessibility. I in no way regret beginning to plan my study-abroad experience more than a year in advance. I was fortunate to know right away that I wanted to go to London. I was even more fortunate that Grinnell had its own Grinnell-in-London (GIL) program. Since GIL occurs every fall semester (and has for more than 30 years), it was easier for the off-campus study office and myself to know where to direct questions.
If you want to study abroad in a different program than I did, I'd advise you to start researching programs as soon as possible. I say this only because the options of study-abroad programs today are endless. If there is a place you want to go, or something you want to study, you probably can find a program for you. This is exhilarating but can make preparation more complicated if you the program needs to accommodate a disability. Communicating with your selected program sooner gives them and you more time to work through potential challenges and make arrangements that you might need abroad. Preparing to go abroad is a challenging but exciting experience; it takes a lot of time, and the time goes quickly!
Preparing for Grinnell-in-London
Throughout my second year at Grinnell, I had several meetings with off-campus study staff. I found I needed to consider many of the same issues as when I started college. What combinations of mobility devices would be most helpful to me? Would I need my manual wheelchair and scooter? If I needed a scooter in London, could I travel with my personal model? What about charging the battery with the changes in voltages in the United Kingdom? Should I rent one? Where would I find the most affordable scooter rental, but also a model that I was comfortable using? There were some questions I could anticipate, but some I would have never thought of. Asking questions and discussing scenarios with off-campus study staff was crucial.
Another unexpected component I dealt with was England's inability to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This conflict arose when I decided to live in the student dorms. GIL offers its students the choice to live in flats with roommates or in an international student-living dorm. Students form roommate groups and apply for a flat without knowing which one they will be assigned to. The unknown question of whether I would be assigned to a flat that would work for me led me to select the dorm option instead. Looking back, this was the best choice for me. Visiting my friends in their flats was tough, as it forced me to walk up several flights of stairs or use an elevator that could barely accommodate my average-sized manual wheelchair.
The student dorm offered a handicapped-accessible single dorm room for my use. The policy of the dorm complex was that single rooms cost more than doubles. I was told that I needed to pay the extra cost for an accessible single. I learned that because of the lack of an ADA equivalent, the dorm could charge me the extra amount even though I was living in a single because I needed it, not because I was voluntarily choosing it. Grinnell decided that as an American student, I should still accorded the privileges of the ADA. The College reimbursed me the difference in cost of the single.
Another decision to be made was use of a sponsor person. One of my big concerns was that something would happen to me abroad. There were the big "what ifs": What if I got sick while abroad? How would I find a doctor? What if something in my dorm room didn't work for me? What if I had a major transportation issue? But there were also smaller questions: What if I couldn't find the closest grocery store?
I thought that knowing someone who was more familiar with the area and had access to more resources would ease my mind. It was important to me that the sponsor be someone I could contact without feeling uncomfortable or awkward asking for help. One of the Grinnell professors who came on GIL with us served as my sponsor. I could email or call him with specific questions. Having a sponsor did not hamper my independence at all, and none of the students on the program knew or cared that he served in this role. I used him on a strict only-when-needed basis, and he would only help me when I asked. Knowing I had that support available to me was a huge comfort, especially in the first few weeks abroad. It was also especially helpful to know someone was there to pick me up at Heathrow Airport and take me to my dorm.
Other services that eased my mind before departing were the guide book Open London and the website Mobility International USA. It was amazing for me to see a guide like Open London, produced by the city and detailing all sorts of references and advice for navigating London with various disabilities. Mobility International is an organization that helps support individuals with disabilities in their quest to go abroad. On its site are narratives from students from all over the United States with many types of disabilities, talking about their successes and challenges traveling all over the world. Reading their stories encouraged me; if they could do it, I could do it. Mobility International also allowed me to correspond by email with a woman in a wheelchair who studied abroad in the United Kingdom and provided me with disability specific resources, like information on defending yourself from a wheelchair.
Though I planned as much as I could for my semester abroad, I was still anxious. I had the same fears as many of my peers. What would it be like? What if I got lost? How will I deal with the new culture? What if I got homesick?
But I also had fears about accessibility. As much as I planned, some aspects couldn't be worked through until I got there and tried them out. Some of these things were big things, like testing out public transit. I got on that plane to London excited — but also reminded myself to keep the most open mind possible and roll with the punches.
I was able to do just that. And it paid off, big time.
Living in London
If there is one trait I think every study-abroad student should have, it would be flexibility. This is even more important when you are abroad in a wheelchair. Situations I have never dealt with before would arise in a moment's notice, and I had to deal with them instantly and as best as I could. Things did not always go the way that I had hoped. As the British would say, you must keep calm and carry on.
In all seriousness, life in London will constantly surprise you in both good and bad ways.
Take my experience riding the London bus system. Since the Tube is largely inaccessible to wheelchairs, the bus was free to me as a disabled rider (it was a great bragging point among my classmates). All London buses are equipped with ramps and a special spot for wheelchairs. The only restriction is one wheelchair passenger per bus. I took the bus everywhere — to classes, sightseeing, to swim practice, to see friends. It wasn't unusual to spend up to two hours a day riding the bus.
London is a huge city divided into 33 boroughs. It takes at least 30 minutes to an hour to get anywhere, not counting the unpredictable traffic or the time you spend waiting for the bus. While transportation issues are just a part of living in London, they were more noticeable in a wheelchair. Sometimes using the bus went off without a hitch. Other times, traffic made me very late. A few times, buses broke down on me and I had to find another one on the fly. Many times, I couldn't find the stop I needed. Always, everything worked out. I had to deal with being late. Other times, I had to resort to a cab. I learned to be flexible.
Londoners are among some of the most receptive and aware people I have ever encountered. If a stroller occupied the wheelchair spot on the bus, people always moved or even got off the bus to accommodate me. If I struggled to get up the ramp to the bus, people walking by on the street would push me up. Once, the ramp on a bus refused to lower. I expected the bus driver to pull away. Instead, he turned off the bus and enlisted the help of several passengers to lift me on and off the bus.
Sometimes, it was just not feasible to take a bus due to time constraints or too much distance to wheel between bus stops. All black taxicabs in London are accessible to average-sized manual wheelchairs, with fold-out ramps. One of the courses in which I enrolled, History of London, required the class to meet early in the morning in various locations. I always took cabs to history class and the College reimbursed me.
London was a constant learning experience. Things that worked well for me in Grinnell, like my motorized scooter, were not the best choice in London. I found the streets were extremely busy and narrow, and the hallways of the teaching site where we had classes could barely accommodate a scooter. The scooter that I rented, however, was very helpful for grocery shopping and running errands around my neighborhood. Most of the time, though, I used the manual wheelchair in London. I found that the chair worked much better in the narrow and always bustling streets, as well on the buses.
It was challenging to learn how to cross streets in London. Pedestrians in London do not have the right of way, so I had to remain alert and be sure to cross only at safe times. I had to wheel quickly to get across and not get stuck in the crowds. I had to make sure to be conscious of where all the curb cuts were, as they weren't always on every crossing.
I was grateful to have bought various backpacks, grocery sacks that hooked onto a scooter, and wheelchair storage compartments that were so useful to me in London. It was through planning what might work best and testing what actually did work best that I found what was most comfortable for each situation in London.
My study-abroad experience taught me many things. I was so amazed by the academic experiences and the places I got to see. I was able to attend all of the theatre, museums, and overnight traveling trips with all of my classmates; I never felt excluded from the group. During my semester abroad, the GIL program traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon, Bruges, Oxford, and the Lake District. On these trips, we traveled in large coach buses and stored my wheelchair underneath. With the exception of the Lake District, I stayed in a separate hotel than the other students due to accessibility. But I never felt like I missed out on any part of these trips by not staying with them. Our hotels were always close by, so it was easy to meet up with the students at the start of each day. I was always pleased with how easy the trips worked for me. There were challenges, like the cobblestone streets of Bruges, but the other students always worked together to assist me. They helped make what might seem inaccessible into an accessible and fun experience.
When we went to see plays at the various London theatres, I sat in wheelchair-seating areas. These areas were typically in a different location than where the other students sat, but we usually settled this by switching who sat next to me in the companion seat each time we went. Even Shakespeare's Globe Theatre had accessible seating, a platform that I could wheel up on to watch the play as a groundling. It was a dream come true for this English major!
I learned many things that I couldn't have learned in the classroom. What everyone tells you about study abroad is that you learn more about yourself than you do about academics. And honestly, it is true. My time in London is one of my proudest accomplishments to date. This is because it wasn't easy, but I worked through it. I gained skills that will serve me forever: how to navigate a big city; how to find directions on the computer and how to handle it when those directions aren't correct; how to use public transit; how to buy my own groceries, prepare my own meals, and to be completely independent and accountable for my life. This experience and the skills that I learned will keep serving me, because they are life skills. As I look towards a postgraduate life, I am so glad to have my London experience under my belt, because it gave me a great deal of confidence to see what else is out there in the world.
Adapting to Grinnell
For me, a huge plus for Grinnell was having a roommate during the first two years. Other schools I considered had wheelchair-accessible rooms, but they were single rooms. I knew that having a roommate was a part of the college experience that I didn't want to miss out on just because I needed an accessible room.
The accessible dorm rooms in Cowles Hall are really incredible. I lived in these rooms my first and second years. There was more than enough room to park my scooter inside and use my manual wheelchair in the room. The window blinds are remote-controlled and very easy to use. The room is air-conditioned. The door has opener buttons on the inside; and from the outside, I opened the door using a small button remote that I kept on my keychain.
There is an accessible washer and dryer in the Cowles facilities management closet, which is right next to the dorm room. I was given a special door remote so that only the students who needed this service could access it.
These North Campus rooms have a fully accessible shower and large bathroom inside them. The toilet and shower are equipped with metal grip bars, the shower has a fold-down bench, and the showerhead is a wand. The bathroom is very nice and I missed it when I went home on breaks because it was nicer than what I had at home!
For my junior and senior years, I decided that I would like a single room. I now live in Kershaw Hall on the East Campus. I live in what would be a double room, but for me it is a single because my scooter and wheelchair simply cannot fit in a regular single. This room has the same opener button and keychain remote button system as my other dorm.
Living in Kershaw, I use the dorm bathrooms for the entire floor because my room does not have its own bathroom. It was important to me that the floor I lived on had specific men and women's bathrooms, instead of gender-neutral bathrooms. This was arranged and I never feel uncomfortable or like I am keeping anyone waiting for the shower because it takes me longer. The Kershaw bathroom has a handicapped-accessible bathroom stall and a large accessible shower stall with a door that locks. The showerhead is a wand, and there is a bench and metal grip bars. The stall is large enough that I can wheel in, lock the door, and park my chair without it getting wet from the shower. This makes it easier to change after the shower, too.
I also use the Kershaw hall laundry rooms. They are in the basement and there is an elevator to get to them (and all the floors of Kershaw). The washers are all at eye level, but there are two rows of dryers, one row of bottoms and one of top.
My classroom accommodations in college are based on what I had in high school. I definitely recommend getting classroom accommodations if you qualify or have used them in the past. Sometimes students think they won't need them, so they don't get them. If you don't end up needing them, that's perfectly fine, but it's easier to decide not to use them than it is to decide halfway through the semester that you wish you had them.
All accommodations are arranged in a completely confidential way among you, the student affairs office, and the professors with whom you share your needs. No one else will know about your accommodations unless you decide to share that information.
My needs are minimal and I've gotten pretty good at figuring out what classes I will need accommodations in. I type my written tests on a computer and use extra time during exams. To do this, I use the testing room in the Student Affairs Office, which has the computer and a proctor to track your extra time. About a week before the test, I email to request a time to use the room. I notify my professor what time I'll be taking the test; it is delivered to the proctor beforehand and the proctor returns it to the professor when I'm done.
Accommodations like this are arranged through Joyce Stern, dean of student academic support and advising. After meeting with her, you receive a set of letters that you can give to professors explaining your needs and accommodations. It makes it easier to explain certain accommodations; for example, I simply explain to them what my Livescribe pen is, and that I use it to record lectures.