Jen Brooks, originally from Atlanta Georgia, graduated from Grinnell College in 2015 with a BA in sociology. Jen was the third Grinnell student in recent years that used a wheelchair. She also needed full-time personal care attendant (PCA) services and a communication aid in the classroom. During her time at Grinnell Jen had the opportunity to explore her passion for activism, hone her skills as a researcher (through her two internships), and develop independent living skills.
Choosing Grinnell College
My journey to Grinnell began long before my peers even started thinking about college. Due to my disability, I needed a school that was not only physically accessible, but open to my unique situation. In the beginning, I believed that physical accessibility would prove much easier to find than social accessibility. My first college road trip, however, proved otherwise. The summer before my junior year, I visited ten schools and only three were reasonably accessible. For instance, at one school the accessible entrance to the library was the loading dock in the basement. After my first college trip, I had to go back in search for other schools.
I chose Grinnell for its physical accessibility. Like Claire, I was impressed with the information the web site offered on physical accessibility. Yet, the most important aspect of my decision was the people at Grinnell. Faculty and staff were open to my disability, were very accepting of my needs, and were willing to work with me to ensure that I had the best experience possible.
Accommodations — Knowing My Rights
Since I had received accommodations throughout my educational career and was very familiar with the process, I knew that receiving reasonable accommodations was vital to my participation in the classroom. I also knew it was my legal right to receive these accommodations. Even though my accommodations were accepted and approved by the Student Affairs office, I quickly learned that the accommodation process is not just a one time meeting with the professor. Rather, this process involves a semester long negotiation between a student and the professor who is teaching the course. After four years and many professors, here is my advice on accommodations: Never be afraid to speak to your professors if they are not providing you with your accommodations appropriately, and immediately let other people know — such as the staff in the Disability Service office — if you run into an issue. While the majority of my professors followed my accommodations, some needed a more education.
Access to Independence
There is always a profound change in identity when someone decides to go to college and live away from home. This change required me to develop independent living skills and basically figure out how manage my life. Although in high school I was dependent on my mother and school attendants for almost everything, Grinnell provided me with the tools to gain my independence.
Technology in Progress
One of the most important tools that assisted in my academic independence was Kurzweil 3000 — a text-to-speech reading software program to support students across disciplines in reading, writing, and test taking. Kurzweil offers study tools such as bookmarking, highlighting, footnoting, and outlining. Additionally, Grinnell’s assisted technology department scanned all my textbooks, articles, and classroom handouts. However, I have found that it is necessary to ask your professors for books ahead of time, so they can be scanned and ready when classes begin. This technology furthers my independence.
Lazier Hall — Living on Campus
Since I need 24/7 hour care, living in a typical dorm room was not practical. In the summer of 2012 Grinnell built an accessible apartment on the first floor of Lazier Hall. This apartment had three bedrooms (two singles and double), a kitchen, a living room, and an accessible bathroom. My PCAs and I had the two singles, and my roommate lived in the double. This apartment allowed me to live on campus with full-time PCA care, and provided another tool for independence.
Activism at Grinnell
Grinnell provided me the opportunity to explore my passion for activism. My time at Grinnell was not all sunshine and rainbows. In fact, there were several obstacles to my participation in and out of the classroom. Because of these obstacles, I had the opportunity to sharpen my activism skills that included vocalizing my needs as a student with a disability, writing letters, and meeting with staff and faculty concerning issues of disability in an academic setting. I also served on committees such as the Diversity and Inclusion Council and the Disability and Accessibility Task Force. I am grateful for opportunities such as these, because I believe that they taught me how to communicate, work effectively with others, and take on leadership roles.
My eight-week internship at the World Institute On Disability (WID) in Berkeley, California during the summer of 2013 was powerful, challenging, and rewarding. Throughout my educational career I had to prove that I could learn in a typical environment. During my time at WID I demonstrated that people with severe disabilities could also work in a professional environment. One of the missions of WID is to prove that people with disabilities can and should work in an inclusive environment along side their able-bodied peers. I could not help seeing the symbolism between my personal educational goal and WID’s mission to employ people with disabilities.
While I completed research projects for WID, my internship offered me so much. For example, I expected to shadow staff members, be mentored by my advisor, and be given tasks to help with staff projects. In reality, I was assigned my own project, met with my supervisor once or twice a week, and was required to learn how to balance two major research projects. Although my supervisor was more than willing to answer any questions and provide feedback on my work, he took a hands-off approach. As a result, in order to reach my full potential at WID, I had to acquire skills to work and think independently. Because the staff at WID had high expectations for me, I rose to meet them and in the process I developed a sense of self-confidence in my own abilities.
During the summer of my third year, I complete a Mentored Advance Project (MAP). Preparing for my MAP provided me with my first experience in coordinating work accommodations, attendant support, and working fulltime. I would highly recommend completing a MAP for any student at Grinnell. My MAP not only provided me with real world experience, but also gave me the opportunity to work closely with a professor on an advance project. Due to my two internships and my education at Grinnell, I have chosen to pursue a doctorate in sociology.