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