Grinnell College gives students a great deal of freedom to build the college experience they want. Patrick Comparin ’12, Claire Forrest ’13, Jennifer Brooks ’15, and Charlie O’Meara ’17 — Grinnellians with disabilities — offer tips for new students on how to get the most out of your years here.
You know what you want and need out of your college experience better than anyone, from day-to-day concerns to experiences like study abroad.
Patrick remembers a high school teacher asking his class what the students looked for in a college. His classmates talked about majors and classes, what the professors were like, and the social life. “What I found stunning,” he says, “was that all of these concerns weren't of uppermost importance to me.” Those were obviously important, he says, but he also looked for accessible doors, buttons in plain view, smooth sidewalks, and how the student community and administration responded to disability concerns.
“In addition to an institution with strong academics and accessibility, athletics was an important part of my college decision,” says Claire. “I knew it was going to be a challenge to find a college that fit my three criterions: academic rigor, accessibility, and athletics.”
Claire’s Grinnell experiences included four years on the Varsity Women's Swim Team and studying abroad at Grinnell-in-London. She also wanted a roommate. “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,” she says. She was delighted to find that, unlike other colleges she looked at, Grinnell had accessible doubles.
Charlie suggests you "find out what your resources are; just because you didn't have something in high school ... doesn't mean you won't have it here." She goes on to state that "odds are that if you ask for something you need, the disability resources office can make it happen or work out a suitable alternative. However, the staff are not mind readers so you need to speak up and say when something is not meeting your needs."
Visit Campus Ahead of Time
Jen's first college road trip proved to her that physical accessibility is not easy to find. "The summer before my junior year," she says, "I visited ten schools and only three were reasonably accessible." A campus visit will also give you a feel for the culture. When Jen visited Grinnell, she says, "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."
The students visited campus early to discuss accommodations and get a feel for the campus before classes started. This is a great time to learn your way around and request any adjustments you’ll need.
Grinnell has two specially equipped accessible residence halls. In addition, the campus includes rooms designed for those with hearing or vision disabilities. If you need residential accommodations, visiting ahead of time gives staff the chance to make any modifications you might need.
Enjoy Your Independence
Many students enjoy Grinnell’s small campus, nearby grocer, and restaurants and shops in the downtown district just off the campus.
After being dependent on friends and family to get around in his sprawling home city, Patrick loved the independence of getting to shops and restaurants in his chair. He says, “I don't have to ask anyone to drive me anywhere … . I can just do what I feel like doing, at any time, and THAT feeling of independence is one that never gets old.”
On campus was just as nice. Coming from Minneapolis, Minn., Claire says, “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.”
“Grinnell's small, compact campus was an advantage. I could navigate the campus on my own,” she adds. She enjoyed the independence of accessible rooms and laundry facilities, as well.
Think About Studying Abroad
Claire wanted to study abroad, but was afraid it might not be possible. She was shocked at the immediate response from off-campus study staff. “‘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,” she says.
“I'd advise you to start researching programs as soon as possible. If there is a place you want to go, or something you want to study, you probably can find a program. 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.”
“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,” she says.
She also suggests having a sponsor, someone you can turn to for advice and help. A Grinnell professor teaching in London served as hers. “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.”
Work with the coordinator for disability resources, who can collaborate with your study abroad programs to help ensure you have access to accommodations while abroad.
Arrange Academic Accommodations
Patrick, Claire, and Charlie all recommend arranging any academic accommodations you might need.
“I definitely recommend getting classroom accommodations if you qualify or have used them in the past,” says Claire. “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.”
Patrick recommends talking to staff “as soon as possible if you think you need specific accommodations in order to flourish in your studies.”
Charlie found that after developing the skills, she was her own best advocate. However she does tell other students, "you have to put effort into learning how because one of the most important parts of asking for what you need and being an effective self-advocate is understanding exactly what it is that you actually need." She also recommends that students talk with disability resources about the options available to them. She found that it was "better to have accommodations in place and not need them then to need them and not already have them arranged."
Ask For What You Need
“As a college student, most all of the responsibility falls to you to seek out support when you need it. … professors, faculty, and students are all willing to lend a hand whenever you ask for it,” says Claire.
You will likely find your fellow Grinnellians helping out without being asked—like when students Claire hadn’t met yet helped push her and her scooter across campus to her dorm room when her battery unexpectedly died.
But don’t expect that people will automatically know what you need. “Grinnell professors really get to know you and are responsive to your needs as a student with a disability, both physically and academically,” she adds. However, it is your responsibility to discuss accommodations with your professors at the beginning of each semester, and to tell them when you need accommodations. With that she says “I really appreciate how responsive professors are to making the classroom experience easy and accessible.”
Learn to Advocate for Change
Patrick and Claire are proud of their contributions to positive changes on campus. They’ve helped campus faculty, staff, and students understand the challenges they faced, and they encourage others to do the same.
The ADA provides helpful guidelines, but students have helped Grinnell build a more truly accessible community. Some improvements that have been made due to student suggestions include:
- Changes to door button locations to fit student needs
- A hot meal delivery program during inclement weather for students with mobility disabilities
- A plan to make accessible parking spots work better for those in scooters or larger chairs
“All student-led activities, such as theme parties, movies, concerts, and other groups such as club sports and volunteer organizations, are funded by SGA,” says Patrick. “Because of this, SGA is a key organization of student advocacy and opinion.“ As an SGA senator, Patrick introduced a resolution that any all-campus student events be held in accessible locations. The resolution overwhelmingly passed.
In the self-governance tradition of Grinnell, he says “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.”
“Though I considered Grinnell to already be quite accessible, the people at Grinnell recognized that there was still progress to be made,” says Claire. “I have no doubt that Grinnell will continue to strive toward a completely universal, accessible design.”
Charlie reminds you that "asking for the help you need is not causing a problem or inconvenience, it's being brave and setting the wheels for change in motion. You'll have a unique opportunity to advocate for the types of changes that will allow you and the students who come after you to have the best educational experience possible."
Resources in Rural Iowa
Charlie suggests that you consider the support networks that you will need early. She "recommends doing your homework and figuring out exactly which providers and clinics you will need access to" so that you can arrange your resources before you need them. She also reminds students that while campus resources, such as student health and wellness (SHAW) may not be able to meet all of a student's needs, "they can help to find resources that can." Charlie found that "SHAW is really good at helping students to find appointments for a wide variety of services and for connecting students with resources that aren't widely available in Grinnell."
Succeed or Fail, It’s Up to You
“At college, your success is up to you,” says Patrick. “… your professors will help guide you, especially at a college like Grinnell, he says. “However, the key difference [between high school and college] is that the responsibility falls on your shoulders—your professors will only care about your status in a class if you care.”
“Like any college student,” Claire says, “I work to find the best balance between school, athletics, social life, and sleep.” She adds, “I've gotten pretty good at figuring out what classes I will need accommodations in.”
Accommodations allowed Claire and Patrick to enjoy the equal opportunities enjoyed by all Grinnellians, but in the end, they succeeded because they earned it.
About the Authors
Patrick Comparin ’12, philosophy, uses a full-time power wheelchair and was active in Student Government Association (SGA).
Claire Forrest ’13, English, uses a motorized scooter and manual wheelchair and was a 4-year Varsity Women's Swim Team member who studied abroad at Grinnell-in-London.
Jennifer Brooks ’15, sociology, uses a power wheelchair and has 24/7 personal assistant care and a communication aide. She is a campus advocate who participated in mentored advanced project and internships.
Charlie O’Meara ’17, sociology, has bipolar disorder and is a student staff member, assistive tech lab employee, and vocal mental health advocate.