By Vita Gagne
Our son, Stefan, is now in his senior year at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD, and will graduate in December 1998. Academically, Stefan has always been a good candidate for college, but we wondered about the logistics of him living on a large college campus. His experiences have been all we could have hoped for him and I would like to share them with you.
All of the items mentioned here are usual services for disabled students at the University of Maryland, not some they just thought up for Stefan. We had been told by a non-disabled friend that this school made a concerted effort to meet the varying and often complex needs of its students and that has certainly been true in Stefan's case. I'm convinced that any DD, from the smallest to the tallest, from the most mobile to the least mobile, could fare well here.
During the second semester of Stefan's junior year of high school, we visited with the Director of Disabled Student Services (DSS) at the University of Maryland -- this university was Stefan's first choice because of its computer science program and, fortunately, it is also our state school. We already knew the campus since Stefan's sister, Jenny, was a student there, but we were unfamiliar with any services that would be available for Stefan. After explaining the various academic services available for disabled students, DSS put us in touch with the directors of Resident Life and Residential Facilities who then took us on a tour of the various rooming situations that they used for disabled students. After the tour, we knew we had a winner!
At the University of Maryland, independent disabled students like Stefan usually live in suites, which consist of a living room, several bedrooms, and a shared hall bathroom. Additionally, one of the bedrooms in each suite has its own bathroom, complete with a roll-in shower -- this bedroom is reserved for disabled students, although non-disabled students might be assigned to this room if no disabled student needs it. In some suites, this room is a double-sized room and in others, it is a single-sized room. Because Stefan would be using a Rascal scooter to get around the huge campus and would be storing it in his room, he was given one of the double-sized rooms. His three non-disabled suite mates share the hall bathroom, two in a double room and the other in a single. Stefan has used this same dorm room for all four years of college, which has been a real bonus.
The school provided Stefan with a bed, a desk and chair, two bookcases, and instead of the usual 5-drawer chest, he received two 3-drawer chests to which they had added drawer pulls at our request. The bookcases rest on the floor instead of one being on the desk and provide lots of additional Stefan-height storage. Stefan's small refrigerator rests on one of the 3-drawer chests, while the other chest is in his bathroom (which is really big!). Since Stefan's computer is on the school's desk, he uses one of his lower tables from home as a bedside table and as a work table. The school moved Stefan's phone line to make it more convenient and also added a data line for his computer.
Even though the school was more than willing to make adaptations and/or physical changes for Stefan, we chose to do some of them ourselves. For instance, some of the light switches in the suite were a bit too high, and although the school was willing to lower these switches, we felt it was unnecessary. Instead, Stefan's dad drilled a hole in each switch and added a 10" dowel attached with fishing line. His dad drilled holes in the wall and put up an appropriate-height bulletin board. We also added a dowel to the wand on the miniblind on Stefan's window so he can control the light and a set of low coat hooks in one of his closets. All of these changes have stayed in place for all four years.
Stefan's private bathroom alone is worth gold! The roll-in shower has plenty of room for a bath seat, as well as a 3-tiered wire cart which stores all of the necessary soap, shampoo, reaching gadgets, etc. There are grab bars all around this shower stall as well. The water controls were lowered to suit Stefan and since a hand-held shower was already in place, only the shower head cradle had to be moved. The sink, unfortunately, could not be lowered due to the plumbing and, worse, it was a higher-than-usual sink since it was wheelchair accessible. His dad made a two-step platform stepstool (plenty of roaming room) which has worked out just fine. Since the sink had no vanity top, Stefan also uses two other 3-tiered wire carts, one on each side of the sink, to hold his toiletries, shaver, hair dryer, etc. The school also added toilet arm rails to the toilet in this bathroom since the ones on the wall were too far away. These setups work well for Stefan, just as they do at home, and because the bathroom is his alone, nothing gets moved around unless he chooses to do it. We also felt that the ceramic tile in the bathroom was the equivalent of banana peels, so the school put down indoor/outdoor carpeting in that room.
On the academic front, only a few changes were made in Stefan's classrooms. Due to spinal fusions, Stefan had a difficult time sitting comfortably in the regular integrated desk/chairs in the classrooms, so each semester the Physical Plant staff places a table, chair, and a footrest (chained to the chair, which is sort of funny, but has turned out to be helpful) in each of Stefan's classrooms. They made the footrests using one of Stefan's own as a model and we had to specifically tell them the height of the table and chair. They were willing to provide low tables and short chairs, but Stefan is used to regular-sized stuff and also felt that low equipment might make it more difficult to see.
In his Physics lab, instead of the usual high lab table, the school provided him with a regular height table for him and his lab partner. This physical arrangement for lab courses is standard for other disabled students in wheelchairs as well. The school provides a lab assistant for any disabled student who needs one, but the Physics professor felt that Stefan would do fine with just a lab partner and it did work out very well.
The Disabled Students Services (DSS) office has a special test room where disabled students can use a computer to word-process essay tests. Arrangements have to be made ahead of time using a form that the student gives his/her teacher. DSS provides the proctoring for the test. Stefan has used this service many times and especially likes it during exam time when he can schedule an 8:00a.m. exam for 10:00a.m. instead!
All classroom and administration buildings at the University of Maryland are accessible with both push-button outer doors and elevators. Stefan has a dowel on a string on his scooter to push these buttons, but most often he just rolls up to them and pushes them with his hand. Stefan found one spot on campus that could use an automatic door and when he mentioned it to the Director of the Physical Plant, they put it in within a few weeks. Overall, the staff here has been very responsive.
For those not as physically independent, DSS helps to arrange for daily helpers to come in and help with any self-care needs. We think this is a wonderful idea since the day might come when Stefan might be in a post-op situation where he could need a bit of help for awhile and wouldn't have to postpone any of his education because of it. They have students at UMD who use this service everyday. They also have some students who come to campus with an attendant. Those students and their attendants live in a special set of apartments on campus which can also be adapted to suit the needs of the disabled student.
Stefan uses a Rascal scooter on campus, as mentioned before. So far this thing has been just great, but it is important to get the name of several repair people in the area of your child's college. Stefan uses a fanny pack as a satchel and it holds his wallet, his cellular phone (for emergencies), and the controller for his suite and room doors. The school put sensors on both the suite door and room door; this controller opens the suite door automatically and unlocks the room door so it can be pushed open. This is especially helpful since it avoids having to get on and off the scooter to deal with the doors.
The school provides paratransit vans with lifts for any disabled student who needs that service. Stefan doesn't use the paratransit system since even though the campus is huge, the scooter gets him there faster than most students can walk. He also leaves his classes 5 minutes early to avoid the people traffic that changing classes brings. If Stefan's scooter should break down -- horror of horrors -- he can call and get the paratransit van to take him to his classes until the scooter gets fixed. Stefan can also call the paratransit van for a ride after class hours when he's out at night. They run until 4:00 a.m. on an "on call" basis, even on weekends. Stefan's cellular phone comes in handy all over campus since he can't reach most pay phones, but also if his scooter should break down on campus or for any emergency, having the cell phone would be a godsend.
In the dining hall, all of the food stations are above Stefan's reach and eye level. When he shows up, however, a staff member comes to him and goes with him through the various food areas, carrying his tray and reaching things for him. Once he finishes eating, he just leaves his tray on the table and the staff cleans up after him. (Not exactly what these kids get at home, huh?!) If no staff member comes to him, Stefan approaches one himself, but now that they are used to seeing him at certain times, they keep a lookout for him. The library and university bookstore staff have also been very responsive and are more than willing to do whatever reaching Stefan cannot do himself.
Needless to say, like any young person, Stefan LOVES living away from home and being on his own. Stefan's experiences over the past several years have been so positive that we are convinced that any DD could do well on this campus or one just like it -- from the tallest to the smallest, from the most mobile to the least mobile, campus living is a VERY do-able thing!