Back to School with a Disability

By: Alex Elegudin

In October 2003, I sustained a C5-C6 spinal cord injury stemming from a car accident caused by deer running onto the roadway. It occurred while some friends and I were on our way from New York back to Pittsburgh where I was a student at Carnegie Mellon University. After the accident, all my future education and career plans had to be put on hold, as I had to figure out how I was going to live as a quadriplegic.

After an extensive stay in the ICU unit of a Pittsburgh hospital and completing my rehab at Mount Sinai, I decided to take on my next major challenge of going back to school.  At the time of my accident, I was studying biomedical engineering.  When it was time to return to school, I decided that pursuing an engineering career would be difficult as a quadriplegic and I turned my career goals to becoming an attorney.  Making this decision was difficult, but based on the fact that I had previously thought about possibly going to law school after finishing undergraduate engineering, combined with the fact that I saw the legal field as being more disability-friendly than engineering, I thought it was the correct decision at the time.  Next, I needed to apply and register for classes at a university somewhere. However, I had no idea how going to school with a disability worked and I wasn’t ever sure it was possible. So, at first I registered for one class at
Brooklyn College for the Fall 2004 semester, just to try it out. On the second day of that semester I registered for five more classes and I never looked back.   I realized on that very first day that attaining my education was not foreclosed by my disability and it was just a matter of me putting in the necessary work to accomplish that goal.

My education in total took about 7 years and I encountered at least 5 different educational entities, universities, state bar administrations, etc., and at each one I had to advocate for the accommodations I needed. Aside from being personally ready to take on the rigors of school, I think the most important thing about returning to school is knowing your rights and what help is available to you.

The ADA provides certain rights and protections to every student with a disability that attends college. Finding out what those rights are is something you must do well before you even enroll or start at a college. What often happens is a student with the disability goes into the college disability services office and says, “I have a disability, please tell me what accommodations I need,” and the response from the disability office usually is, “We are not really sure what you need, but when you find out what you need please come back let us know and we’ll try to accommodate you. Good luck.” I’ve seen this scenario play out many times with students that I helped return to college and it often serves as a major deterrent because students often take this as a sign that they will not have enough support to pursue their education. It’s not that disability service offices don’t want to offer help, they just usually don’t like making recommendations for accommodations and prefer that a student comes in with a specific set of requests. That’s why it is your job to find out exactly what you’re going to be requesting before you ever even enter the disability services office. This allows you to start from a position of strength and empowerment, not one of letdown and confusion.

Although in theory all disability services offices at colleges should offer the same exact services, that’s not how it works in reality. You need to do your research about what specific services are offered by the disability services office at the college you plan to attend and importantly what are the procedures for getting those accommodations. From my experience, colleges with a large population of disabled students tend to have more rigorous procedures and red tape to securing accommodations because they often get inundated with accommodation request; whereas colleges with less disabled students, e.g. private universities or graduate schools, tend to be more forthcoming with accommodations because they can allocate more resources and staff on a per student basis. I encourage you to either reach out to other students with disabilities at the college you plan to attend or call the disability services office directly and ask questions.

Some important service-related questions to ask may be: do you offer notetakers, scribes for exams, private rooms for exams, extended time for exams, transcription services for classrooms, assistive technology (and what kind?), etc. Some campus accessibility-related questions to ask may be are all classrooms in accessible areas, where are the accessible bathrooms, are there ADA automatic doors around campus, and so on. Disability service offices serve students with all forms of disabilities, not just paralysis, and the majority of their work is for other disabilities, i.e. visually impaired, hearing paired, learning disabilities, and thus when you have paralysis it’s especially important to know what you’re going to need. After you have your accommodations squared away you can comfortably turn your focus to your education. Also, it’s important to note that the same accommodations that are available at colleges are available for standardized exams, such as the GRE, LSAT, etc.

Of course, accommodations are not the only things one must deal with when returning back to school with a disability.  There is also the delicate situation of interacting with other students and professors, which will certainly be altered somewhat.  I think the most important thing for handling these new situations is confidence and patience. If you act like you belong and you act like you have earned the right to be there, others will see that and feed off it.  Conversely, some members of the student body or faculty may take a little longer to understand that you’re pursuing your education just like anybody else and that although you may be in a wheelchair your mind is as strong and capable as anybody else’s; some of those people may come up to you and ask you questions (that aren’t always very politically-correct and even may be offensive), for those times patience is the best tactic, to use that opportunity to spread awareness and to teach others, not to strike back or respond angrily.

Now, many years later, after graduating from Brooklyn College and Hofstra Law School, and being admitted to the New York Bar and the Patent Bar, I look back at my journey with pride, sure there were times where I could have, maybe even should have, quit, but I never gave into those temptations and stayed the slow and steady course all the way through.

I encourage everybody to pursue every accommodation they can receive in college because getting your education is hard enough and there is no reason to turn down an accommodation just to show that you are tough or that you are independent; I certainly did.  However, it is important to always keep in the back of your mind that after you complete college and join the workforce the same accommodations will not be available to you.

The Alan T Brown Foundation would like to personally thank Alex for providing this story to our readers.  

We truly admire Alex’s perseverance, accomplishments and strong will. The guidance and advice provided in this article are extremely valued by us and we know it will help so many in similar situations.