Advocating for Your Rights as a College Student
“Advocate!” “Speak up!” “Fight for your education!” Those were the words that flooded my mind as my first semester of college approached. In the years leading up to my high school graduation, my family members, teacher of students with visual impairments (TVI), orientation and mobility instructors, and mentors stressed the importance of advocacy to me. They encouraged me to be my best advocate. After all, no one would advocate for me better than I would.
Choosing a college
I took these ideas with me as I decided on a college. I began by examining each school’s disability services office and speaking with different offices in order to find which school offered the best services while also meeting my academic and social needs and desires. When I found one that met my needs, I spoke further with their office and explained my disability to them, and showed them the tools and technology I used. They let me know what housing, academic, and other accommodations I qualified for, and I did my part to communicate my accommodations to my professors when the time came.
I began by sending my professors an email introducing myself and briefly discussing my disability and the technology I utilize. I then asked them if we could meet in person to further discuss everything. I did this so that they would have the opportunity to ask questions and ensure that their course was accessible. This gave me the chance to make sure that they were appropriately communicating with disability services to resolve any situations that would be accessible. This method normally worked for me. Professors were able to learn how I learned, ask any questions they had before the start of the semester, and get to know me as a person. This form of advocating for myself was easy. It was rewarding and led me to have positive relationships with my professors. They learned how to teach someone who was blind, and through our conversations, they often learned what came with blindness in general. They became comfortable asking questions and became interested in learning more about what barriers individuals in the blind and low-vision community may face and how they could assist.
Life is not all perfect though and neither are people. I had my fair share of professors unwilling to follow through with my accommodations. I had professors outwardly question my ability to succeed. Some made ableist comments, and some refused to communicate when I emailed them about my rights to an education. During those difficult situations, I always remembered what I was taught in past years. I needed to continue to advocate, speak up, and fight for my education; when I did that, professors eventually complied. There were times I involved disability services and the added support was helpful. It was a reminder to those professors that they did not have a choice in whether or not they should follow my accommodations. It was law, and they needed to abide by the law.
My journey with advocacy went beyond the classroom. In my second year of college, I became frustrated with the fact that in every course I took, when the topic of diversity or marginalized groups came up, the disability community was always excluded from the conversation. People with disabilities are the most diverse group of people. Disability does not spare any race, gender, sexual orientation, or social class, and yet this group was not being recognized in classroom conversations. I decided to request a meeting with the disability services coordinator on campus so that I could make her aware of my experiences. I explained to her what I was experiencing, and we agreed that in order to have a truly inclusive campus, disability needed to be talked about. I suggested starting a club on campus about disability, and she agreed to be the faculty advisor for the club. We recruited students and had elections. I was elected president by fellow students and once we had a board, we began hosting events.
We invited faculty, staff, and students with and without disabilities to these events. We dug deep into disability-related issues and made it clear that people were welcome to ask any questions they had about disability. In no time, in nearly every lecture I attended, disability was included when discussing diversity or marginalized groups. There was a campus forum about diversity, equity, and inclusion so that the college could work towards a more equitable environment, and I was invited to represent students with disabilities. Starting this campus organization was done through advocacy. It came to fruition because a group of students had a mission to advocate and make change where there was injustice.
Advocating for your rights as a college student is not always easy. It takes time, effort, and a whole lot of persistence, but with the right tools, support system, and a voice that isn’t afraid to speak up for what is right, you will become your best advocate. As you enter college, remember to advocate, speak up, and always fight for your education.
The APH ConnectCenter is pleased to introduce our College Conversations webinar series, 90-minute forums geared towards curious high school students, their family supports, teachers of students with visual impairments, and rehabilitation practitioners. A panel of blind and low-vision young adults from across the United States will share first-hand accounts and advice on the initial steps of researching and applying for college.