College Education for Disabled Adults

by Shirley Lopez

Legislation for disabled students is a lifeline of hope for older adults who find that they no longer can continue in their present profession because of a disability or impairment and want to return to college.

It is so easy to just sit back and collect disability checks after being involved in a isabling accident. After all, no one really wants to hire a person that is disabled for a position when they can hire an individual who is capable of doing the work without aid. This hard reality makes it hard if not impossible for people who once had a good profession and lost their ability to continue due to an illness or accident return to work. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act helps the disabled adult student to learn new skills with hard work and endurance if they need to go back to school.

Some years ago, after my accident leaving me legally blind, I knew I no longer could keep my profession as an accountant. This fact did not deter me from wanting to be a productive individual. But after much research and many inquiries, I discovered that entering college at my age seemed impossible, especially with my disability. Learning this did not stop me; it only made me more determined to return to college. We had in our small community at that time one college with a great English writing program. I had always wanted to write a book about my family, and was also interested in writing articles for the magazine industry. I thought that with the right education I would be able to break into the writing field and make a good income.

I found that I was very badly mistaken. Instead of all doors being open there were no doors open. At first, everybody patronized me, gave me their sympathy, and even laughed because of my desire to return to school. I did not give up nor did I let the disappointments keep me from trying to get entry. At last the head of the enrollment department gave in and told me that, if I could pass the SAT tests with at least a C to C+ that I may enter college and take two classes at a time. Remember back at that time the Americans with Disabilities Act was just becoming law and no set regulations concerning college for the disabled existed. My only resource at the time was the my state Commission for the Blind. I used whatever information they had and also asked administrators from the college to find out what it took to be admitted.

My first step was to attend the school for the blind and learn how to read and write in Braille. The next step was to go to Pilot Dog in Columbus, Ohio and work with a very well trained guide dog. I had graduated with very good grades from Ohio State when I was younger, but now too many years had passed and too much had happened to me along with aging, so Hope College was not about to give up an opening to someone who probably would get frustrated and quit after the first term. My job was to prove that I had the capability of attending and getting high grades. My next job was to assure the head of enrollment that I would not be a person expecting everyone to give in to my demands. To myself I needed to prove that I had not taken on more than I could handle.

After taking refresher courses at a local community college, I then applied for my SAT tests. The Commission for the Blind located in Kalamazoo, Michigan had a school for blind children that helped them take their SAT tests in able to help them attend college. I stayed one week at the center and I went daily over to the computer science room at the school for the blind. This was a very trying week and the months to come seemed very hard as well. Testing now over, my husband picked me up and I went home. I would have been a terrible wreck if my husband had not been by my side and would never have gotten through the process. He encouraged me to keep trying and assured me that it was not the end of the world if I did not pass the tests.

The next day the sun always shines brighter and things always seem better. When I returned I got a notice to report to the admissions office. This made me anxious, as there was no information about my test results. I went in the next day and waited patiently in the lobby until the head director of admissions became available. The director stood up and congratulated me, and I could not believe what I was hearing. I asked him to repeat what he had just said. It seems that I scored the fifth highest in the whole state! The state of Michigan agreed to give me some grant money along with a scholarship that made my admission much easier, as the tuition was $20,000 for my first year. However, I still needed $10,000 to cover the rest of the cost of my education.

It was in the summer so I knew that I only had a few months to obtain the rest of the much-needed money. That evening I had made some microwave popcorn by Orville Redenbacher, and I had used a magnifier to read the box. I was surprised to see that on the box it read plainly that the company had a special fund for older people who wanted to return to college. The directions told how to apply, so I did. Afterwards I started checking other boxes and products, and began calling local businesses in the area to see if they offered any scholarships. I applied to Kellogg’s, Heinz, Lifesavers, WalMart Foundation, Rogers Department Store and a few others that offered programs. In this way I found that I was able to raise more than the $10,000, so I did not have to borrow money leaving me with a large debt. My college tuition funded by grants from a variety of places eased my mind about finances. Each place offered so much money per year that I found I had raised enough money to pay for all four years of college!

Since I had raised enough money for college my financial worries were over, but faced with actually returning with all those young people and the routine of studying, homework, and socializing, I felt a little panic-stricken. But when the first day of school arrived I was ready. I had my books, calculator, magnifiers, and guide dog Magnum. With the help of the local bus service, away I went. When I graduated from Hope College in 1997, my career was ready to get off the ground!

Shirley Lopez was 50 years old when she returned to college. She is now 60 years old and recently celebrated a ten year reunion. Shirley is also an ordained minister, a proficient writer, and strives to help others who are blind by accident. Other articles by Shirley Lopez: Legally Blind: How to Overcome and Life a Full Life and Easy Exercises to Relieve Stress.

Help for Adult Students with Disabilities

    • Be knowledgeable about legislation that advocates and protects the rights of students with disabilities (The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act.) These laws require schools to have accommodations at no cost to the disabled. Some examples: giving the disabled extra time to complete tests, test proctoring, and providing course or degree program modifications, substitutions, or waivers of requirements on an individual case basis.
    • Many colleges and universities have on campus programs for the disabled to help them complete their curriculum. Students should call schools and and ask if these programs are offered, or check reference guides like The Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities by the Princeton Review.
    • Visit your nearest state Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. Vocational rehabilitation agencies offer many services for the disabled (testing, tuition assistance, and vocational assessment). Some states offer a rehabilitation agency assisting individuals with visual impairments or blindness.

Financial Aid for Disabled Students

Creating Options: A Resource on Financial Aid for Students with Disabilities.
PDF file (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader for viewing.) Provides information about federal financial aid programs, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, and organizations that offer disability-related grants and scholarships. Also available from Heath, Postsecondary Education for Adults with Intellectual Disabilites.

Financial Aid for the Disabled & Their Families, 2006-2008.
by Gail Ann Schlachter, R. and David Weber. Details more than 1, 100 awards, grants, scholarships, fellowships, loans, and internships especially for the disabled. Includes developmental disabilities, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, multiple disabilities, and visual impairments. References state offices and agencies for the disabled as well as 75 additional directories for help finding financial aid.

next-8688850See also Help On Campus for Adults with Reading Disabilities and Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes.