WASHINGTON – Without his dark glasses and the cane,nobody would imagine that Charles Kearney,42,is blind. Walking up the Metro station stairs toward a Catholic University of America library,his skilled maneuvers keep him from going the wrong direction or bumping into people.
Kearney lost his sight in 1992,in a robbery attempt. His attackers threw battery acid on his face,sealing his eyes forever.
As a business management undergraduate at CUA,Kearney lives a normal college life,supported by his university's disability support center and the student body. But the process of getting into college wasn't as gratifying as his current situation is.
About 1.1 million college undergraduates have a disability,according to projections based on Census data by H. Stephen Kaye,of the Disability Statistics Center at the University of California,San Francisco. He said they make up 8.3 percent of students.
Federal law requires colleges to provide accommodations and support to students with learning and physical disabilities. For a student with a disability,getting into college can be a wonderful experience or a complete disaster. The later may occur because of lack of information or self-assurance.
Kearney,who would like to get into the music production business,went first to the University of the District of Columbia,but transferred to CUA in the summer of 2000. He said he had disagreements with UDC about what he needed.
“I can't say that they were wrong in how they were dealing with the students who are blind,because some loved it,but it didn't agree with me because I wanted to be more independent,and it seemed like they wanted me to be more dependent,” Kearney said.
For example,his class schedule didn't allow him to use special computer rooms when they were open,and UDC wanted him to use a tutor he said he didn't need. He said the university wanted to apply the same system to all the blind students,regardless of whether they needed the same accommodations.
CUA provided Kearney with what he needed,he said,including some technology already in place – such as a software program – and some still to be acquired.
The path to college was different for Kearney,an adult who worked a variety of jobs before the attack,than for most disabled students,who attend college immediately after high school.
When the transition goes badly,as it often does,many of these students cease pursuing their dreams,according to experts in the field – although they admit there are no statistics.
Carmen Rioux,director of the Learning Into Future Environments Program at George Mason University,in Fairfax,Va.,said success takes planning and coordination.
“If the whole school team,the teachers and the students don't really tackle this as a unit,and be very mindful of all the different arenas that need to be examined,and planned for and the linkages made for,then things will fall apart,” Rioux said.
“For a long time we didn't afford [disabled] kids an adequate access to the general [high school] curriculum. They kept falling further behind,which means they certainly weren't prepared to access college,” Rioux said.
As a result,she said,a stigma developed about students with disabilities not being smart enough or capable of attending college.
“On the other hand,” Rioux said,“we had colleges not really wanting to reach out to our students … because,let's face it,it costs colleges more.”
Betsy Valnes,25,has a traumatic brain injury as a result of a brain tumor. She is the transition planning coordinator of the Transition Services Liaison Project in South Dakota,and she agreed that handicapped students are often discriminated against.
“They are made to think that is very foreign for them,and they've been told that that should not be what they would like to do,” Valnes said about disabled students planning to attend college.
For Deena Lambert,22,a 2003 electrical engineering graduate of the University of Arkansas,who was born blind,the biggest help was having mentors who had a disability. She contacted organizations related to the blind,and looked for blind engineers so she could learn from their experience.
“I knew I needed certain things,and because of the long time it takes to get the books in large print or in Braille,I needed to get into the classes as soon as possible,so I started to look at the college I wanted in my junior year in high school,” Lambert said.
Federal law requires an individualized education plan for every disabled student from elementary grades through high school. But no such plans are required for college students. Successful students often replicate the process themselves.
What worked for Lambert was to meet her professors ahead of time.
“When I first started college,I depended a lot on the disability support services office,but at the end I was doing almost all my accommodations,” Lambert said.
Because many elements of her classes were created on computers,she asked teachers to give her electronic copies of documents that she would later hear thanks to special reading software.
“The responsibility relies on two people,the professor to be open minded … and sometimes they assume things that may not be true. The other person is the student with the disability,” Lambert said.
“There are a lot of misconceptions … for every student that goes to college,it is a fresh start,so just like everyone else,it's creating their own identity in college,” said Lambert,who is job hunting in her hometown,Little Rock,Ark.
Valnes' office last year surveyed 549 disabled students at 10 colleges in South Dakota. Just over half first received special education accomodations in college.
According to the survey,fear of reprisal from their colleges or cancellation of accomodations kept many from commenting about whether they were satisfied with the disability services they received.
Rioux said the total number of students with disabilities will never be known because some don't want to register for help for fear of a stigma.
She said that those students should be “better educated as to why you may or may not want to disclose,what the ramifications are of disclosing or not disclosing,how you got about accessing this disability support on a college campus.”
Rioux said students and parents must ask for necessary services instead of waiting for them to be offered as they prepare for the transition from high school to college.
“Where we fall down is … we don't do a good job informing people what their options are,and that's tragic because we spend oodles of money under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,and to see it all go down the tube because of a gap in the road,it's very sad,” Rioux said.
“The saddest thing is that there is a lot of kids who absolutely should consider college as an option,and who with the right accommodation could access college,but don't ever even know,” Rioux said.