When teens with disabilities begin to consider going off to college, their parents are often quite concerned about how their child will function in a college environment, which usually requires more independence than is typical at most high schools. It is important for these parents to understand that their son or daughter is now a young adult who will have to learn to fend for himself more than when he was living at home or attending high school.
Just because someone has a disability does not mean he has to be treated as a child or considered incompetent all of his life. It is best if these young people become advocates for themselves. Though it may be hard, parents give their children a gift when they let their children make mistakes; it is through mistakes that children learn. It is part of the growth process.
Here are some tips for parents of college-bound young adults with disabilities:
- While your child is in high school let him be his own advocate at school- to assert his rights with teachers, the administration and student organizations, while you can be there to support him behind the scenes. Help your child to define the issue clearly, to practice stating the request with you, to rehearse responses to possible objections or obstacles, and to conclude the meeting with an understanding of the next steps.
- Once your child has interacted with a particular individual, office or group, discuss the results. Did he get the results that he wanted? Why or why not? What was the particular difficulty? Was it communicating the need, finding the time to communicate the need, lack of empathy, lack of knowledge of his rights by your child or by the personnel they were interacting with? Focus on one particular area where he could have been a stronger advocate for himself and help him to be more prepared to address that the next time. By doing this while in high school, your child will be more experienced when he goes to college.
- Brainstorm with your child what accommodations he will need in college. Have him practice discussing these needs, perhaps by role-playing what he would say to a college officer, professor or fellow student.
- If possible, visit the campus of a college your child is considering attending. If your child is in a wheelchair and you get to the campus and elevators are hard to find, that probably is not the campus for your child. Keep your eyes wide open. When I visited college campuses, my parents were able to pick up on things that I did not notice, like how close the nearest pharmacy or grocery store was or how late the library stayed open. Look into how accessible to people with disabilities are the neighborhoods surrounding the campus. While you can point out your observations and discuss the issues, it is important to understand that the selection of a college is your child’s choice and the college experience will be his own.
- Recommend that your child seriously evaluate the college’s brochures and their website. Are there photos of people with disabilities included in those marketing devices? Are there clubs or campus activities during the academic year that focus on people with disabilities or on certain disabilities?
- Make sure your son or daughter understands that college is not just about academics. It is also about independence and personal growth. Encourage your child to join a club and to get a job. My favorite memories of college are not of being in class, but the difference I made in getting involved in my community.
Remember that the road towards independence is a long and gradual one that began when your child was in elementary school or even before. For all students, both those with and without disabilities, their college experience moves them further along the path toward independent functioning and decision making. Know also that for many, even most, teens, their parents still play an important role as a source of support, encouragement, guidance, and advice. Maintain your connection with your college student, keep an observer’s stance so that you can judge how they are managing on their own, and offer assistance when necessary.
by Gabriela McCall Delgado Director, We Connect Now Dedicated to uniting college students with disabilities in access to higher education and employment issues.
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