Jaggar DeMarco: Support for disabled students can’t stop at classroom walls

Many of my peers chose where to apply to college based on athletics or Greek life. But I and the nearly 750 other students who receive some form of assistance from GW’s Disability Support Services had some other concerns to factor in.

Now, as a sophomore with a physical disability, I enjoy my freedom. I’m happy that college has provided me with an opportunity to live on my own for the first time. But the University can make clear improvements to help disabled students outside the classroom – and if it takes the right steps, it can be a leader in higher education on the issue.

GW’s disability office already has strong services for students in need of academic support, helping them with writing, taking tests, time management and adaptive technology. But we all know that being a student isn’t limited to homework and exams.

When it comes to issues that disabled students face outside of their academics, GW has serious work to do.

The University needs to help better integrate new students with disabilities into the city, and connect them with tools that help them succeed on a day-to-day basis.

For example, since I’m not physically capable of carrying out daily responsibilities like grocery shopping by myself, I’ve had to find outside aides to assist me. I had to figure out on my own how to tackle this essential task. If students aren’t lucky enough to find strong support services outside of GW like I did, it could seriously harm their chances of succeeding in school and even graduating.

And the District has a reduced fare program called Metro Access for disabled people who need to use public transportation. The Metro is a staple of D.C. living, but finding this program was, again, something I had had no help in discovering. The disability office didn’t make this service visible like it should have.

While GW has recently expanded support for other populations who need a hand adjusting to college life – like transfer and first-generation students – students with disabilities are also looking for help getting through these formative years.

There aren’t many schools on the East Coast that have acceptable support systems for students with disabilities, leaving room for GW to take the lead. Even universities like Temple and Gallaudet, which are known for offering stellar disability programs, have not yet struck the right balance between academic and personal support services.

Temple, like GW, offers academic support and scholarships for many physically disabled students, but fails to connect students with personal attendants, who are essential in integrating students into college life.

These schools are known for their support services – but they only go halfway.

It’s a good step that students with physical disabilities are dispersed among different GW residence halls, instead of at other schools like University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where students who need personal assistance are all encouraged to live on the same floor of the same building.

This does nothing to encourage independence, and it isn’t a model GW should emulate.

Now is the time in my life when I need to ensure that I have the necessary life skills to thrive in the professional world. At the end of the day, I know I’ll do fine in my classes. But my daily stresses expand far outside of my full course load. Though GW’s disability office fulfills its most basic responsibilities, their major duty should be to help me ensure that my strong GPA and diploma from a top school don’t go to waste.

The writer is a sophomore majoring in political communication.

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