Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with disabilities on their path towards college with your organization DO-IT?

My name is Kayla Brown and I am a program coordinator for the DO-IT Program at the University of Washington. I first got involved with DO-IT when I was in high school and I participated in the Scholars program. I was born with muscular dystrophy, and as I prepared to move from high school to college I looked for resources in my community that could help me navigate that transition. The DO-IT Scholars program prepares Washington State high school students with disabilities for success in college and careers. Scholars attend Summer Study sessions, held during three consecutive summers at the University of Washington campus. This allows students to experience college life and work on their self advocacy skills. My role as program coordinator allows me to work one-on-one with high school and college students with disabilities. We work on college preparation, finding internships, applying for jobs, and coordinating academic conference experiences. I also reach out to faculty on how to make their classes and curricula more accessible to students with disabilities.

What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college with a learning or physical disability?

It's normal to feel nervous about attending college, but for students with disabilities there are even more things to consider. Remember, people with disabilities can and do attend college. The most important thing is to understand what academic accommodations you will need to be successful in your classes. That is what they are there for. College also has different support services available to you that may not have been available in high school. If you practice your self advocacy skills, then you'll be just fine.

What are some common misconceptions about disabilities and education?

As a person with a disability myself, one misconception I believed was that my accommodations were extra perks that I got because I was disabled. That is simply not true. Accommodations exist to level the playing field for students with disabilities. Never feel guilty. It is your right, and you deserve them.

Should students be up-front with universities about their disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? If so, what are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?

It is entirely up to you whether or not you disclose your disability during the application process.
There are multiple places that disclosing your disability might come up in the application process. The first is within the application itself where you answer basic demographic questions such as race, gender, and disability status. Generally, you do not have to disclose any of this information, but it helps colleges and universities better understand who is applying to their school.

Another place your disability could come up is in your personal statement essay. Essay prompts can vary, but generally you will be asked about adversity you have overcome. Talking about your disability could be a great example. You can talk about how it has challenged you, but also how it has made you into who you are today. When sending an application to a postsecondary institution, you are essentially sending a portrait of yourself -- your grades, coursework, recommendations, personal goals, and abilities. It is worth it to take time to present a full, positive picture of yourself.

As a person with a disability myself, I disclose based on whether I feel it is an important part of my story and in what context. For example, on a job application I might not disclose to an employer until I get an interview. If the job is specifically about working with people with disabilities, I will disclose because I think it is important to show my personal connection to the job. For school applications I almost always disclosed in my personal statement because my disability is a large part of my journey and I want the admissions team to get to know me. For other people with disabilities, there may be different challenges they've had to overcome that were more important to their journey than their disability. It's a personal decision, and there is no right or wrong answer!

If you could give one piece of advice to students with a disability applying to college, what would it be?

My advice to students with a disability who are applying to college is to research the resources each school has to offer to help them decide where to apply. There are many elements to the college experience you may not anticipate, so being able to assess the environment that each college offers is essential. You should also consider the physical location. There are community colleges, which tend to be smaller, and universities which are usually on the bigger side. There are colleges in major metropolitan areas as well as colleges in small towns. There are also environmental factors such as weather, physical accessibility, and local public transportation options to consider. I'd recommend visiting campuses if you can, as this will allow you to experience some of these factors first-hand.

Are there ramps and accessible routes around campus? Visit the disability services for students office and ask any questions you have about accommodations and get to know the staff there. If you can't visit campuses in person, give disability services a call and ask them whatever questions you have about accessibility of the campus and other services and resources they know of for students with disabilities. You want to be on a campus that is welcoming and inclusive.

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with disabilities should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

My previous answer addresses this, but also explore the resources on campus that will meet your other interests. Look at the academic opportunities as well as things like student clubs. Remember that college should be fun, too.

Many colleges have systems in place within their institutions that are not necessarily created with students who have disabilities in mind. How can students and faculty and administrators work to create more supportive spaces and systems for these students?

The reality is that campuses and curricula are often not accessible to people with disabilities. There are many layers to this, and different stakeholders have their own processes and procedures to address accessibility problems. For example, facilities can come perform repairs if there are broken ramps or elevators, or an ADA coordinator can assess compliance and advocate for changing structural barriers. Academic accommodations are through the disability services office. On campus events should always be welcoming to people with disabilities. For more information on how to make events and services accessible, visit the DO-IT website.

Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

You'll get to know the disability services office pretty well. You can go to them with any accomodation issues you face. You can also communicate with your instructors if you are struggling. Having open communication is key.

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

The most common issue my students face is advocating for their accommodations. You don't just ask for your accommodations, you have to negotiate and sometimes fight for them. Each accommodation must be justified and discussed with the staff at the disability resources office. Another issue that comes up is instructors not complying with your approved accommodations. Most of the time, these are just miscommunications that can be fixed by sending an email or setting up a meeting to discuss it. But of course, you can also contact the disability services office about these issues, but having conversations with your instructor is a good practice.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with physical or learning disabilities on a college campus?

If you are dealing with discrimination on campus, you should talk to an advisor or someone in your department. As I said before, you can talk to someone at disability services as well. In terms of dealing with the general stigma you may feel relating to your disability, I would seek out a community that you could join. Are there any disability clubs or groups on campus? Talking to others who have similar experiences have helped me build confidence and make friends.

What are ways students can start to build a long-distance support system if they attend college away from friends or family?

Utilize technology to maintain long-distance support systems. Schedule regular calls with your family and friends, or even a mentor from high school. As you build your new college support system, staying engaged with your loved ones will make your transition from high school to college much smoother.

Kayla Brown

Program Coordinator at DO-IT

Kayla Brown is a program coordinator at DO-IT. She graduated from the University of Washington with a master's in social work. Her passions include community outreach, research, and disability activism. She works one-on-one with students on goal setting, academic planning, and building a support system.