In August 2007 Michael became a freshman at Grand Valley State University.  It was a good choice; it’s a great University and it is only 40 minutes away from home.  It wasn’t easy making the decision for Michael to attend the University in his first year verses staying home and attending community college.

Encouraging Michael to be independent has always been my goal, but I have to say it was a bit of struggle packing him up and sending him to a dorm.  Once again those fears that wake me up in the middle of the night came back to haunt me.  What am I afraid of?  I’m afraid that Michael will be stranded somewhere in the snow, storms, winds, mud, and no one will be there to help him.  I’m afraid that Michael won’t get the assistance he needs because no one will be there to ask.  I’m afraid that Michael will be left out of events or treated differently because of his disability.

While Michael is with me, I have some control over his environment.  I drive him where he needs to go.  I make sure he is in and out safely.  I know what time to expect him and know when I need to worry and look for him.  I never allow Michael to be left out, ridiculed, or treated differently by anyone.  So how does a parent of a child with a disability get over it?  I don’t believe I will ever be able to fully let go, but I can say that it does get better with time.

Issues You May Face In College
A parent who has raised a child with a disability takes a very active role in their life.  So parents may be in for a big surprise when their child turns 18 and they find they have no legal rights.  In the past I always communicated with the school about Michael’s needs.  We made a plan together and, when needed, made adjustments.  School officials called me when changes were needed and vice versa.  In college, your son or daughter will be responsible for making their own decisions, arrangements, and accommodations.  School officials will not even speak to you without your child’s consent.

We arrived for orientation at the University.  They showed us around the campus and I was happy with the accommodations.  The school is relatively large and while it takes awhile to get across campus, there are ramps and it is accessible.  During orientation I found that Michael’s dorm room was on the second floor of a building with no elevator.  Okay that won’t work.  Even though we were careful with the paperwork, it was overlooked.  The University corrected it right away.  He is now in an accessible first floor dorm room.

Michael has made tons of friends in a short amount of time.  He has made several trips to the mall, movies, out to eat, etc.   Transportation has always been an issue so he had never experienced this freedom.  College students are also very inventive at making his equipment fit in a car and he is one of the group.

Michael has proven that he is capable of taking care of himself.  He called me one afternoon and told me his first day of class was canceled.  When I asked why he explained that he showed up to class and found that it was on the second floor of a building with no elevator.  Once the instructor found out, the entire class was canceled and the room was moved.  Michael took care of the situation and students were happy to have the day off.

We had a terrible winter and Michael really struggled to get around the campus.  He called campus and arranged for transportation from the dorm to the class.  Michael does have an independent streak and refuses to ask others to assist him with food from the cafeteria on those bad winter days when he could not get out.   Sometimes that independent streak can be a detriment and he’s missed a lot of meals.

Update:  2011 – Michael is six classes away from receiving his degree in Philosophy.  It has not always been easy.  We’ve had issues with dorm rooms.  He has stayed in two new dorms (the first student to stay in the room) and they have both been on the second floor.

As a parent of a child with a disability we understand why it is not a wise decision to build accessible rooms on the second floor and wonder why they were not placed on the first floor.  Their answer is there is someone on the floor who will make sure they get down.  It hasn’t worked so far.

Because many students do not know how to cook when they arrive to college, the fire alarm can go off several times.  The elevators will not work during that time and Michael has to crawl down the stairs.  This year power went out in the dorms on a Saturday.  He could not contact anyone for assistance.  After a few hours he called me for help.  I was able to contact security as I was driving to the college and they found him five minutes before I arrived by knocking on all the doors of the second floor.

Needless to say Michael and mom were not happy.  But good can come out of bad moments and security has been instructed to check on students in wheelchairs if these types of situations happen in the future.

We might not always benefit being in our situation, but we can pave the way for those future students with disabilities as past parents have done for us.