Starting college when you have a disability

Erin Hawley headshot wearing glasses

Erin Hawley

We’re so excited to introduce Erin Hawley, who is going to share what it’s like to be a college student with a disability.

Hello readers! My name is Erin Hawley, and I’m a Digital Content Producer here at Easter Seals. I manage the microsite for Easter Seals Thrive, which promotes empowerment for young women with disabilities.

Disability advocacy is my passion, and that makes my job incredibly rewarding. I’m so passionate about disabilities that I even have my very own: Muscular Dystrophy! I am not exactly a young woman anymore, but I still definitely relate to Thrive’s young audience. I don’t find Muscular Dystrophy that exciting or interesting on its own, but having M.D. sure has placed me into some interesting predicaments – it’s forced me to face discrimination myself and deal with people who think it’s a miracle that I even wake up in the morning.

My post today is about what it was like to be a college student with a disability. There is so much I want to tell you — I’ve started and erased this blog dozens of times and finally decided there is no clear way to begin. I want to tell you about my years living on campus, and all the ableism I faced there. I want to tell you how my first week of college will forever be etched into my brain as the day the

Twin Towers fell only miles away, and how that event changed everything – for everyone. And I want to tell you about the friendships I built, the ones that fell apart, and the heart that was broken by cute boys next door.

I am the queen of organization, but my experiences during my college years are impossible to organize in one blog post. So much happened that was beyond my personal story – so many events and relationships that were steeped in institutionalized ableism and barriers. I’ll limit myself here to four examples:

  1. Professors who purposely made me feel uncomfortable in front of my classmates
  2. A professor who told me it was a “shame” I was trapped in “that body”
  3. The biology department director who refused to accept my need for assistance in labs and did not give me the extra time required to finish exams
  4. Inaccessible buses that shuttled students to Broadway shows, while I stayed in my dorm wishing I was in the city rather than staring at my computer screen

Looking back on this time, I get angry at all the things I let slide because I didn’t know my legal rights, or because years of internalized ableism took away any confidence I would have had to speak up for myself.

Ultimately, things worked out, but I wish that back when I was in college I’d known how to advocate for myself. I wish I’d had the knowledge I have now, and I wish back then I’d had the disabled community I have now, too.

We didn’t have Twitter yet when I was in college, but now I use it to share knowledge and support with a network of other individuals who have disabilities. So I am really excited about hosting a Twitter chat on disability and academia for a live chat this Wednesday, August 26th at 2pm EST.

Our awesome panelists for the live chat are four fantastic women who have either attended college or work in the field of academia and want to share their experiences with you: Whitney Bailey, Jessica Queener, Sara Fair and Andrea Dalzell.

Young adults with disabilities need to know they’re not alone and that they have rights and options when it comes to their college education. It is so important to know that help is there – we just have to ask for it. Anyone can join in to our Twitter chat and respond to (or ask your own!) questions.

For more information, please visit our Easter Seals Thrive website or Tweet us @ability2thrive using the hashtag #thrivecollege! I hope to see you there.


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