Accessing The College Experience

Photo of a green highway-type sign with white letters reading "College Just Ahead", in front of a partly cloudy sky background

It’s just about college starting time, so I am sharing two very different videos that have me thinking back to when I started college.

The first is an advice video by Robyn Lambird, for disabled people getting ready to go to college:

This is all excellent advice. I'm not even sure I would add anything to Robyn's five points. Anything more would be either general life advice, or the thick weeds of self-advocacy strategy and tactics ... which would really require several more videos. This is a great start for anyone with a disability getting ready to go to college.

The next video I think calls for something like a “Privilege Warning,” because I’m going to talk about accessibility of a very elite and exclusive college experience. You’ll either find the video charming or disgusting, probably based on your view of the relative nature of social privilege and top-dollar private colleges.

This is a video about Freshman Trips at Dartmouth College, which is where I graduated. A friend of my mother’s brought her daughter to visit Dartmouth back in the Spring, and I drove over to have lunch with them. Going back to visit Dartmouth always makes me nostalgic. Dartmouth is really good at doing that, and it’s entirely deliberate. It all starts with those Freshman Trips … a variety of hiking, biking, canoeing, and other outdoor activities organized by the Dartmouth Outing Club. The idea is to initiate, (indoctrinate?), incoming Freshmen to the Dartmouth culture, and bond them as a class, while introducing them to the natural beauty of New Hampshire that surrounds Dartmouth.

My connection to Freshman Trips at Dartmouth is complicated. I signed up to go on a beginner-level hike, which seemed at the time like the only physically feasible option for me. As I have written about before though, I got very sick a few weeks before starting Dartmouth, and so acute illness prevented me from going on a trip. So, I missed this pivotal bonding experience, in a way because of my disabilities, in a way not. I would have missed it still, even if it was Measles or Mono or something like that. However, it seems pretty obvious to me now that the trip might have been a disaster anyway. There were no adaptations planned, and I don’t know what they could have done to accommodate me even if I had asked. I do remember that some arrangements were made for me to join in the final evening’s activities at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, so at least some people there knew that being included would be important for me. I don’t recall exactly why I didn’t end up going even to that event, but it was probably health related. As I said, I was dealing with a mix of my underlying disabilities and acute illness nobody could really do anything about. Sometimes, when you’re sick, you’re just plain sick.

Watching this video now, I wonder whether the Freshman Trips at Dartmouth today accommodate students with disabilities. The campus is much more accessible today than it was when I was there in the late ‘80s, so it seems reasonable that there are mechanisms to ensure that the full Freshman Trip experience is accessible to disabled students. But I don’t see any evidence of this in the video. Although Dartmouth is, by some measures, one of the more conservative of the stodgy, elitist Ivy League colleges, the actual, on-campus culture includes a strong interest in social justice. Of course, as we all know, politically progressive cultures don’t always have a clue about disability rights. It's equally possible I would find the current arrangements really impressive, or completely unchanged 31 years later.

I should probably send an email to the Alumni Magazine or something and ask about it. In fact, I am curious now about all sorts of things having to do with disability at Dartmouth. Despite missing out on a few things, my experience as a disabled student at Dartmouth was very positive. As I think I have mentioned in this blog before, at the time, Dartmouth dealt with disability mostly on an ad hoc, accommodative basis. There wasn’t much accessibility and consideration of rights built into the system yet, but the general attitude of the administration and faculty was to be responsive to student’s needs. That fits with the overall culture of Dartmouth. They are very selective about who they admit, but once you’re in, they want you to succeed and will do a lot to see that it happens.

I wonder how much of that has changed, and if it is all for the better. My worry is that there may be more institutionalized supports and recognition of rights, but also more bureaucracy defensiveness surrounding it.

I’m definitely going to try to find out.