Pursuing an Education


We all fantasize about the exciting things that college and university life has to offer; friends, parties, living on campus, and, of course, the classes (the fun ones, at least). But when a spinal cord injury comes into play, all of this changes.

Even if you’re showing up to college in a wheelchair, don’t think for one second that your dream college experience is no longer possible. The social interactions, academic experiences, and everything else that makes college special can still happen, even if you are living with a spinal cord injury.

How to choose your college or university

Choosing the right college for you makes all the difference. Here in the United States, all public universities and colleges are required to follow the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires all aspects of campus to be accessible. Ask friends, family, and online disability sites for college recommendations. Private colleges and universities are exempt from the ADA, meaning they can decide if they want to be accessible or not. Most private colleges do try to be accessible, or at least partially (we recommend doing an on-campus tour to verify). For more information on Finding an Accessible Campus, check out our blog post.

If you want to study abroad, accessibility should definitely be researched. Throughout the rest of the world, you’ll find that some colleges will be accessible, such as in European countries like Sweden, Norway, United Kingdom, and Germany. Australia, Canada, and South Africa also offer accessible schools.

Getting the accommodations that you need

Some of you may not need any accommodations in the classroom, except for maybe an accessible desk. For many quadriplegics, however, several accommodations are required to take part in classes. For example, some people may need a note-taker to accompany them to class (this is usually another student that the university pays to help you). You will want to check with your professors to make sure that it is okay to bring someone to the classroom with you.

Also, if you need a longer time to take timed exams, you’ll have to ask your professor for permission. If there are any other accommodations you may need, it’s important to run all of this by your professor to make sure they’re on the same page as you. Most professors are flexible and understanding, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

Most colleges and universities offer student services specifically for students with disabilities. These disability service centers can help you put in place any and all accommodations you need.

When interacting with your professors, knowing how to ask for accommodations the right way is important. Politeness is one of the most important things to keep in mind. You can always send them an email if that is more comfortable for you than talking to them in-person about your needs. However you end up approaching your professor, you’ll want to do it as soon as classes start.

Living on-campus

Many colleges also offer accessible housing so you can live on-campus and immerse yourself in campus life. Accessible dorms with an accessible stall in the main bathroom can be found at many universities, as well as accessible studios and 1 bedroom apartments. And, if you need caregivers, you can set it up so they come to your dorm morning, night, or whenever you need them. Colleges usually allow live-in aids on-campus, as well. You can even look for help on-campus in the student population. Students can make some of the best PCAs (as long as they’re responsible).

If dorm life isn’t for you, many universities have accessible apartments with a private bathroom, letting you lead a more private life. For your bowel and bladder programs, this added privacy is great. You’ll definitely want to see what your university of choice offers before making your decision to enroll. Accessible housing can make for a great college experience, so make sure that this is an opportunity you can take advantage of.

Finding financial aid

When you decide to make the big decision to go to college, your injury may give you access to more financial aid sources while pursuing your academic dreams. But don’t think that just because you have a spinal cord injury, you’re going to get a full ride.

However, there are plenty of places to search out financial assistance. For starters, you’ll want to meet with a financial aid counselor at your college to discuss all of the options available to you. Some colleges, especially smaller, private universities, will not have as much financial aid available. Taking out loans will likely be something you must do if you decide to go to a private college and do not have a scholarship or family assistance.

Perkins loans are some of the most popular Federal loans that students use. Otherwise, subsidized and unsubsidized loans from the government are also available. If these loans are not available to you (this could happen if you or your parents make too much money), you’ll have to take out a SELF loan (definition: A loan you take out from a bank in your name) instead.

But what if taking out loans isn’t something you want to do? The Department of Rehabilitation (DR) (definition: Federal government department that helps people with disabilities become employed), which is a very helpful branch of the government for PWD, will help people with disabilities with their college costs if it helps them get off of public assistance.

The state you live in and the college you end up going to will greatly affect how much you will receive from DR. The funds you receive from DR are considered a grant, meaning you do not have to pay it back.

There are other grants available through the Federal government as well, such as Pell grants. After being accepted, colleges will send you a financial aid letter that explains all of your financial aid options, including any grants that are available to you. Scholarships are another possibility for students with spinal cord injuries (see below).

There are many nonprofits that provide tuition assistance to students with disabilities. One of the best-known nonprofits that provides financial aid to people with spinal cord injuries is the Byron Riesch Paralysis Foundation.

Otherwise, there are dozens of organizations, law firms, and foundations across the country that award assistance to students with spinal cord injuries. Many of these foundations only offer grants between $500 – $1,000, so you may have to apply for several grants to cover all your bases. Visit this link to learn about some of the financial aid options available to you: http://www.spinalcord.org/resource-center/askus/index.php?pg=kb.printer.friendly&id=10#c56

Please watch the following video on making college successful after a spinal cord injury, and afterwards, please check out the Takeaway Points below.

Video: Life in College with a Spinal Cord Injury

Takeaway Points

  • All public universities (in the U.S.) are required to be accessible
  • Private universities are not required to be accessible
  • Professors will need to approve any accommodations you may need in class
  • Living on campus is still a possibility. Many colleges offer accessible housing
  • There is additional funding available for college if you have a spinal cord injury, but it will likely not cover it all of your tuition costs
  • The Department of Rehabilitation assists people with disabilities with their tuition expenses
  • Student loans are available if grants and scholarships are not enough to cover your tuition costs

College Help Resources

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Spinal Cord Injury
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