The Thread - Transportation in College

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

A DO-IT Scholar recently posed the following question in our Internet discussion forum. I will share with you some of the responses so that you can get a flavor of the many rich conversations the DO-IT community has online.

Hi, I have cerebral palsy and I have a question for all you brilliant wheelchair-using Mentors: Did you have transportation challenges when you attended college? How did you deal with them? This is an important issue to me as a wheelchair will be my mode of mobility in college. Thanks for any responses.

From a Mentor: I was really lucky because the small town where I went to college had a completely wheelchair accessible taxi service. My wheelchair is an electric one, so if I needed it wherever I planned to go, I usually would just meet my friends there. I also obtained and learned how to use a manual wheelchair in college. That worked well because my friends could fold it and fit it into their car if we were going somewhere.

From a Mentor: I also have Cerebral Palsy and used both a manual and power wheelchair while on campus. Transportation is definitely an issue. I suggest getting familiar with places you need to visit regularly on and off campus, and plan ahead to be able to get there. For example: Will you live in a dorm, have to visit the dining hall or library regularly, or be working on or off campus? What is the terrain of the campus like? Will you drive or be using a form of public or specialized transit? If you plan to use specialized transit services, be sure you have applied and qualify beforehand. Can you ride with friends too when going places?

I know this might seem like a lot of questions, but the more you know about your needs and the options available to you, the more prepared you will be. A campus visit or two might be very helpful.

From a Mentor: I used a manual wheelchair in college. I lived on campus in a dorm that was accessible to me and I rolled everywhere on campus. I was not used to rolling distances outside and I found it tiring to roll from class to class. I eventually built up my muscles in my arms and found I could do the whole campus successfully over time. My wheelchair was a folding model and once my friends had cars, they were more than willing to toss it into the trunk and off we'd go. I don't recall feeling limited at all about my wheelchair and getting around on and off campus.

Now, in hindsight, the best option for me would have been to have a choice in my transportation: to have both a manual folding chair (or a lightweight rigid model that could be easily tossed in a car, had they been available then) and a powered chair or scooter for long distances. Of course, I don't know your strength level or what sort of wheelchair you typically use. If the campus has some sort of shuttle system for students and it is accessible to wheelchair users, you could use that to get longer distances on big campuses in a manual chair. If you want to go off campus, depending on the local terrain, a scooter or power chair might allow you to get to the local store or music club on your own power.

Learning how to transfer into a car if you are not familiar with that would be a great task right now. Practice going out with your high school friends in their different vehicles (Gee, Mom, I NEED to go to the movies! wink, wink) so you can feel confident doing so with new friends. If you feel confident with transferring independently or with light assistance, taking a taxi is an option for you. In my experience, taxi drivers are willing to put wheelchairs in trunks.

If you are a power chair user and transferring is not an option, don't worry, you and your buddies will find other ways to get around. Many college students can't afford cars so walking and biking are their primary means of transportation. As a power chair user, you'd be able to go along with them!

Perhaps having some back-up parts/batteries for your chair in case of breakdown is one way of ensuring that you will always have transportation. Great question!

From a Mentor: I am a senior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Most of the events that I go to are fairly close to my on-campus apartment and since I don't drive, I have had to rely largely on my parents who are nearby. Eventually I hope to solve this in a city with great mass transit (plus getting a van friends can drive), but this is a tough problem for me too.

From a DO-IT Scholar: Thank you for your advice. I agree with your idea that campus visits are important and I have already visited my primary and secondary schools of choice (UW and EWU). I have experienced both their advantages and weak points and will take them in to account when I apply.

Thanks for all the good advice Mentors!