On many college campuses throughout the country, classes have already begun or are about to begin. Many students are extremely excited to greet the new year, but some might be a bit nervous or concerned that physical limitations may get in the way. When you live with rheumatoid arthritis, you may need to request appropriate and reasonable accommodations.
Whether just diagnosed with RA or having lived with the disease for years, it is during the college years that you will learn to become your own advocate. Previously parents may have fulfilled this role (one which never really ends), but it is ultimately your responsibility to know where and how to request the services you need. And if you are a parent reading this, it is good to know what your current or future college student’s options are.
Disabilities Services Office on Campus
Every college or university has a disabilities services office which is your starting point. If you have already been living with disability when you are admitted to college, register with the disability services office prior to the beginning of the first academic semester (only if you need to request accommodations). For first-year students, registering during the school’s orientation program helps to ensure that accommodations will be in place on the first day of the semester. Keep in mind, however, that you still must be able to meet a program's admission, academic, and technical standards (i.e., all essential nonacademic admissions criteria) either with or without accommodation.
If RA progresses or flares during college, your needs may change. Often mobility, dexterity, and fatigue may create challenging situations. You may have trouble writing and need extra time to complete tests or assistance with note-taking during class. You may have difficulty typing and need access to a school computer equipped with voice recognition software. You may have difficulty traveling from one class to another and need more time to do so. You may be physically limited in the mornings, or fatigued at certain times of the day, and need to avoid classes at those times. You may need a close parking space for easier campus access.
The U.S. Department of Education shares that “academic adjustments may include auxiliary aids and modifications to academic requirements as are necessary to ensure equal educational opportunity.” Examples of academic accommodations/adjustments which may be arranged include priority registration; reducing a course load; substituting one course for another; providing note takers, recording devices, extended time for testing; and equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice recognition or other adaptive software or hardware.
You must self-advocate. You must self-monitor your disability and changing needs. Colleges and universities are restricted from seeking out students with disabilities due to privacy laws. You are responsible for contacting the disabilities services office to request the services you believe you need; the college or university generally does not provide accommodations unless or until you ask. Your college will probably require current medical documentation (which you will need to provide) which includes a diagnosis of your current disability, detail on how your disability affects a major life activity and/or how your disability may affect academic performance. Additional information may be required. Be ready to follow established procedures to request an academic adjustment.