This week I started college at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. I'm excited and looking forward to a challenging (in the good sense!) and rewarding experience.
It's taken me a couple months to address my unique needs for college. I know from other experiences that planning makes a big difference. But, I also know that even with the best planning, unpleasant surprises and delays occur.
I have a few new things to help meet my various needs - some high-tech, some low-tech, and some designed with the tools of improvisation (like velcro, duct tape, items intended for other use) with which every person with a disability becomes all too familiar. Like other times in my life, many adaptations were designed by a creative genius, a.k.a. my mother, because there was no product that exactly worked for me.
Improvisation is a key aspect of living with a disability. Many times there are no products available to meet the individual’s specific purpose. You have to use your imagination and be creative. In the basement, my family has a box filled with Velcro, extra padding, spare parts, and a ready supply of duct tape.
The staff from the University of Illinois Assistive Technology Unit, who I started meeting with last March , designed and installed a small flip-out tray for my Kensington Trackball. They designed it so that I can store the little tray under my wheelchair tray, and independently move it into place when needed. They also designed my armrest to flip open to give my wrist added support while using the trackball. Now I can use my laptop computer while in my wheelchair! At this time, though, I still prefer to lie on the floor and use the computer, including my Dragon software, because then I can have all my papers on the floor to look at and sort through. And, I can roll around and change position as needed; my back doesn't get quite as sore.
I needed to get a cell phone for school. My parents spent a lot of time checking out the possibilities. Unfortunately, the UIC AT people didn't have advice on particular phones. Access World had an article on cell phones, and Planet Mobility had information on a 100% voice activated phone . Also, Jitterbug makes an easy to use cell phone. None of those exactly met my needs. We went to the Verizon store and picked a phone that seems like a good match for me - the GzOne phone . It's a rugged phone, made to stand up to shock (i.e. accidental dropping) and also water resistant. The buttons were not too hard to operate, and we programmed the numbers I'd use the most into speed dialing, so that I can call them with the press of one button. I decided against a Bluetooth headset because I am not able to get the headset on and off by myself. I also was not able to flip the phone open in its original form. We put the phone in a holster , and taped an old caribiner hook on the back. Now I had something I could grip with my left hand. Then my mom threaded a string through two washers and taped it all to the top of the phone. With my right hand, I can grab the string and flip open the phone.
My mom found two different baby stroller cup holders and set up one for my water bottle. The other one she rigged up to be attached to the first one and to hold my cell phone. She also attached a strap to the phone to make it easier to pull out of its cup holder.
I also bought the Day Cruiser bag from Wheelchair Gear, which is attached to the left side of my chair. With practice, I am getting the hang of opening the velcro flap and getting into the bag. We may have to remove the velcro. We attached a key chain holder to the zipper compartment with the hope that I can get the hang of using that compartment also.
I have also worked with the university to address my needs. This semester, I’m only taking two classes to make it easier to juggle academics, learn the ins and outs of addressing my needs, do physical therapy, and, of course, have time for fun stuff.
I emailed my professors over the summer to explain some of my needs. I ordered audio version of my textbooks from RFB&D and my local branch of the National Library Service for the Blind . And, I just got a subscription with Bookshare . (Even with all that planning, I still don't have all my books in an audio format!)
After the first day of class, I met with my professors to talk about what I needed to succeed in their classes. I was pleased that they were both receptive, and the meetings went well.
Each professor is helping me to find a classmate to be my notetaker. The classmate will make a copy of his or her notes for meand get paid $9 dollars an hour by the Department Of Rehabilitation Services Vocational Rehab (DORS). DORS has been a great support thus far - helping with some of my tuition and also with books and equipment costs.
I don't have the care of my personal needs (eating, bathrooming) figured out yet. With the light load I am taking this semester, I'll just address those needs at home for now.
I’m looking forward to the start of this college adventure. I don't think I'll be doing any interviews in the near future, but I still plan to continue blogging and sharing my two cents. Sorry, the blogosphere can’t get rid of me!