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For students with disabilities, navigating higher education is a journey of self-advocacy and struggle

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Laura Power at her Wexford home. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk)

By Mary Niederberger

Just a few weeks into her freshman year of college, Laura Power realized the lack of accommodations for her physical disabilities caused by cerebral palsy were going to be a higher hurdle to overcome than she had anticipated. 

When she entered a biology lab at Edinboro University in her power wheelchair in the fall of 2013, she quickly understood she would not be able to use the equipment. 

She wouldn’t be able to see what was on the other end of a microscope lens and her unsteady hands would likely prevent using the lab equipment. Since she hadn’t planned for this, she said she approached her professor hoping to work on solutions.

Instead of thinking of ways to help her, she recalled that the professor provided a stinging response:

“Actually Laura, no one should have let you in here,” the professor said, according to Power’s recollection. “When I saw you on the first day, I knew you were going to be a problem. But I wanted to let you down easily.” 

Megan Majocha, who is Deaf, also had a difficult lab experience when she showed up  for a 2016 summer internship at Magee-Women’s Research Institute & Foundation after her freshman year at Gallaudet University and realized she would not have a full-time American Sign Language interpreter.

She spent much of the internship trying to read lips and ask questions through email or by writing on sticky notes. 

“I was a freshman in college at the time and really didn’t know how to advocate for myself,” Majocha said during an interview via an interpreter. 

Different settings. Different students. Different disabilities. 

But the same issues:  How to access a college education and its related opportunities despite the obstacles posed by a lack of support or accomodations? And, how to get those around them to understand the help they needed?

 This story is the first in a series titled “Leveling the Playing Field” published by the Pittsburgh Institute of Nonprofit Journalism.

Read the rest of this story here. 

This story was made possible through a fellowship from the Education Writers Association.

Mary Niederberger covers education for the Pittsburgh Institute of Nonprofit Journalism. She can be reached at niederbergerme@gmail.com

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