4 College Application Tips for Students With a Disability or Chronic Illness

When I began the college application process as a teenager with a chronic illness, I was lost. After two years of medical chaos, during which college would have been deemed an impossibility, my conditions stabilized under the care of a new team of doctors. I was and am not healthy by any means, but I eased into my new normal and a new treatment plan. As I did, I realized that outside of my health, something else had changed: I could now go to college.

Coming to this realization was exciting, but also terrifying. While I had still been looking at schools periodically, and had made a point to keep my grades high, I wasn’t even sure which institutions could accommodate me, what scholarships were available for chronic illness, and how much I should disclose on my applications.

I found virtually nothing when I Googled these concerns. Every college has a sponsored ad that pops up with their disability services offerings, and scholarship search engines bring up seemingly-abundant options for scholarships. However, when really digging into these resources, there was an evident gap in resources for me, a prospective college student with a chronic illness. 

In order to start to slowly close that gap, here are the top four takeaways from my college application process as a student with a disability. 

No college wants to admit they are inaccessible, but there are some helpful tools to identify these institutions. 

In my entire time searching for schools, I don’t believe I ever came across a school that blatantly said, “We are not accessible to students with disabilities.” Quite frankly, why would they? It would be an awful advertising tactic.

Instead, prospective college applicants are forced to dig deeper into how accessible schools actually are. Huge red flags that I encountered included campuses with tons of stairs and no elevator access, disability services situated on top of a flight of stairs with no elevator access (uh… what?), and institutions which rank athletic ability and flag disability in their college application processes. While these all were discovered when digging into the nitty-gritty of each institution (I won’t name which ones), some easy ways to screen for the stairs issues are to do a virtual tour of campus and to email disability services.

Some schools offer special accessible tours for prospective students with disabilities. These tours may have built in rest breaks, take a more accessible route, and/or highlight pertinent resources. Institutions that offer these are at least attempting to be accessible.

Another quick indicator was checking into multicultural affairs at the institution. I found that schools where multicultural affairs celebrated disability as an identity were often more inclusive and accommodating (though this does not hold across the board).

The other option to gauge for accessibility is to do an online deep dive, to find out if the university has been subject to any lawsuits or Department of Justice investigations due to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This can be a good indicator for whether they are generally accessible or not. 

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It is OK to disclose your disability in the college application process. 

I was told not to disclose my disability on my college applications more times than I can count. I will never quite comprehend how anyone who knows me believed that I could hide this part of my life (I do substantial activism work), but they did. A lot of this stems from fear which accumulates on college search boards such as College Confidential.

What I found, though it may not apply to every institution, is that those that accepted me really appreciated how I approached the subject. I explained how disability had shaped my identity, highlighting both the positives and the negatives. While my essays generally followed an empowered, positive tone, they were by no means all sunshine and rainbows. I shared a mix of the real challenges and the positives I have encountered through my journey with chronic illness. Talking openly about your disability can show your ability to reflect on hardship, identify key values, and explain what you’ve learned and how it has shaped you as a person. This is characteristic of a strong leader, something colleges value highly.

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It will feel incredibly isolating to navigate the college admissions process at times. That’s because these institutions aren’t built for students like us.

Just as many institutions aren’t built for students of color, indigenous students, low income students, first generation students, and the list goes on, many are not built for students with disabilities. With founding dates as early as the 1700s, colleges and universities in the United States were not built with the anticipation that students with disabilities would enroll.

While many universities are working to acknowledge and remedy that legacy today by finally building wheelchair ramps or offering disability studies courses, it is a pervasive issue on college campuses across America. And, the sad reality is that a majority of students with disabilities will not attend and/or graduate from universities — regardless of how prepared they are.

Whether they are academically prepared or not, institutional barriers such as ableist absence policies (not allowing for sick days), underfunded disability service offices, inaccessible medical leave, and more prevent students from attending and graduating from these colleges. For this reason, it often felt to me like there were few people I knew who I could talk to who had been through this and were having success navigating these barriers (through no fault of their own).

I recommend always having hope that you may be that first student on a given campus to create a disability community, reaching out to students at the school to see what they know about said community if one exists already, and connecting with students at other institutions. 

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Scholarships are hard to come by for disability generally, but there is hope!

When I started my college application process, I simultaneously launched into a scholarship search. I was under the impression that there were tons of merit scholarships out there for students with disabilities and chronic illnesses like myself. Word on the street was that there was more than enough scholarship money to go around. I have been fortunate to ultimately receive a large amount of funding for my education, but it was not as simple as I had expected.

When you Google “scholarships for disability” or “scholarships for chronic illness,” the results are often scholarship search engines. It can feel exciting to see there are thousands of results, but it is also disheartening when you realize that a majority of the scholarships in those engines are random raffles and drawings — not legitimate programs. Where I did find luck was in local scholarship opportunities and national ones related to leadership and character. While I didn’t find an ideal disability scholarship fund, I found that many of those recruiting nationally were looking to finance higher education for strong leaders — people with a story of overcoming challenges. In the case of these scholarships, my story fit perfectly, despite them not being disability-specific.

Additionally, at a local level, I found some local funds for my particular conditions or disability in general to apply to, and again, I encountered funding opportunities based on overcoming obstacles and growing as a leader more generally. Long story short, the money is there; it just isn’t marketed well.

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Scholarship Resources

These scholarship programs welcome applicants with disabilities and chronic illnesses. If you know of more programs, please comment below and I’ll update this list.

Abbvie Immunology Scholars — for students with certain autoimmune conditions

Hannah Bernard Memorial Scholarship — for students with chronic pain

MarianJoy Scholarship Program — for students with disabilities from Illinois

Susanna DeLaurentis Charitable Foundation Scholarships — for students with chronic conditions or other serious physical or mental health challenges.

Cola-Cola Scholars

Rotary Club

When reflecting on my college admissions process, which luckily concluded last May, it was another obstacle, faced with a lot of barriers, that I had to overcome. Ultimately, thinking outside the box when it came to anything from analyzing institutional accessibility to searching for scholarships ensured that my college application process was as seamless as it could be.

You’re welcome to email me if you want to connect further about the college application process. 

Disclaimer: This article reflects my personal experience as a college applicant, and may not be applicable to your situation. I am a tour guide at Columbia University, but my opinions are my own and do not represent the views of the university.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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