It’s beginning to feel real.
Earlier today, I moved into my dorm at the University of Florida. As I sat looking around at the tubs and boxes strewn about the room, I began to envision my freshman year. Watching football games at the Swamp on Saturdays. Going to volleyball games on Friday nights. Meeting new people, making new friends, and creating memories I’ll ultimately carry with me for the rest of my life.
My dorm highlights one of the things that makes UF special: its accommodations for those with disabilities. The dorms on my floor are completely handicapped accessible. All of my furniture will be adjusted so I can reach it, a tablet controls the lighting, thermostat, and shades, the bathroom is open and comes equipped with grab bars, and there’s a lift in the ceiling I can use to move around the entire room independently. Initially, I thought the lift would carry me, but I found out today that it would allow me to walk without using my walker. Two pieces sit snugly on my sides, lifting me up and easing the weight off my feet, thus allowing me to move freely. Now, instead of having to ask someone to get me a drink, I can get it on my own. The device will provide me with a sense of independence I’ve never had before, and who knows what that will enable me to do in the future?
Also in my dorm are two “bang bars”: vertical bars that perform the same function as the round handicapped buttons often seen outside stores and other public places. These, however, are more sensitive- all it takes is a tap of my pinkie and the door swings open. They’re everywhere- there’s one for my bathroom door and the door to the hall, one outside my room that I can use to get in, and they’re even inside the elevators. There’s one bar for each floor, and a bar that will open the elevator from the outside. Opening doors has always been a challenge for me. Doing so takes all my strength and effort, and even then, I still need assistance. But with these bang bars, I can go wherever I want to go with a tap of a finger. They may seem simple to someone just walking by, but they give me a special gift: freedom.
Dorms like mine must be everywhere, right? Wrong. UF is the only school in the southeast with this type of complex; the next closest is in Indiana (where it is entirely too cold). Several schools I toured weren’t options for me because they didn’t have the accommodations I needed to be able to go away to school on my own. Someone who knew this asked me once, “So if you weren’t going to Florida, where would you go?” And that’s the thing: I wouldn’t be able to go. I would be stuck at home, taking classes online. I’ve said this before: the effects of my disability are purely physical. It doesn’t affect my intelligence, and quite frankly, I think it’s sad that Florida is the only school with these kinds of accommodations. It’s the twenty-first century. An accessible university shouldn’t be a needle in a haystack. It should be as common as handicapped spaces in a parking lot.