From 'Flat On My Face' To Cap And Gown: One Disabled Student's Journey Through College
Tatum Tricarico would obviously go off to college after she finished high school in San Diego. "That's what everybody says you gotta do," the now 23-year-old said. Then Tricarico began to lose her eyesight. Then the pain started, and her future became much less clear.
"It was really confusing because I had my entire life been told, 'you're going to go to a four-year [university]. Like it wasn't a question. And then all of a sudden to be like, OK, should I be doing community college? Should I be going to a school for the blind? Is higher education even an option? That was just really jarring for me."
Today, Tricarico says people come up to her, with her white cane and Duke sweatshirt, and say "Oh, is that your dream school?"
No, it's her actual school, where she's a graduate student studying divinity.
Many students eventually figure out what they need to succeed in higher education, but not because they learned about it in high school, or because it was written down in any official handbook. Instead, they succeed because they uncover resources and help that exist if only you know where to look.
The students featured in our ongoing Hidden Curriculum series successfully navigated higher education while faced with particular challenges because of their background and life circumstances.
Like many disabled students, Tricarico has had to be her own constant advocate to make it as far as she has in higher education. Disabled people are half as likely to have a bachelor's degree as non-disabled people, according to Census data. They're also more than twice as likely to be unemployed and nearly twice as likely to live below the poverty level as people without a disability.
"Higher ed is just kind of set up to weed out disabled students in a lot of ways," Tricarico said.
From IDEA To ADA
In high school, Tricarico had one-on-one aides who would read her textbooks to her out loud and help her study. She started to learn Braille. But when it came time to decide what she'd do after graduation, the people who'd helped her get through — her aides, vision specialists, teachers, her parents — were split on how well Tricarico could handle a traditional four-year college.
"There were a couple of [aides] who were pretty adamantly against it and had said, 'you're not going to be ready for this,'" Tricarico remembered.
Tricarico ultimately brushed off the skepticism, and started applying to schools. Then she called the disability resource center at each school to find out what accommodations they could offer to help her study and participate in life on campus.
"I learned very quickly that they can't actually tell you what they can give you," Tricarico said. "They can only tell you what they've given to people in the past. Once you've committed, they can tell you what accommodations you're allowed to have."
That's likely because federal law requires that disability accommodations be specific to the individual, said Richard Allegra, director of education and outreach for the Association on Higher Education and Disability. Colleges and universities are also subject to different disability rules than K-12 schools, which can be confusing for students when transitioning to higher education.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed in 1975, guarantees a "free appropriate public education" to elementary and secondary school children with disabilities. That means that K-12 schools must educate all students and, when necessary, must develop an individualized education plan to meet a particular disabled student's needs. Public K-12 schools also get federal funding to pay for the accommodations that disabled students need.
But that changes once a student exits high school. Federal law — the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act — prohibit post-secondary schools from discriminating against disabled students. But disabled students have to meet the same criteria to get admitted as non-disabled students and they're generally held to the same academic standards.
IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1975
- Guarantees a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.
- Covers children with disabilities from birth until high school graduation or age 21.
- Requires development of an individualized education plan (IEP) for certain disabled students, with input from school staff and parents, that identifies the specific services the student receives.
SECTION 504: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 1973
- Provides civil rights protections for people with disabilities in programs that receive federal funding, including employment, social services, public K-12 schools and post-secondary schools whose students receive federal financial aid.
- Requires postsecondary schools to provide educational auxiliary aids and services to students with a disability who need such aids to effectively participate.
- Guarantees disabled students an equal opportunity to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities.
ADA: Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990
- Title II prohibits state and local governments, including public K-12 and postsecondary schools, from discriminating on the basis of disability.
- Title III prohibits private colleges and universities from discriminating on the basis of disability.
- Requires postsecondary schools to provide educational auxiliary aids and services to disabled students to guarantee equal access.
Disability Rights California: Rights of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education
ADA National Network: Disability Rights Laws in Public Primary and Secondary Education: How Do They Relate?
U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights: Auxiliary Aids and Services for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities
Colleges and universities have to provide "academic adjustments," commonly known as accommodations, for disabled students. But those adjustments can't cause the school an “undue financial or administrative burden." (Allegra says institutions have to consider their entire budgets when arguing that a disability accommodation would constitute an undue financial burden.)
Unlike K-12 schools, the federal government doesn't give post-secondary schools funding to provide these accommodations.
'Flat On My Face'
Tricarico ultimately decided on Point Loma Nazarene University, a small, private school in San Diego. After talking with the school's disability office, she felt satisfied that she'd get the accommodations she needed. But in retrospect, Tricarico said, she should've done more research.
"[I] just really had not paid enough attention to if the campus was accessible, if housing was accessible, if classes were going to be accessible, if they had ever had blind students before," she said.
Tricarico figured she'd meet with the campus disability officer and they'd brainstorm how to make it work. But that's not what happened. "I didn't realize how important it was going to be for me to already have a plan," she said. "In a lot of ways I just really fell flat on my face my freshman year."
Tricarico said she was surprised by the huge caseload managed by the disability officer at her college. Although federal rules require colleges to provide and pay for accommodations "in a timely manner," there are no rules regarding staffing to assess requests for accommodations or to arrange for those accommodations. "That's an issue," Allegra said. "We do hear a lot from schools where there might be one person [handling disability accommodations, saying,] 'How do I advocate with my administration to add some more people?'"
Tricarico had asked to get her course materials in Braille, but it often took several weeks to get those materials because professors would submit them to be brailled at the last minute. She said she asked for audio recordings of materials as a backup plan, but those also failed. She remembers one device that was supposed to scan the test and read it out loud. "But the scanner would mess up the words and so it wouldn't read it correctly," she said. "They tried multiple different types of audio stuff; none of them were able to get me access to my materials on time in a way that would actually work."
Federal law also requires extracurricular activities, like clubs, sports and campus-sponsored events, to be accessible to disabled students. But Tricarico found that she'd have to advocate to make them accessible.
She remembered a campus-sponsored event at a roller skating rink that she wanted to attend as a freshman. "But at roller skating rinks they always turn on the flashing disco lights and I was like, there is no way," she said. Flashing lights cause Tricarico intense pain. They can also cause seizures in people with epilepsy, and migraines.
Tricarico decided to call the rink directly and ask if they could please avoid using flashing lights during the school event. They said OK. She considered it a bittersweet win. "It's really frustrating to have to do that," Tricarico said.
"It just shouldn't always be our job, but it always is our job, if we want to go to an event, to contact them weeks out and ask for them to get it ready," she said. "It doesn't have to just be disabled people asking for spaces to be accessible."
Disabled Students Still Have To Ask
Allegra, who's worked in disability services since before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, in 1990, said colleges have made progress in making campuses accessible to disabled students, but they have much work to do. "I would say generally we're still in the mode of colleges knowing what they're required to do and obligated to do. We haven't gotten into the next phase where, and this doesn't apply to all colleges, but where a university kind of celebrates disability," Allegra said. This would mean "making their campuses more welcoming so a student doesn't have to go through hoops to find services and help, or just even seeing themselves represented in promotional materials."
Unlike in elementary and high school, disabled college students who need special accommodations have to proactively reach out to campus administrators to let them know. They have to provide documentation of their disability, they're expected to help staff identify the appropriate needed accommodations, and they're generally expected to do it alone. One guidance document from the U.S. Department of Education says:
"Unlike the experience you may have had in high school … do not expect your postsecondary school to invite your parents to participate in the process or to develop an IEP [individualized education plan] for you."
Pt. Loma Nazarene has revamped and expanded its disability accommodations office since Tricarico attended the school. Pam Harris, associate dean of the new Educational Access Center, said they now have three full-time staff who serve about 350 students across five campus sites. Harris, who has worked in special education for more than 30 years, said colleges lag behind K-12 schools in developing robust systems for accommodating disabled students.
She said when she started her work, many disabled students wouldn't make it to higher education because they weren't learning the necessary skills in elementary and secondary school. That has improved greatly, she said. "Now universities have to adapt."
Tatum Tricarico on bureaucracy, apathy and constant advocacy.
Find Your Community — And Your Professor
Tricarico stumbled through her freshman year. The start of her sophomore year wasn't looking much better, until one of her professors said something that caught Tricarico's attention. "In the syllabus there's like a little part that says you have to accommodate disabled students so if you need accommodations, go to the disability access office or whatever. So while making that announcement [the professor] said, 'Also, we know that higher education is full of ableism.' And I just stopped there and I was like, 'This woman said ableism. I've never heard a professor say the word ableism before.'"
After class, Tricarico asked the professor if they could talk in her office. "And I just unloaded on her," she said. "'This is all the ableism that I've experienced on this campus and I need help, I don't know what to do.'"
The professor offered to advocate for Tricarico and to accompany her to meetings with administrators about her accommodations. "She really fought for me and I ended up getting readers and they were a student in my class who would read out loud the homework and take notes," Tricarico said.
"We celebrated when I was able to actually do my homework, which is kind of sad but also really good. And I got to then pair with friends and have them read out loud and it became this actually really positive thing," Tricarico said.
Tricarico said she hadn't known until then how valuable it could be to have a professor in her court. "Find your professor," she said.
Tricarico graduated in 2021 with a BA in Christian studies and a minor in Philosophy. She's now working on her master's degree with plans to become a pastor.
"I am very disabled and proud," Tricarico said. "It actually has been a really positive part of my life. I've met a lot of really cool people, had a lot of really cool opportunities, I care about people better and I know myself better because of it."
Navigating accommodations in higher education
- National Center for College Students With Disabilities
- Campus Disability Resource Database
- Rights of Students with Disabilities in Higher Education - Disability Rights California
- Disability discrimination fact sheet - Disability Rights California
- Think College - Institute for Community Inclusion
Are there other resources we should add to this list? Let us know!