Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition most often caused at birth by brain damage. It largely affects muscles and movement, but because it is related to neurological damage, it can also have a wide range of other effects, including cognitive impairment. Many children with cerebral palsy, however, will grow up with no deficits in cognitive abilities and with average or above average IQs, which means that college should be no more out of reach than it is for any other child.
A child with cerebral palsy will face more challenges in transitioning to adulthood, independence, and going to college than other children. With a physical disability, there are more roadblocks to get through, but there are also resources including aides, financial support, assistive devices, tutors and others that can help someone get to college and to be successful there.
Here are some important steps that any child with CP can take on the path to college:
1. Start with an IEP
Children with cerebral palsy should have an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP). These are plans that are coordinated through the special education department of a school or school district with input from a variety of experts from doctors and teachers to parents and other caregivers. As a child grows older the IEP should change and be updated to continue to match the needs of the student.
An IEP may contain things like ensuring there is enough space in a classroom for a wheelchair or that a desk is provided in each room at the right height. It may also include accommodations for learning disabilities, such as having tests read aloud or being given more time to complete projects.
Even in high school when a teen with cerebral palsy may be finding his stride and gaining more independence, an IEP can be updated and used to make sure he gets everything he needs to be successful with a disability. The IEP in high school should include plans for after high school, and a teen with cerebral palsy should be involved in creating this plan.
A teen with cerebral palsy should start thinking about what he wants for the future, whether he wants to try vocational school, community college, or a four-year university, and what his goals are.
With these in mind the teen can sit down with his IEP team to help make a plan for moving forward. Supportive adults are important for helping a disabled teen refine post-high school goals and for moving forward to achieve them.
Prior to getting an IEP, the student and his/her parents or caregivers will generally need to go through a number of meetings with the student’s teacher and the school’s administration. Parents may need to take their child for additional medical and cognitive testing (in some cases), which can help the school find the appropriate IEP fro the student.
2. Work on College Applications in High School
For a child with cerebral palsy and no intellectual disability, getting into college involves many of the same steps as it does for anyone else aspiring to enter higher education. It starts with making effort in high school to learning, getting good grades, participation in extracurricular activities, and taking college entrance exams, such as the SAT or ACT. Of course for a disabled student, academic achievement and participation can be more challenging.
It is especially important for a child with cerebral palsy to start thinking about and preparing for college early. Too many disabled children feel left out of activities, but participation is important for college admissions, so getting involved in clubs, academic teams, and even adaptive sports teams should be placed as a priority, if possible.
When approaching the time for completing college applications, like other students, those with cerebral palsy should visit those colleges that interest them. Disabled teens will need to scrutinize their future schools even more, though, looking for schools that have amenities and services they need, and schools that have a track record of full inclusion for disabled students.
Ask about disabled student services offices and if all buildings will be accessible or made to be accommodating. Disabled teens need to learn to advocate for their needs and to speak up and ask, and a campus tour is a great place to start doing that, while parents stand in the background.
3. Start Thinking about Financial Aid
Raising a child with cerebral palsy is expensive, and paying for college is expensive for anyone. Facing the costs of college tuition may be daunting, but for a student with cerebral palsy there are a lot of specialized resources that can help. A scholarship may be one option.
A student with cerebral palsy can apply for any scholarship for which she is qualified, but there are also special scholarships set up for children with disabilities. A quick Internet search will pull up many of these and a lot of opportunities to win tuition for school. As an example, the American Academy for Cerebral Palsy and Developmental Medicine offers several small scholarships every year.
The government, both state and federal, may also be a source of financing for college for students with cerebral palsy. California, for instance, offers several scholarships specifically to students with cerebral palsy who will be attending college or a vocational school. Through the federal government, students with cerebral palsy can get grants, scholarships, and loans.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) offers Supplemental Security Income for disabled children who come from low-income families. The SSA also offers the PASS program, Plan for Achieving Self Support, to further help these students complete college or vocational training.
4. Consider College Programs Designed for People with Special Needs
Some children with cerebral palsy do have intellectual disabilities, but they still have options when it comes to education. There are hundreds of schools across the U.S. that offer post-secondary programs specifically designed for students with an intellectual disability. These programs are diverse and offer coursework, specialized learning, and career training, as well as job placement.
For example, the University of Arizona works with the Tucson Unified School District to provide Project FOCUS, a post-high school program for disabled teens that gives them access to real college courses and prepares them to find jobs.
Sacramento City Community College offers similar students college courses, employment skills training, and education for social skill development. These are just a couple examples of many programs offered for any young person with an intellectual disability, including those with cerebral palsy.
However, according to Chris Wise Tiedemann, author of College Success for Students with Physical Disabilities, there are currently only five schools in the U.S. that offer students with serious disabilities enough services to live on campus comfortably. These schools include:
- Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
- University of California—Berkeley
- University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign
- University of Houston
- Wright State University
Keep in mind that when Tiedemann says “serious disabilities,” she’s referring to students who have special needs so severe that their daily living is drastically impacted without assistance. For those with less serious disabilities, there are numerous other possibilities, but research is important. For instance, there are hundreds and hundreds of colleges across the nation that offer support groups, specialized education classes, ramps, accessible handicapped parking, dyslexia services, and more.
How to Transition to College Life with Cerebral Palsy
Once you’ve taken the big steps of preparing for and getting accepted into a college program, it’s time to face making this big transition. For all teens heading off to college, this time in life is an important transition to adulthood and to a more independent way of living. It can be a struggle for anyone, but for teens with cerebral palsy, it may be more challenging and frightening.
Here are some things to keep in mind, both for parents and students, to smooth this transition:
- Start planning for this transition during high school. Parents can help a teen learn about setting goals and planning for the future, living independently, being responsible about finances, and other adulthood responsibilities.
- Parents also have an important role to play in guiding this transition and being able to let go of control a little bit at a time so that a teen can learn to be independent by being independent.
- Once at college a young adult with cerebral palsy faces a new and exciting world. Getting involved in student groups is a smart way to smooth the transition to this world. Relying on the support of others and making new friends will help a teen be happy and involved while learning and preparing for the future.
- If there is a group on campus for disabled students to gather and support each other, that can be a great resource. Anything a student can do to get more involved, to be more active, and to reach out will help to make college a rewarding and successful experience.
Also, keep in mind that high school is quite different than college, especially when it comes to special needs students. High schools are more likely to accommodate special needs students straight away, whereas colleges may not, even if you’ve requested it. The key is to be proactive. Make sure to contact the college’s office of disabled services as soon as possible, and provide enough information so that there’s no question of the student’s disability.
“Parents and students are almost invariably unaware of how much more responsibility is placed upon a college student. And most students do not leave for college with experience in hiring aides to help them get showered [and] dressed,” Tiedemann told U.S. News & World Report. “If they haven’t prepared in high school for this, they are sunk.”
All Students Can Succeed
As you take this journey to college, be sure to remember that everyone admitted to a college program is capable of being successful. Having cerebral palsy does not mean that you can’t do what other students can. While you may have unique challenges, you are just as capable as anyone else. Always remember that as you go on this exciting new adventure in your life.