When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time debating about whether I would be disclosing my disability in college applications. While my low vision has always been a major part of my life, I was not open about living with low vision or a chronic illness because I was worried that people would have different expectations of what I can do, or that they would discriminate against me based on my disability even though that is illegal. I’ve since become much more open about my disability after starting a low vision and assistive technology blog (which is literally called Veronica With Four Eyes) and have had the opportunity to meet many students with disabilities from around the world, many of whom have asked me about disclosing disability in college applications and whether I would disclose or not disclose my disability if I had to apply to college today. Today, I will be sharing my thoughts on disclosing disability in college applications and how to come to a decision that works well for each individual.
When I was in high school, I had a confirmed diagnosis of low vision from an eye condition and was living with an undiagnosed neurological condition that caused several different symptoms including chronic pain, migraines, photosensitivity, trouble walking, and much more. Doctors were not sure if my vision would continue to get worse as I got older, and while they suspected that my neurological symptoms were caused by Chiari Malformation, this diagnosis was not confirmed until my first semester in college. These two conditions impacted every part of my life, including my academics, but I wasn’t very comfortable with people knowing I was disabled at the time.
While my resume does not mention explicitly that I have low vision or Chiari Malformation, I do mention my relevant professional experience that connects back to my vision loss. This includes talks/lectures I have given on these topics, talking about an internship in an accessibility-related position, and working on accessibility projects. Some of my friends also wrote about internships with their state department for visual impairment, events that they founded or volunteered at that were related to disability or summer camps that connected to disability.
My advice to students is that they shouldn’t avoid sharing their professional experience just because it is connected to disability, and that it’s okay to mention experience with working with various disability organizations. I wouldn’t mention disability in a personal statement or cover letter though, as those paragraphs are typically used to summarize work experience and other professional information.
All of the colleges that I applied to required that students submit two different essays with their college application – one essay that talked about something that was not academic and one that talked about academics. For my non-academic essay, I chose to write about my experiences with a volunteer therapy dogs group and how my experiences in the group inspired me to want to improve technology for people with disabilities, but I did not disclose that I had a disability myself. I wrote my second essay about my experiences as a student with a disability, and didn’t feel like I needed to mention my disability in both essays because I wanted to focus on the amazing experiences within my volunteer group. It’s worth noting that at this point in my life, my chronic illness had a largely negative impact on my ability to attend school and participate in extracurriculars, so I did not want to acknowledge it if given the option – I don’t think a college essay called “I Missed Half Of My Band Concerts Because Of My Brain Condition” would be particularly motivational or exciting to read.
One of the primary reasons I became interested in studying assistive technology and accessibility in college was because I endured years of academic ableism and wanted to invent the tools that would have helped me to thrive more in the classroom. However, I was scared to talk about those experiences, because a lot of the advice about writing college admission essays that I read said that students should avoid talking about negative experiences, bashing teachers, or similar behaviors. Since my experiences in school are the foundation for why I chose to be in this field, I took the advice of one of my favorite teachers and learned to put a more positive spin on these negative experiences. I focused on talking about how I wanted to use my negative experiences as motivation to make positive change and create tools and resources that could be used to help other students with vision loss and print disabilities. One major point that I made was that my lived experience with vision loss would be an advantage for making better software for those who use it, which is something that was very important to me (and still is!).
A lot of students with disabilities may feel more pressure than students without disabilities to sound “inspirational” or feel like they have to stand out even more because they have a disability or chronic illness. While students should make an effort to show off how awesome there are, there’s no pressure to talk about how a disability is a superpower, or make it sound like their disability doesn’t keep them from accomplishing things on their own.
Two of the colleges I applied to gave students the option to record a video essay where they would produce a 1-2 minute video that allows them to introduce themselves in a fun and creative way. For my video essay, I used my disability as the basis for a series of visual jokes about how I wanted to be a member of the class of 2019, even though my vision wasn’t 20/20- some of the visual jokes included pretending that I was standing with people when they were actually items such as trees, mailboxes, or trash cans, as well as talking about my experience volunteering with therapy dogs while holding my cat (in fact, this whole video was inspired by the fact my college essay was on therapy dogs but I couldn’t have my dog appear on camera). I made sure to balance my video with talking about my various accomplishments and goals for college with humor, and loved how this video showcased my personality and how I would be a great fit for the college.
By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com
Updated October 2023; original post published October 2017.
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