Ace in the Hole

By Mark E. Smith

I recently finished reading a new report on the state of those living with disabilities in America, funded by the United Cerebral Palsy Association. And, the portrait that the report paints of our lives is grim:

Those with disabilities are one-half as likely to have completed high school, and only one-third as likely to have a bachelor’s degree, as those without disabilities

In 2005, the median annual household income of working-age Americans was $61,500, whereas it was only $35,000 for households of working-age Americans with disabilities – a deficit of more than $26,000

Adults with disabilities are almost three times as likely to live in poverty as people without disabilities

62% of those with disabilities are unemployed

Only 7% of those with disabilities own their own home, compared to 69% of the general population

Indeed, reading the report’s statistics is disheartening. However, buried in the middle of the report, on page 43, I discovered a single, understated paragraph that voids virtually every grim statistic about living with disability in America, literally defining the key to success:

The good news is that students with disabilities who earn a bachelor’s degree find roughly the same success as their non-disabled labor market competitors. Baccalaureates with and without disabilities had generally comparable employment rates and salaries, and they enrolled in graduate school at similar rates, at least within the first year after earning a bachelor’s degree. Thus, clearly workers with disabilities can compete successfully in the labor market if they have a post-secondary education.

Think for a moment about the profoundness of that quote: The minute that we receive a bachelor’s degree, we even the playing field for those of us with disabilities among others in the job market. What’s more, what that really means is that the single accomplishment of a 4-year college degree not only allows us to find a job, but an equal-paying job, where we then are removed from poverty, where we can buy a home, where we have access to health care, where we escape virtually every grim statistic of those with disabilities living in America today. That’s a profound life lesson, an ace in the hole that breaks us free of many the barriers and hardships that can come from living with disability.

Make no mistake, I came to this realization myself years ago, simply by taking a quick inventory of my friends with disabilities, recognizing that those with disabilities who were educated achieved tremendous success in their careers, whereas those with disabilities who had no college education generally existed on SSI, living in poverty. In fact, in my book, Making the Most of It, I discuss the reality of disability as a sink-or-swim proposition for most, where we either excel or we struggle, with little middle ground in-between.

From this perspective, there’s truly no question of whether we, as those with disabilities, should pursue education: We must. No matter if one is 18 or 48, if one wishes to compete in the workforce – to escape poverty and all of the traps that it contains – a four-year degree, at minimum, is key.

Sure, one can tout all sorts of entrepreneurs in history who became tremendous successes without formal educations; one can assert that one doesn’t need a formal education to be a productive member of society; and, one can even claim that stating that everyone with a disability should have a college education is an elitist attitude. However, such statements don’t account for the reality of America today for those with disabilities: One needs a college education if one wishes to compete and succeed in the job market.

Fortunately, many with disabilities have remarkable opportunities to attend college, including financial incentives over many within the general population. Every state in the country has a vocational rehabilitation program intended to foster employment of those with disabilities, including paying college tuition in most cases. What’s more, vocational rehabilitation programs in many states also fund books, computers, and transportation, including purchasing adaptive vans, for those with disabilities attending college. And, those with disabilities in most states also qualify for educational grants and scholarships. Economically, it simply makes sense for those with disabilities to attend college, both in the immediate and the longterm.

Now, some may say that economics aren’t the only consideration for those with disabilities attending college, that disability, itself, can create obstacles. Absolutely. After all, imagine going through college with profound disability, where you’re unable to speak, with not enough coordination to write or even feed yourself, where you require full-time attendant care. But, people in such situations graduate college every year, going on to terrific careers – which proves that disability, in itself, is rarely a reason not to attend college. No, it may not be easy – and it can be a logistical nightmare for some – but one must do whatever it takes to get through college, where four years of struggles is repaid ten-fold, resulting in a lifetime of opportunity and success.

I know, I’m the disability dad who everyone loves to hate when it comes to when I was in college stories. I go off on tangents about how I started off with a single class at a community college, to ending up taking six classes per semester, attending extra courses during winter and summer breaks, working my way into among the best writing programs in the country. I tell how I commuted by public transportation hours each way to get to my bachelor’s program, where I was unable to use the bathroom for 15 hour stretches, where I fought pressure sores. And, I tell of getting to the point where I was urinating blood, where I had a pressure sore opening, where my doctor prescribed that I not finish one particular semester, that I check myself into the hospital immediately – to which I told him in no uncertain terms that I was fully prepared to die before I was going to stop going to classes. And, it’s all true. Sure, I was extreme in pursuing my education. However, I knew that as a twenty-something guy with cerebral palsy, I had no other choice but to go to college. That is, if I was to make it in the world, on an even playing field, I had to pursue my education no matter what it took – there was no other alternative for me as one with a disability.

In these ways, it’s clear that if we want to succeed in the workforce – and raise the bar socially, economically, and politically – those of us with disability must pursue formal educations. No, college isn’t easy for anyone with a disability, and for those with very profound physical disabilities, it can be even more challenging. Yet, again, a few years of hardships will all but guarantee a lifetime of opportunity and success – that is, college is unquestionably the best investment that we can make in our lifetimes.

If you’ve gone through college with a disability, assume the role of championing others with disabilities in their enrollment – express the importance of education to them, help them find support services, tutor them, or serve as their transportation to campus. Supporting others with disabilities who seek to better themselves through education is among the best effort that you can make toward elevating all of our lives as those with disabilities.

Of course, if you haven’t pursued formal education, now is the time to do it. In four years, you can still be exactly where you are today, or you can have remarkable momentum in life – that is, an education propelling you forward toward opportunity and success. No, attending college isn’t easy; however, considering the positive impact that it guarantees in your life, enrollment should be the easiest decision that you’ll ever make.


Author: Mark E. Smith

The literary side of the WheelchairJunkie

One thought on “Ace in the Hole”

  1. See also “It Gets You There” (below) and realize that Mark is giving you the ultimate lemonade squeezer: yourself.

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