Autistic Future
September 22nd, 2016

Going To School For Activism

It’s that time of year again. Young dis­abil­i­ty rights activists are get­ting in their appli­ca­tions to var­i­ous pro­grams, law school, grad school, maybe oth­er pro­fes­sion­al pro­grams. They’re get­ting ready to under­go degree pro­grams and try to gain cre­den­tials that they hope will fur­ther their activism. If you are part of this year’s cohort of up-and-com­ing lead­ers tak­ing on the chal­lenge of fur­ther­ing your edu­ca­tion, you have my sin­cere respect. I think it’s safe to say that your com­mu­ni­ty is very proud of you. Your courage, work eth­ic, and ambi­tion to serve oth­ers make you valu­able to the cause of dis­abil­i­ty jus­tice. How­ev­er, your plan has its risks. Because I want to see things go well for you, I hope you will think care­ful­ly about whether you go through with it or not, even if you already have some time and mon­ey invest­ed. What­ev­er your sunk cost is now is less than the years and dol­lars a degree will cost you. I would nev­er tell you not to go. I’m in my third year of law school with no regrets.


a picture of a library table covered with laptop, books, and other accouterments of my education


How­ev­er, I would tell you not to go this com­ing aca­d­e­m­ic year unless it’s real­ly right for you. If you go, I want you to come down to the end of your degree pro­gram with no regrets, too, so I’m shar­ing a check­list of sorts, the things I think it was help­ful for me to con­sid­er. If you can think of things I’ve for­got­ten, I encour­age you to add them to the com­ments. Let’s make this the best resource we can.

First, you have to think about dis­abil­i­ty-relat­ed con­sid­er­a­tions. Did your grades suf­fer from a lack of prop­er accom­mo­da­tions and sup­ports when you were an under­grad­u­ate? Cou­pled with any sub­se­quent or extracur­ric­u­lar expe­ri­ence, what does that mean for your options? Can you still get into a pro­gram that will give you good prospects after you fin­ish? Once you get to school, will you run into dis­crim­i­na­tion in your pro­gram? If you do, how free will you be to speak out about it? Do you think you can live with what­ev­er amount of recourse you will have for the num­ber of years it takes? Are you will­ing to dis­close at the appli­ca­tion phase? Espe­cial­ly if there are plen­ty of options for where you could get your degree, you might want to do what I did: throw out your dis­abil­i­ty in a per­son­al state­ment to stum­ble over any trip­wires of unlaw­ful dis­crim­i­na­tion long before you turn down oth­er offers of admis­sion and hand over tuition mon­ey. Are there sup­ports with­out which you can’t com­plete your degree? If so, how sure can you be that you’re going to get those? Even if you nev­er encounter dis­crim­i­na­tion, being the only one is lone­ly. You could be the first and only, which may be even worse and come with dis­tinct pres­sures to rep­re­sent peo­ple like you. Do you have the right tem­pera­ment to take on those chal­lenges? Is this a good time in your life for you to do that?

How will your dis­abil­i­ty affect your oppor­tu­ni­ties after grad­u­a­tion? Are you more lim­it­ed in the jobs you can take than most peo­ple enter­ing your field? Is stig­ma a big prob­lem in the field you intend to go into? If you don’t know, part of the research you need to do before you take on any­thing as life-alter­ing as a new degree pro­gram is try­ing to find this out. If you do your research but can’t find an open­ly dis­abled per­son in the field you intend to go into who is will­ing to respond to polite over­tures from you with frank advice and opin­ions, that silence should be infor­ma­tive. In school or, espe­cial­ly, after­ward, will your ties to some part of the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty or aspects of its cul­ture cre­ate con­flicts or prob­lems for you? Will those things lim­it the oppor­tu­ni­ties you can take if you’re not will­ing to dis­tance your­self from your people?

You also have to think about the fac­tors that all stu­dents, not just stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, have to con­sid­er. You may not have got­ten the best ground in that grow­ing up because a lot of the things you have to think about relate to finan­cial lit­er­a­cy. Low expec­ta­tions often mean that peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties aren’t taught even the piti­ful­ly lit­tle about mon­ey that most Amer­i­cans know. Find out what your pro­gram will cost, not what it costs every­one, but what it will cost you giv­en your lifestyle, any extracur­ric­u­lar respon­si­bil­i­ties like oth­er peo­ple you finan­cial­ly sup­port, and needs relat­ed to your dis­abil­i­ty that might not be fac­tored into the COA. Look into the cost of liv­ing in the var­i­ous places where you might go to school. If you’re in that posi­tion, go online. How like­ly is it that the schools to which you’re apply­ing will give a per­son com­ing in with a back­ground like yours  a schol­ar­ship? Make it your mis­sion to find every out­side schol­ar­ship for which you’re eli­gi­ble. If gifts from friends or rel­a­tives who won’t try to use mon­ey to con­trol you are on offer, nev­er for­get that you had help. If you’re ever in a posi­tion to do so, pay it for­ward by help­ing some­one else. If all of that might not cov­er every­thing, read up on what dif­fer­ent kinds of loans actu­al­ly cost. Inter­est rates are important.

That due dili­gence can give you a rough esti­mate of what your degree will cost. It won’t come out exact­ly accord­ing to plan. You will be nailed with finan­cial sur­pris­es both large and painful. You’ll get wind­falls and oppor­tu­ni­ties you could­n’t have fore­seen at the start. All you real­ly need now, though, is the ball­park so that you can do some sim­ple math. Look at what you’re prob­a­bly going to bor­row, give or take a few thou­sand dol­lars. Look at what you’re like­ly to make in your intend­ed field. Try to get geo­graph­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic, and fig­ure out how far your wages or salary will go. How much would you need to make to have a lifestyle you would find liv­able, pay your debts, and save for retire­ment? How like­ly are you to find a job? How like­ly is it that the job will pay enough? Don’t wor­ry too much about the best case sce­nario. Sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, it prob­a­bly won’t hap­pen to you. Judge your chances of a good out­come by the mid­dle of the bell curve. Don’t get too hung up on it, but take at least a pass­ing glance at the worst case sce­nario. Could you live with it if things go badly?

Then, there are the non-finan­cial con­cerns that apply to every­one. What are your respon­si­bil­i­ties now? Are you will­ing and able to neglect them a bit? If you’re going to stack many course hours on top of demands like child­care, elder­care, or a job you have to do to make your edu­ca­tion finan­cial­ly fea­si­ble, are you up to the chal­lenge? How flex­i­ble are the pro­grams that inter­est you most? What are the chances that you will have to move, either for school, for a job after you grad­u­ate, or both? Are you will­ing and able to end up a long way from home? How well do you han­dle stress, dead­lines, and com­pet­ing demands? Can you deal with diver­si­ty of opin­ion? How healthy is your field over­all? Are peo­ple in it hap­py there, or do they all seem to be try­ing to get out? If the pic­ture is mixed, and it prob­a­bly is, look for pat­terns. Are you more like the hap­py or the unhap­py people?

Whether this cal­cu­lus gives you a clear answer or leaves you in a gray area, don’t go it alone. The stakes are too high. You mat­ter too much. Have peo­ple you trust (ide­al­ly mul­ti­ple and with vary­ing per­spec­tives) check your math, your assess­ment of your­self, and your assess­ment of your cir­cum­stances. Demand that they speak frankly with you. Promise you’ll lis­ten respect­ful­ly and care­ful­ly con­sid­er what you hear. You don’t have to take any advice you receive, but you should think hard about what peo­ple you respect who have your inter­ests at heart have to say about your plans.

When you’re fin­ished with this pre­lim­i­nary research, you should have a clear­er idea of whether going for­ward or look­ing at oth­er options is your best bet. If most indi­ca­tors sug­gest that more school is the right choice for you, I wish you the very best of luck on your new adven­ture. If a bad out­come seems like­ly, there is no shame in reeval­u­at­ing your ini­tial deci­sion. Enough dis­abled peo­ple are strug­gling. Don’t try to res­cue a drown­ing per­son by get­ting pulled under, your­self. If deposits or what you spent on a stan­dard­ized test are lost, that’s cheap­er than a grad­u­ate or pro­fes­sion­al degree that could cost more than a decent house in many com­mu­ni­ties. It’s bet­ter than los­ing time. Debt can be paid off if your income is high enough, but time you spend will nev­er come back. If going through the process of care­ful­ly weigh­ing your options seems like too much work, you should prob­a­bly rethink your deci­sion. It’s noth­ing com­pared to what you’re think­ing of doing.