While living on campus with low vision and chronic illness, I shared a bathroom and communal living space with 1-3 other girls, depending on the dorm. In many cases, I was the first person that used a blindness cane or that had a physical disability that my suitemates had interacted with, so I would be proactive about disclosing my disability and talking about different independent living strategies I use. Here are seven things I tell my college suitemates about my disability and how I ask for help.
How I use assistive technology in my dorm
In the apartment-style dorm, I had a few different types of assistive technology and accessibility tools in the communal living areas and bathroom, including:
- Tactile dots for locating items
- Grab bars and shower chairs/benches
- Using a hanging card that would indicate when the bathroom is occupied
- Large print labels on kitchen items
I had implemented all of these items on my own or requested them from the university, and would share what they were used for so that my suitemates didn’t remove them or make them unusable.
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I’m not going to wave back at you
One of my suitemates was often upset when I wouldn’t wave at them or notice them when we were outside of the apartment, and another was confused why I was using a blindness cane outside but not in the apartment. I responded by telling them that I can’t see very far away, and don’t need to use my blindness cane in familiar/home environments when there aren’t many obstacles. I suggested that if they saw me on campus, they should say “hey Veronica, it’s suitemate’s name” so I could say hello!
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There are times I don’t realize I am making a mess
One of my friends had an experience where their suitemates got upset that my friend hadn’t noticed they had spilled water or left a piece of white cauliflower on a white table. Like me, my friend has poor contrast vision, and there are times where we might not realize we spilled something or that something rolled onto the floor. In this case, it would have been helpful for the suitemate to mention there was a mess so my friend could go clean it up.
In another situation, I told my suitemate that I had trouble cleaning parts of the bathroom with limited shoulder movement, and offered to contribute to keeping the space clean in other ways, such as offering to buy supplies.
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Please don’t move things without telling me first
Another story from a friend, one of my friends had returned to their dorm to discover their roommates had rearranged all the furniture without telling them. Not only was my friend running into the edges of tables and couches, but they also didn’t have a clear walking path and couldn’t use mobility aids safely. I would tell my suitemates that I was okay with them rearranging things, but it is helpful for me to know how they are being arranged beforehand, and to ensure there is a clear walking path.
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Being mindful of environmental triggers
When I lived in an apartment-style dorm with a large communal area, I would ask that my suitemates not turn on strobe or flashing lights in the living room without warning me first, since I get disoriented and get a migraine when I am around those types of lights. When I lived in a suite-style dorm that only shared a bathroom, I didn’t mention any environmental triggers since I figured no one would be setting off a strobe light in the bathroom. However, in retrospect I should have still mentioned the flashing light sensitivity since I fell in the bathroom when the power flickered rapidly one night.
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What to do in an emergency
I need help evacuating my dorm during fire alarms because I get disoriented from flashing lights, and mentioned this to my suitemates and the resident advisor so they could help me in case of an emergency. If the fire alarm went off and I was unaccounted for, someone would send me an email or text message to make sure I got out okay and didn’t get disoriented.
One of my suitemates was diabetic and talked to me about their condition, and mentioned that if I ever suspected that they had passed out in the bathroom, I should call the resident advisor on duty and/or campus dispatch, and find a way to unlock the bathroom door. When this situation actually happened, I felt comfortable going through with the plan we had discussed and was able to provide assistance.
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If needed, an explanation of my condition
While I am open about living with low vision and chronic illness, I didn’t explain my entire condition and how it affects me to my suitemates, and instead would mention information as it comes up, such as how I have trouble reading small print or why I avoid caffeine. One of my friends told me that they didn’t feel comfortable disclosing that they live with chronic pain because they were concerned their roommates would try to steal medication, but did mention that they had trouble using one of their hands and had to modify door handles and keys.
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How I talk to my college suitemates about my disability
- I don’t mention all of these things at once, but I mention all of this information during our first week living together so that things don’t come up as a surprise later
- When the resident advisor goes over the roommate/suitemate agreement, this is another opportunity to mention disability topics. For example, I included a sentence in the suitemate contract about not hanging items on the grab bars
- All of my suitemates were generated by random selection and I didn’t know them before we lived together
- When I lived with suitemates who told me they had trouble understanding English, I arranged for an interpreter to translate and explain that I have low vision and migraines. I happened to know people who spoke their native language, but if I didn’t, I would have been able to get an interpreter from the university.