Surviving College with RA

Throughout childhood, college was my aspiration. From a young age I loved reading and learning. School and books were a refuge because they didn’t tax my joints and yet excited my mind. I was a notorious bookworm!

As I progressed through high school we started thinking about how I would manage college with my rheumatoid arthritis. A campus would be more challenging to navigate than the two-story building where I went to high school. Also, I would need accommodation for wheelchair access so that I could function independently.

When I graduated high school the Americans with Disabilities Act requiring accessibility was a new law and not fully implemented. Some of the colleges we visited were not accessible. The worst was a small college where I could go to the dorm and the cafeteria. They were persistent in recruiting me, but I couldn’t imagine how I was going to go to class or the library when I couldn’t manage to climb all the stairs.

After a visit, I selected Bryn Mawr College outside Philadelphia as my first choice and was excited to be accepted. Most of the academic buildings and the libraries were accessible when I started, plus a couple dorms and cafeterias. Any classes that I wanted to take could also be moved to an accessible location. During the summer, the college also made some accessibility updates like new paths and automatic doors. It made a huge difference towards making me feel welcome that the college made an effort to improve accessibility and accommodate me.

Before going to college, my family and I planned through all the challenges we thought I may encounter. As a senior in high school I transitioned from using a manual wheelchair to motorized wheelchair so that I could get accustomed to driving it. We knew that I wouldn’t have the strength and endurance to walk between buildings to attend classes.

A lot of what we did was assess my current abilities with my rheumatoid arthritis and worked to plan ahead for any difficulties. These points can help students think about their needs at college:

  • Where are most of your classes and the dorms? Can you be assigned a dorm that would minimize walking and help maintain your energy?
  • For meal planning, can you use a cafeteria in or near your dorm building?
  • Can you plan your class schedule around times when you have your best hours in the day? Can you plan breaks in between for getting rest when needed?
  • With many colleges going digital carrying around a lot of heavy books may be less of a problem. But if you do need to carry materials, can you get a cart or rolling luggage to minimize strain on your joints?
  • For maintaining your health, find a nearby rheumatologist and meet with them before or soon after starting college. As an alternative, talk with your current rheumatologist and see if they could provide care by phone while you are away. In case of a flare, you’ll want to have a plan to get immediate care and medication.
  • Safe exercise is also important for managing RA. Check out exercise programs on campus, such as the swimming pool, stretching or yoga classes.
  • Most of all, keep track of how you are feeling and make sure to get plenty of rest. It’s important to manage your RA by staying well-rested and minimizing stress.
  • Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it!

While I was very excited to attend college, it also was scary to move away from home and be responsible for myself. I had to adapt and figure out how to take care of myself and manage my RA, which has been a lifelong lesson I still appreciate to this day. I’ll always be thankful for the great education and start in life I had by going to college.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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