Going Back to School After a Spinal Cord Injury


It is back to school time! While this year looks much different than past years, back to school following a spinal cord injury always comes with its own set of considerations.

I (Kelley) was 16 years old when I had my spinal cord injury. I was a sophomore in high school, serving as class president, a member of the dance team, busy with extracurricular activities and working at a dry cleaners. Then, in one second, my life changed in every single way. Following my spinal cord injury, I had so many questions in my head, including how and if I would return to
school. Luckily, I was able to enter a rehab facility (Shepherd Center) that helped facilitate my learning from the hospital. During my inpatient rehab I was set up with a teacher in the hospital who linked up with my teacher at my high school. I was able to keep up with my work, all the while learning to live my life in a wheelchair, so I could return back to school on track. I even managed to run (and win) for Junior Class President from my hospital bed. Once I realized my dreams for my future didn’t have to change, I would just be getting around life in a different way, I was ready to roll (literally and figuratively).

However, as much as I was ready to get back to school, my school needed to be ready for me. I knew there were parts of my school that would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to navigate from a wheelchair. For example, there was no ramp in the front of my school. If I wanted to get in my school, I had to enter in the back side of the building. There were no wheelchair accessible parking spaces in the student lots, meaning that when I started driving to school I would not be able to load and unload my wheelchair from my car (and then access the front of the school). Also, some of my classes were located on the second floor of a building that had no elevator. So, it was important that me, my parents, the school administration, and the rehab hospital all came together for a discussion about accessibility. I was sure to be successful in my return back to school, IF I had the right accessibility. In the end, we worked with the school board to get a ramp built on the front of the school building so I could get in the school with my peers, get down to the football field, and other places. I was given a wheelchair accessible parking spot, and while it was not with the student parking, it provided me the access I needed to independently load and unload my wheelchair on my own. All of my classes were moved to areas that were accessible.

The other part of transitioning back to school that I had less control over was how my teachers and peers would react to me returning in a wheelchair. Even with my best attitude on looking forward and moving on with school, I had no idea if my friends would still be my friends now that I used a wheelchair, if I would be invited to participate in activities, and would my teachers look at me differently. While I now understand attitudinal barriers are some of the greatest barriers a person with a disability can face, at the time as a newly injured person, I think I subliminally understood that this would be a great challenge. While there were a couple other students with disabilities in my school, for most people it was still an unknown world. I returned to school 3 months to the day of my wreck. I was just glad to get back to something that resembled “normal” after living in a hospital for three months. While some of my friendships changed because I had matured through the experience in ways my peers had not, I gained new friendships that I carry with me today. Also, the stares and looks of wonder of what I was like coming back to school in a wheelchair, ended up providing a new perspective to 1800 students plus staff when they saw I was still “Kelley.” Learning to accept these new realities in an environment that was more familiar to me gave me the confidence to take those challenges to a different level by moving away from my home, family, and familiarity and go to college out of state where I knew no one.

Each person will have a different journey returning to school after a catastrophic injury. While it is not easy, it is possible. Below you will find some of the things to consider as you make this big transition!

Creating a plan

Going back to school after a spinal cord injury can be both exciting and overwhelming. It is important to have a solid plan in place prior to going back to make it less stressful. This plan should be made with your therapist and conveyed to any support staff including teachers. The occupational therapist can help design a plan that encompasses bladder and bowel care and any other medical issues directly related to your specific needs. It is important to remember that many things will change when going back to school with a spinal cord injury. It is imperative to surround yourself with people who build you up and can accept your new normal. There may be times when you are frustrated with not being able to partake in activities that you used to but try different ways to accomplish the task to where you still feel like you’re part of the group. Most importantly, try not to dwell on “how things used to be”.

Ease of learning

An important factor to consider when returning to school is what the teacher to student ratio is. When your child is returning to school it may be helpful to them to have less students in the class so that if your child needs extra help they have a teacher available to help. This would need to be addressed before your child returns to school.

Online Classes

Mason Ellis who was injured in a car accident in 2015 tells 180° medical about the pros and cons of online classes. Especially during the time of COVID this may be your only option or it may be your best option for now.

Pros of Online Classes:

  • No need to worry about the accessibility of your school’s buildings or restrooms for your
  • Because every course assignment is given to you on the first day, you have the option to
    work ahead and finish early
  • You can tailor your coursework to fit your schedule, including doing your homework at
    any time of the day

In addition to the above pros, for mid-term and final exams, your exams are monitored by virtual proctors. They watch you through your webcam and record your screen to make sure you’re not cheating. Ultimately, I felt this was a pro because the screen recordings had proof of all my answers in case the system messed up.

Cons of Online Classes:

  • You might miss the social aspect of being in a classroom with other students
  • You can’t ask your professors question in-person and instead rely on email or phone
  • Some professors may not respond to you for a few days

Advocating for your Needs

No one will understand your needs greater than you (either as a parent or the student). It is important that you evaluate the school and assess what needs you may have in order to most successfully transition back to school. The needs may range from accessibility in building, note-takers, technology, or adapted schedule or learning environment. Starting a conversation with the school administration all the way to the school board, may be a path necessary to have all of the tools you need for success. At the end of the day, you want to have an environment where the most barriers are removed, so that your focus can be on learning–not how you will learn!

The Spinal Cord Injury Law Firm is committed to helping people in all aspects of life following a spinal cord injury or other catastrophic injury. If you believe that your school is not providing you with the accommodations you need to be successful and fully integrated in the learning environment, give us a call. We Understand and will Fight for You! 1-877-SCI-FIRM