Returning to School as a Disabled Adult

I have decided (after many conversations with my family) that it was time for me to return to school and pursue my graduate degree. For quite some time, I had been putting it off when I became disabled several years ago. I understand that I am not getting any younger and I must seize the moment.  Prior to my disability, I had already obtained an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. When I reflect on going to school prior to my disability, that seemed like a cake walk compared to the new challenge that I am facing now.

I have been working in finance for about 20 years with a wonderful company. The need to level up and expand my knowledge base, earning potential and career opportunities has been a constant and elusive goal. There was a myriad of other circumstances that led me to the present. Sitting on the cliff of indecision, I debated if I should yell “Geronimo” and take the leap back into academia. Can I keep my eyes on the prize with so many other circumstances that could sidetrack me?

In all honesty, I am terrified of this new journey. There were so many questions racing through my head. How can I balance a career, school, and family while being disabled? What will happen if I flare up and need time off? Will the school be wheelchair accessible to accommodate me during graduation? I had a whole lot of questions and not many answers. I found myself just stepping out on faith and taking the plunge anyway.

The first thing to consider was my age. Although I have attended college level classes as an adult over 30, I have not tried college as a disabled adult. According to research from the Council of Graduate Schools, 22% of graduate students are over 40 years old. Of this number, 14% are between the ages of 40 and 50, while 8% are older than 50 years old. It’s encouraging news that a good number of more seasoned citizens are embarking on the journey to bolster their professional worth.

There were a host of potential obstacles to consider in going back to college now. A lack of time is one of my primary concerns. Dealing with family commitments, balancing work and keeping up with my new and intricate health needs may become tricky.

Then, there is the whole reason I have been mulling over this decision at all and that is my mindset. I am wondering if I can handle more than a few classes at once. Do I still have the focus and memory necessary to stay current and complete my assignments on time and follow my schedule closely? Surety and confidence are sometimes difficult to build during the nonstop movement of daily life.

Fortunately, I can now exclusively pursue my continuing education online from the comfort of my disability-accessible home and will only need to attend school in person for graduation. Many online colleges have in-person graduation ceremonies. Airline travel and transporting a vital piece of equipment like my expensive wheelchair is a scary proposition. I am also concerned about being confined for several hours in an enclosed area with an auto-immune disease during the increasingly communicable COVID-19 virus. The thought of that alone causes me to have elevated anxiety.

As I have aged, my appreciation for the perspective and insight of others has allowed me the opportunity of more informed decision making. This can be essential when suffering from things like writer’s block and stagnation in the middle of big projects and papers. I also must consider the wealth of cultural and general knowledge that I have acquired simply through living. I call it the Jeopardy effect, the cache of knowledge that older people have that you don’t use every day but comes in handy, nonetheless.

Finally, I must give credence to the advantages of having a Ph.D. or Doctorate in my field while also being able to cite my almost twenty years of experience on the front lines of finance. I have been in the situation several times before across an interview table being told that I needed more experience or more accreditation. 

With a lot of planning, help and encouragement from my husband, children, friends, and family, I am sure the positive energy from my loved ones will aid me in achieving my mission of attaining the tools I need to increase my value as an irreplaceable asset. Wish me luck!

About Merlisha Henderson: Merlisha uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair for mobility and lives in Arizona with her family. As a wife, mother and disability advocate in her community, she stays active and independent, working toward bringing equality and access to all. Click here to learn more about Merlisha.