College Spotlight: Elle Butterfield

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on July 27, 2022 # Accessible College

ElleThe December day her dream came true remains etched in Elle Butterfield’s memory. She was at her desk when her phone suddenly began to buzz…and buzz…and buzz. The Snapchat group she’d joined with fellow applicants to High Point University in North Carolina was exploding.

The decision letters had arrived.

Quickly signing into her account, Butterfield scanned the results — and began to cry. But they were happy tears: not only had she found her ideal school, but it had chosen her, too.

Butterfield has used a power wheelchair because of a neuromuscular condition since she was a young girl. For much of her education, she had to travel to a school farther from home than her local peers “because it was the only place that knew what to do with students like me.”

But Butterfield remained undaunted, growing into a voracious reader of historical fiction, biographies and, especially, Harry Potter – “I’m a Slytherin!” – who was deeply curious about the wider world. When it was time to apply to college, the Maryland resident was aiming for someplace entirely new.

“I wanted to go outside of my comfort zone, if that makes sense,” she says.

Like many students, Butterfield prioritized her search around academics, but an array of logistical concerns related to her disability also mattered. Lori Butterfield was thrilled by her daughter’s excitement about this next stage of her life, but also felt overwhelmed by pressure from well-meaning friends.

“What people don’t understand is that the college process is so complex in and of itself, and then you had these other multiple layers of complexity,” she says. “We have the ultimate faith in our daughter, but this is a tough one to navigate.”

To help manage the search, Elle and her parents connected with the Reeve Foundation’s College Transition Program, which provides free consultations for people with paralysis as they pursue higher education and prepare for future careers. Students with disabilities account for roughly 19% of the college population across the United States. Though they may have unique considerations alongside class selection—including accessibility and accommodation requirements–there is no reason these students cannot thrive at college.

Working with Annie Tulkin, founder of Reeve Foundation partner organization Accessible College, Elle assembled a framework of customized questions, including whether schools could provide scribes and audio capture equipment for accommodations, and if Elle’s classes would automatically be scheduled on lower floors so she could get to them independently.

“You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Lori Butterfield, adding, “What is so great about Annie is that she really understands the unique journey of people with paralysis or who are wheelchair users. That is such a different expertise. This program is a fantastic resource and just what people desperately need.”

Elle and her parents moved to North Carolina this summer to support Elle’s transition to High Point in the fall. The young student will live with her parents for her first year but hopes to move onto campus after that. She’s already connecting with another students and planning to study criminal justice, legal studies and psychology with a future career goal of working with death row inmates.

A new adventure is on the horizon and Butterfield can’t wait.

“I want the whole college experience,” she says. “I definitely feel ready for this next part of my life.”

For more information about the College Transition Program, or to receive “Navigating and Transitioning to College with Paralysis," a comprehensive guide to help young adults with mobility impairments plan for college, please call the NPRC Information Specialist team at 800-539-7309.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.