Matthew Ofstie’s route to college began in an elevator. Stuck. He was 16 years old, 4 feet 2 inches tall and visiting a conference for disabled students interested in college at Southern Connecticut State University. The symposium was held in an old, drab building.
“It looked like a decommissioned nuclear plant,” said Ofstie, now an eighth-semester political science major at UConn.
After a morning of motivational speeches, he and his parents left the building for some air. When they returned to the elevator, his father hit “3”. Ofstie said he couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of holding a disability conference on the third floor. And the irony didn’t hesitate to laugh back. The elevator froze.
“I quickly learned that old buildings are a red flag,” Ofstie said.
After five minutes of pressing buttons to no avail, his father pried the elevator doors open. They headed directly for their green Pontiac and drove home.
“The experience didn’t give me a bad impression of college,” Ofstie said. “I promise I haven’t been back to Southern, though.”
Ofstie has a rare genetic disorder, osteogenesis imperfecta, that forces him to use a wheelchair most of the time. He sits low to the ground in his chair. He has wispy hair like Kramer, a character on the old TV show “Seinfeld.”
The disease, known as brittle bone disease, affects one in 20,000 children born in the United States, according to the Osteogenesis Imperfecta Foundation http://www.oif.org. It usually results in multiple bone breaks before puberty. Ofstie has suffered between 30 and 35 broken bones—from his femur to collarbone. After one bad break, he was wrapped in a body cast for three months, forced to experience the world vicariously through books.
“Do you remember the villain in ‘Unbreakable’?” He asked. “I am Samuel L. Jackson.”
Because of his rare disease, Ofstie had to visit each potential college before he would apply. Ofstie’s senior year was marked by constant drives back-and-forth across New England.
“Most of them missed something,” Ofstie said. “Either classes were too far from the dormitories, buildings had been built before handicap laws, or there wasn’t a van service.”
In time, he had developed a checklist of requirements for a viable school: Buildings constructed after the 1960s. Accessible dormitories on campus. A handicap van service to and from classes.
Most universities lacked at least one of the requirements—a handicap van service being the most common. At Eastern Connecticut State University, an admissions officer told Ofstie to look elsewhere, he said, because they did not have university-sponsored transportation.