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Preparing for College With a Disability

Students with disabilities have added challenges to face when transitioning from high school to college. But these students have already overcome great obstacles and the law is on their side. The key is to know what is available and what your rights are in regard to the post-secondary institutions.

What follows is a brief but informative guide for students with disabilities who are entering a U.S. college or university. Although post-secondary schools are obligated by law to accommodate students with disabilities, it is the student’s responsibility to communicate with the school to ensure their needs are met.

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Knowing Your Rights

The United States has addressed the issues facing its disabled citizens on several occasions. Two important pieces of legislation that spoke to the rights of the disabled came in 1973 and 1990.

In 1973 the United States adopted the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 of that legislation reads:

“No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

In 1990 The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. The ADA covers both mental and physical disabilities. The Equal Opportunity Commission provides a list of disabilities covered by the ADA including:

  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Intellectual Disabilities
  • Missing Limbs or Mobility Impairments
  • Autism
  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Chronic Physical Disease
  • Mental Health Issues

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Regulations exist specific to how schools must accommodate students with disabilities. We’ll cover these in more depth later, but all American colleges and universities must provide:

  • Accessible Testing Locations
  • Course Substitution
  • Note-taking Services
  • Priority Class Registration
  • Recording Devices
  • Extended Testing Time
  • Audio Textbooks

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Student Disability Services Office

By law, institutions of higher education must provide equal opportunity for students with disabilities to participate in and benefit from all programs, services, and activities available to the student body. Many schools have established a resource center, services office, or designated staff member specifically to provide these accommodations to disabled students. These schools may be the best prepared, but all must accommodate the needs of disabled students. However, the student needs to reach out to the school and establish a dialogue regarding specific needs.

If your university doesn’t have a Disability Services Office or ADA Coordinator, contact one of the following:

  • Student Affairs
  • Counseling Services
  • Tutoring Services
  • Students with Disabilities Group
  • Health Center

Documentation (High School vs College Legal Obligations)

Accommodating students with disabilities, at no cost to the student, is a national requirement. However, the institution is within its rights to request proof of disability in the form of authoritative documentation, prior to the student’s arrival on campus. For instance, a hearing-impaired student may be required to provide a recent audiogram. Students who are sight-impaired may need to provide a vision assessment.

Medical or diagnostic reports must include the diagnostician’s name, credentials, and date of testing. Most post-secondary schools require reports dated no more than three years before a student’s request for special accommodations. The time requirement may be waived for those student’s whose disability is not subject to change (i.e., blind, deaf, etc.).

Students with learning disabilities or mental health issues may be required to submit more recent documentation. Individuals having difficulty providing adequate documentation should contact the school administrator designated to handle disability resources. Some colleges and universities provide these assessments or can assist in finding competent diagnosticians, but this is not required by law.

Students must ascertain what documentation will be necessary for accommodations to be implemented. Seeking out the correct administrator and writing an accommodation request letter well in advance of the start of classes is strongly advised. A formal letter is helpful to the school and provides documented proof of proper cooperation from the students.

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All requested documentation should be formally submitted, typed or at least legible, and in English. Documents must include a specific diagnosis with clear evidence of the disability claimed. Some colleges and universities may require their own testing in addition to provided documents.

The school can only require medical documents that pertain to a student’s specific disability, validating the request for accommodations necessary in providing equal opportunity. Student privacy is not to be violated.

Network with Other Students and Alumni with Similar Disabilities

In many cases, there may be groups on campus organized to support students with disabilities. At times students may need to reach out to a national organization or start a chapter on their campus.

The Dream organization is an excellent resource for networking with other students on campus and across the country. They list a myriad of resources on their website including organized college campus chapters meant to promote positive mental and emotional health. Their goal is to end the stigma attached to mental illness. Active Minds also boasts an Emerging Scholars Fellowship for mental health projects.

With centers across the country, The ADA National Network provides resources and assistance for students with disabilities. This network is an excellent resource in regard to rights provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Meet with Instructors to Define Needs

The institution is responsible for providing necessary accommodations, but instructors will no doubt be involved in the process. Communication is key. Although an accommodation letter to the institution is advised, don’t hand a faculty member a note and leave it at that.

Accommodation letters can be vague due to privacy concerns. Letters may list necessary procedure alterations, (i.e., extra exam time, distraction-free test sites, etc.) Sharing a bit more information with a professor, in confidence, will be a help to both student and instructor. Accommodation letters rarely explain that diabetics may need to eat in the middle of class or that migraine sufferers may not be able to handle a computer screen at times.

By communicating with the faculty, prior to school beginning, they are prepared and not surprised at student behavior. You have a right to your privacy, but the more information you can share with your professors the easier it will be for them to understand the situation. Many people lack training when it comes to dealing with disabilities. In these cases, you may need to be the teacher.

Academic Adjustments/Assistive Technology

Accessible Testing
Some students need testing aids in order to reach their highest potential. Others require an alternate test environment. Testing aids can include:

  • Braille or large-print exams
  • Screen readers
  • Visual prompts for the hearing impaired
  • Additional time
  • Wheelchair-accessible environment
  • Distraction-free environment
  • Ability to access food or medication
  • Course substitution

In some cases, the faculty and staff will collaborate to assess possible substitutions for inaccessible coursework. Institutions are becoming more adept at identifying substitutions for other required courses. Students must initiate a course substitution request at least two semesters in advance of degree completion. Documentation must support the need for substitution.

Note-taking Services
Students with documented inability to take notes will be provided with assistance. These students may be provided with notes, possibly allowed to record audio in class, or can be provided with lecture materials. Students able to record their own notes to a limited extent may be offered supplementary help.

Priority Class Registration
Again, with documented proof, students with disabilities that require a schedule that accommodates their needs will be provided priority registration. Requests will be approved when proof is provided that the schedule will affect a student’s access to the learning environment.

Recording Devices
As stated in the Rehabilitation Act, Section 504:
”A recipient . . . shall take such steps as are necessary to ensure … educational auxiliary aids for students with impaired sensory, manual, or speaking skills.” For some, this means that you may have the right to record either audio or video for your future use.

Extended Testing Time
For students whose disability affects their test-taking abilities, most college and national testing allows for 50% more additional time. Documentation must be provided to prove that the student’s disability affects the successful completion of the timed exam.

Audio Textbooks
Due to the number of students with disabilities seeking higher learning, the need for alternate materials has also grown. Among electronic textbook formats, audio versions continue to increase.

College Scholarships and Financial Aid for Students with Disabilities

The price of post-secondary education continues to skyrocket. With more and more graduates saddled with insurmountable student loan debt, financial aid and scholarships are worth the time and effort necessary to procure this type of financing. Students with disabilities are eligible for certain government programs along with the same need-based financial aid that is offered to all students. They may also be eligible for a great number of scholarship and grant programs. The outcome is truly worth the research to seek out these programs and opportunities.

Financial Aid for Disability Students

Most college students are in need of some type of financial assistance to reach their educational goals. Federal financial aid is available to all prospective students, based only on financial need. Federal, as well as private grants, are also available to students, although the U.S. government does not offer grants geared toward disabled students.

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Both grants and scholarships are available for college tuition and expenses. Grants are normally awarded on a financial need basis. Scholarships most often require academic achievement. In both cases, a specific program, disability, or other student characteristic can be an eligibility requirement.

It is wise for all students to research what is available to them in the form of grants and scholarships, rather than relying on loans that will need to be repaid. These sources offer funds for tuition and expenses without the need to pay them back. Grants are available from various sources.

They just need to be discovered and applied for. Some public and private sources to research include:

  • Federal Student Grants
  • Individual State-based Grants and Scholarships
  • College and University Grants, Scholarships and Fellowships
  • Privately Funded Grants and Scholarships from Businesses and Organizations

Associations & Organizations for Students with Disabilities

Associations for Students with Disabilities
Students with disabilities can face obstacles other than financial issues. Mobility issues can pose a problem in maneuvering through a large college campus. Disabilities can also pose problems in classroom settings. Thankfully there are innumerable organizations with missions to support students with disabilities and help them reach their full potential in college and in life. Many national entities offer assistance and most areas of the country also have local organizations that focus on specific disorders or disabilities. We’ve listed just a few.

Think College
Think College is a national organization whose goal is to improve higher education options and experiences for students with intellectual disabilities. Think College provides hundreds of resources on a variety of topics relating to higher education for students with intellectual disabilities. Resources can help with the transition into college, aids in acquiring financing, accessing unique accommodations, and more.

Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
The vision of AHEAD is for a higher learning opportunity for those who are disabled that “is free from barriers.” AHEAD advocates on behalf of its members to ensure that students with disabilities thrive in every aspect of their college experience. They offer support and are committed to setting a standard of competency in the higher education community by assessing the needs of their membership regularly.

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)
LDA is committed to a set of Core Principles developed in cooperation with the Learning Disabilities Association. LDA exists to create opportunities for success for individuals dealing with learning disabilities. They offer support and advocacy. Furthermore, LDA endeavors to educate others in regard to learning disabilities and the challenges that disabled students face.

Asperger Syndrome & High Functioning Autism Association (AHA)
This organization offers support to individuals on the autism spectrum to ensure that they fulfill their potential. The AHA offers personal phone and e-support. They also sponsor support meetings for individuals, as well as educational presentations and conferences to raise awareness.

The Autism Society
The Autism Society is a national organization with local chapters for individualized support. The goal of the society is to support students in their day-to-day challenges as well as to raise awareness in the community. A recent partnership with AMC Entertainment also provides an opportunity for autistic students to enjoy current motion pictures in a sensory-friendly environment.

The Cerebral Palsy Group (CPG)
Adults with Cerebral Palsy (CP) encounter unique challenges when entering a college or university. The CPG is determined to support students with CP to succeed in their educational goals. Because of the diverse effects of CP, individuals require unique accommodations to complete their desired career programs. The CPG will be an invaluable aid in procuring the academic accommodations necessary to fulfill any student’s needs.

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)
This well-established, national organization has been focusing on the needs of the visually impaired for almost a century. One branch of the AFB is Career Connect which provides resources to career-focused individuals with vision loss. Resources include free access to a wide range of portfolio-building tools and support in job searches. All resources are screen reader and magnifier friendly, developed specifically for individuals with vision impairment.

The National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC)
The NDC offers assistance and resources to both hearing impaired individuals and institutions seeking to serve students with hearing loss. The NDC sponsors a variety of conferences annually focused on topics like assistive technology, student success, and the like. Resources offered include legal information and transition planning services to assist students in achieving their higher education goals.