Preparing for College for a Student with a Disability

Graduation season is nearly upon us as high school seniors across the state are making plans for their next adventure. If you have a disability and choose to go on to college, there are additional steps required, both in choosing the right university and in seeing that your needs are met.

I’m talking to you, the student, not your parent. You’re likely 18 now and a legal adult, so it’s your turn to take the lead and pave the way to the future you’ve dreamed of. The college will be communicating directly with you, not your parents, from now on. If you want your parents involved, you’ll need to forward them all the information along the way. That may be a big change for you because, up until now, your parents had the power to make decisions about your education and the school had a legal obligation to see that your needs were met (follow your IEP or 504, ensure that you made progress, etc.) College is different – you must ask for what you need, and provide proof, before they’re required to provide it.

In college the IDEA law that forms the basis for IEPs does not apply, as they don’t write IEPs. You aren’t entitled to a plan with goals that the college is obligated to follow.  You also won’t be entitled to time with an intervention specialist, speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or other itinerant services.[1]  BUT, if you have proper documentation, the college is obligated by law to provide you with disability-related accommodations, similar to those you would find in a 504 or under the accommodations section of an IEP. For example, you may be entitled to a dorm with an elevator, a private room, a note taker, priority registration, a support animal, etc.

Before you accept admission to a university, you need to do your research. Reach out to the disability services department of each college you’re considering. Find out if they can meet your specific needs, whether it’s about housing arrangements, transportation, preferential seating, dietary needs, or medical services. Evaluate them on how well they explain the process and how easy/difficult it is to get your questions answered in an efficient manner. Some colleges offer tutoring for free for all students, and some offer free counseling services. Some even have special programs for students with disabilities where they get tutoring and additional supports (like organization help or counseling services) but these programs are typically “add on” services that you must pay for on top of traditional room/board/tuition.

As soon as you accept an offer of admission, you’ll need to get connected with the disability services office to request your accommodations in writing. They will provide you with a form to do so, and they will ask you to provide some type of proof of your disability and related needs. The college will tell you specifically what they are looking for, but it will likely include a copy of your most recent ETR, IEP/504 plan, and/or a form completed by your physician. That’s why it’s so important that your documents from high school thoroughly identify your needs. The college will then review your request and approve or deny each of your requested accommodations.

Even after approval, it is still your job to make sure that your professors or residence hall directors are aware of your approved accommodations. If you have a notetaking accommodation for example, you’ll want to email all of your professors, before classes begin, that you have been approved for notetaking services and you need a note taker. This will give them time to find someone in the class that is willing to provide those services for you (typically the university pays students to do this). Don’t assume that anyone knows what you need or that you’ve been approved for accommodations. Inform them, and do it ahead of time, as much as possible.

People with disabilities CAN go to college and be very successful! It just takes more planning. Support is available, you just have to ask for it and be persistent. If professors or staff members aren’t providing you with your approved accommodations upon request, file a complaint with the ADA coordinator. Stand up for yourself! You worked hard to get through high school and get accepted to a college– you’ve got this! And for those naysayers who think you can’t do it?! Go prove them wrong!

[1] If you need these continued services in college, don’t let that discourage you from attending! You could still find these services near your college (or virtually) and pay for them yourself. It’s just that, in college, they’re not obligated to provide them for you free of charge.

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