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Resources & Support for College Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities have unique challenges, so it’s important to understand your rights and the resources that are available to you. Continue reading for this vital information, as well as advice about how to best transition to college life.

Author: Timon Kaple
Editor: STEPS Staff
Reviewer: Ruth Wilson
A female student in a wheelchair reaching for a book on a shelf in the library.

Transitioning from high school to college presents challenges for every student, and students with disabilities are no exception. If you’re a student with a learning or physical disability, there are many resources to help you with homework, studying, and navigating daily life. Colleges and universities are continually strengthening their support services and resources, partially because of recent improvements in digital technologies but also because the number of people with disabilities attending college has increased. As of 2016, 19% of the total undergraduate student population had some type of learning or physical disability.

This guide identifies key resources to support you as a student with a disability and offers valuable suggestions on where to find additional assistance both on campus and in your community. There’s a wealth of information available, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. This guide narrows your search for assistive technologies and resources and makes finding the information you need to do your best in college easier.

The Rights of College Students with Disabilities

By law, students with disabilities have the same rights as those without them in educational settings. Nearly all educational institutions in the U.S. must provide students with disabilities the same access to quality education as other students. Here’s a quick look at your rights as a student with a disability and a list of resources with more information.

The ADA and Your Rights as a College Student

Those with qualified disabilities are protected under The American Disabilities Act (ADA). Essentially, the law prohibits the exclusion of people with disabilities in every facet of public life. This includes prohibiting discrimination in several specific areas, including transportation services, schools, communications, public accommodations, and access to local and state government services or programs. You are not required to disclose your disability to your school. If you do not disclose it, however, the school is not necessarily required to provide you with the accommodations you need.

All public and private institutions run by non-religious entities must follow laws established by the ADA. All higher education institutions, including private religion-affiliated schools, that receive federal funding of $2,500 or more per year must also follow ADA laws. As a student, under the ADA and the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, you can’t be denied admission to a school, excluded from any classes or program activities, or counseled to pursue a more restrictive educational path or career because you have a disability.

What You Can Do if Your Rights Are Not Being Met

There are steps you can take if you feel your rights were violated as a student with a disability. First, you can contact your institution’s disability support services office or an academic advisor who can put you in touch with the best contact on campus to hear your complaint. Whoever oversees supporting students with disabilities should provide you with swift assistance and help solve any issues.

There are also federal agencies overseeing the laws pertaining to student discrimination, and you can contact them directly to file a complaint. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights accepts complaints regarding the ADA or Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as does the Department of Justice.

Resources & Tools

DREDF educates people with disabilities and their parents about their rights under federal and state laws. It also provides legal advocacy in disability rights litigation and strives to improve public policies affecting people with disabilities.

CPR works at state, national, and international levels to strengthen public policy, legal strategies, and advocacy efforts for people with disabilities. It also facilitates connections to partners in law offering pro bono legal services for people with disabilities.

This site helps you find services and information pertaining to students with disabilities at most degree-granting institutions across the country. School profiles typically include contact information for the best office to support you, including an address, phone number, and site link.

The Heath Resource Center at GW provides an excellent document on legal issues and guidelines affecting students with disabilities. It includes information on how learners with disabilities can advocate for themselves, especially in terms of receiving access to usable learning technologies that meet their needs. Your institution may have a comparable resource center on campus. Ask your academic advisor if you have trouble locating these services.

BHCC’s division of student affairs provides students with documented disabilities access to services on campus and remotely, including assistive technology, educational coaching, pre-admission advising and registration assistance, and more. Ask your school about disability support services to make sure you are aware of all accommodations available to you.

Many schools have educational diagnostic services like those at Curry College. These offices provide comprehensive evaluation and testing services to help you determine which kinds of accommodations on campus can help you get the most out of your tenure as a student.

Offered through the University of Washington, DO-IT Pals offers remote mentoring for college-bound learners with disabilities. Teens and young adults can work directly with professors and other mentors to better prepare for and succeed in college classrooms. Anyone can apply for this program online, not only those interested in attending UW.

Making the Transition to College

All students making the transition to college face a variety of hurdles and need to make adjustments. This transition can be even more challenging for learners with disabilities. If you have disabilities and are preparing for college life, here are some tips and resources for making the transition smoother.

Transitioning to College Learning as a Student with Disabilities

There are important differences between high school learning experiences and those in college for students with disabilities. High school learners with disabilities are often directly assigned to the appropriate educators to meet their learning needs. In college, though, you must request help from the school to ensure you receive the necessary support and accommodations. In other words, you need to be proactive in finding the appropriate campus resources to assist you. Try establishing your documentation and accommodation needs before classes start. If you must take placement tests before enrolling, file your accommodation requirements ahead of time. In addition to those detailed below, resources at the University of Washington and Boston College can help you know what to expect.

Resources & Tools

This guide illustrates the differences between high school and college accommodations for students with disabilities. It has step-by-step instructions for high school students and other newly accepted college students preparing for college for making sure they receive appropriate accommodations.

Made possible by the University of Washington, AccessSTEM provides students with disabilities access to an online community of peers and professionals to help them transition into college learning. This program is designed for learners interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

This organization connects students with disabilities to peers on campus or in the community for help adjusting to college life and enjoying leisure activities outside of school.

The disability support services office on your campus, like this one at the University of North Alabama, may be able to pair you with an upper-class student to provide assistance and support as needed. This can provide an insider look at campus and college life from an experienced student. Check with your academic advisor to see if your school offers a peer mentoring program.

This article provides a checklist for prospective college students with disabilities. It helps make sure you understand your rights and responsibilities as you prepare for college life.

The Center for Online Education recommends that students with disabilities try a free online course before enrolling in college. This gives an idea of what you’ll need to be comfortable in the classroom, especially in remote scenarios.

Like this service at Emmanuel College, your school may offer the chance to engage in peer tutoring and study groups. These allow students with disabilities to receive one-on-one help with their academics while providing opportunities for socializing.

Students Who Have Learning Disabilities

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), learning disabilities manifest in several forms and range in severity among individuals. From non-verbal learning disabilities to dyscalculia and dysgraphia, they can interfere with knowledge acquisition and educational development in a variety of ways when it comes to schoolwork, including impairments with speaking or listening, reading, writing, problem-solving, and mathematical computation. Here’s a look at ways to succeed in college as a student with a learning disability.

Succeeding in College as a Student with Learning Disabilities

Unlike high school, college students with learning disabilities need to request and coordinate their own accommodations. As you consider schools, check out the tutoring and writing centers available on campus and remotely. Academic advisors or staff members in the school’s tutoring program can also advise on getting extra help through private, off-campus providers.

Additionally, establish an open line of communication with the disability coordinator on campus. Contact your academic advisor or dean of students’ office to get this information. You can also ask your professors for office hour meetings, both online and on-campus.

Below is a list of resources and tools to help you prepare for college by finding assistance applicable to any learning disability you may have.

Resources & Tools

This site offers beneficial academic strategies for success and discusses how learners can advocate for themselves in the college environment.

This award-winning software supports learners with literacy in the classroom. It focuses on study skills, reading, and writing, and is especially beneficial for learners with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and other speech-related disabilities.

Like Ventura College, your school probably has a center dedicated to helping students with specific subjects. Oftentimes, reading and writing support services have their own dedicated staff. Students with learning disabilities can receive assistance with crafting assignments and retaining the information they read from a trained professional.

Designed to make the mathematical computation process easier, high school and adult learners with learning disabilities benefit from this app’s large colorful buttons and voiceover functions announcing the answers, formulas, commands, and names of buttons.

While this information is primarily directed at faculty wanting to improve or diversify the accommodations they offer students with disabilities, the “accommodations strategies” also serve as a good list for college students. The suggestions give ideas on how an accommodations office or faculty members can help you.

Determined to be a disability for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), ADHD presents learners with unique challenges inside and outside the classroom. This guide offers quick tips on how to improve the quality of your study time and your performance on tests.

This app allows users to download audiobooks and listen to them using personalized audio settings. It is designed for learners with difficulty reading, reading comprehension challenges, or dyslexia.

Students Who Have Physical Disabilities

Mobility-related and physical disabilities can affect dexterity, stamina, and general physical capacity. While some physical disabilities are seen with the naked eye, some are not obvious and have few visible signs. Physical disabilities include cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injuries, and many more.

Succeeding in College as a Student with Physical Disabilities

Getting around campus, using writing utensils and keyboards, and turning pages in a book, to name a few examples, can be challenging for individuals with physical disabilities, and universities typically have a range of human support services for students in this category. Sometimes referred to as “non-medical help,” your school can make accommodations to help you carry out daily tasks on campus where you might need extra time or assistance. Additionally, students with physical disabilities should check in with an academic advisor or staff in the student disabilities support office regularly to ensure their accommodations needs are being met.

Resources & Tools

This FAQ page regarding service animals and the ADA has helpful information for the many individuals with physical disabilities relying on service animals for daily assistance on-campus. If you plan on using a service animal, it’s important to know the guidelines and regulations. For additional information, check out ADA National Network’s guide.

UNB offers this guide to common accommodations for learners with physical disabilities. This list of suggested classroom adaptations can be useful for both students and educators.

For those with occasional or frequent difficulties speaking because of a physical disability, the emergency chat app serves as an assistive tool to help relay messages. It can be a useful safety tool and a means of communication in daily life on and off campus.

This phone app helps students locate wheelchair-friendly parking lots and restrooms. It is especially useful for students with disabilities who attend school in an urban area or who spend a lot of time off campus.

This software helps learners with physical or sensory disabilities, including those with visual impairments. A screen reader and assistant that can magnify text, it also predicts words while students write and includes a text-to-sound feature.

Blind or partially sighted students can use this GPS app to navigate their surroundings. It uses voice commands and describes nearby objects aloud. The app features special alerts when students reach a street crossing or need to make a turn.

This software allows the use of a mouse or another pointing device, like a head pointer or joystick, to type or use a computer without touching individual buttons. Originally designed for people with repetitive strain injuries, the software also works well for students with a range of physical disabilities.

Students Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Students with hearing impairments face a variety of challenges related to learning and communication in the classroom. In addition to hearing aids and other assistive technologies, accommodation offices at colleges and universities offer a range of services for improving your learning experience on-campus and online.

Attending College as a Student Who is Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Students with hearing disabilities range from hard of hearing to total deafness. Whatever their level of hearing impairment, learners may face significant challenges with communication inside and outside the classroom. In traditional classroom settings, hearing-impaired students can receive help from note-takers since it is difficult to lipread and take notes simultaneously. You may also struggle to understand other students if you can’t see their lips. Similar to accommodations offered at the University of Rhode Island, your school may provide a sign language interpreter or a computer-assisted real-time writer. Schools may also have FM assistive learning systems that work well for learners with hearing aids or cochlear implants.

Resources & Tools

This app helps deaf or hard-of-hearing students communicate with others. In any of 80 built-in languages, students get speech-to-text transcriptions in real-time. They can also respond to others using a text feature. The app also notifies users when someone says their name or any word the user adds to a frequently-used words list.

This program works in your web browser and offers real-time transcriptions of what the program hears. There are over 40 languages and dialects included.

ALDA is dedicated to supporting and empowering deafened people. The site offers a support network, an online community, and various resources for members and students. There are also tips on video conferencing and speech-to-translation tools.

Dedicated to supporting children and students with hearing disabilities, this resource list includes links focused on social and emotional support, speech and language support, remote learning tips and best practices, and COVID-19-related information pertaining to facemasks and lip reading.

This organization supports members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing population, especially high school students preparing for college or professional careers. The site features hundreds of free resources, online classes, and community engagement opportunities.

Your state may have a dedicated organization to support its deaf and hard of hearing residents like this one in Massachusetts. It ensures you can connect with professionals outside of campus for any additional assistance. Your comparable organization may be listed under its health and human services state government pages like these services in Texas.

This phone app helps students with hearing disabilities communicate face-to-face and remotely with those who don’t know sign language.

Signly is a browser extension that makes websites and online content more accessible to students with hearing disabilities by illustrating text in sign language form.

Online Learning for College Students with Disabilities

Hybrid and online degree programs offer an array of benefits for students with disabilities. While some of the physical, occupational, and speech therapy services of the traditional in-person classroom setting may not transfer to the online environment, distance learning technologies have a lot to offer remote learners with disabilities.

One advantage for learners with disabilities is accessibility to online learning from the comfort of their homes. Provided students have access to a computer and the internet, online learning reduces daily stress by eliminating the commute to campus. Most schools offer remote tutoring services, as well. You can often receive live, one-on-one tutoring without having to leave home.

Additionally, there is a wide selection of assistive software that functions in real-time on students’ screens to help them manage learning or communication challenges. Learners can also use a variety of third-party programs and apps for additional help. From productivity and organization tools to speech recognition software, text-to-voice programs, and writing assistance, remote students can often find specific tools to improve their online learning experience.

Even without assistive software, online learning can benefit learners with certain types of disabilities. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing, for example, can use video conferencing and virtual classrooms that allow them to better communicate through speech reading or lipreading. They can also use sign language or learn from remote signers/interpreters over video calls.

Many students with disabilities also benefit from self-paced, asynchronous delivery formats, now common in many online programs. This format allows you to complete coursework at your own pace while still having access to a professor, office hours, and other remote supportive services.

Insight from an Advocate for Students with Disabilities

Q: In your experience, what are some things high school students and other prospective college students with disabilities need to think about before they apply to school?

A: While a college search must at some point include research on school offerings, students can prepare for this by learning more about themselves, how they learn, and the conditions that allow them to shine. The high school experience leaves many disabled students feeling fearful of higher education when there are many more options available; the student just has to understand what they are looking for. This can also help decide what to focus on during school visits. For example, for those who need complete quiet to focus, visit the library. Those who remember best when discussing with others should consider shared spaces in dorms, the student hub, and other places to help them access their strengths while in college.

Self-advocacy becomes a critical skill, so the more students can practice describing what they need and why, the more comfortable they will be negotiating in college and eventually the workplace. Practicing during high school helps prepare the student to represent themself later on and builds confidence when talking about individual needs and preferences. Even tasks as small as ordering for yourself in a restaurant help build this skill, which then translates into the college setting. For example, if class participation is a key factor of a grade and the student can write an email explaining that they need additional processing time to formulate an answer and have an anxiety disorder, the professor is more likely to agree to call on the student to speak publicly only when he or she has raised their hand. In addition, every professor must keep office hours, yet many students avoid going to the professor to talk one-on-one, believing they must bend to the teacher’s expectations, realistic or otherwise, rather than explain what they need to be successful.

Also, there is always a window of time, usually ten days, when you can drop a class without financial penalty or any reflection of the attempt on the transcript. Students need the confidence to know when an environment may not fit their needs, so they can move to a better option rather than suffer through a long frustrating term that ultimately ends poorly. As educators, we should help students understand that they aren’t broken or incapable of succeeding in college but that the program they first attempted wasn’t meeting their needs, and we need to be more careful in selecting the next program to make sure it can offer what they need.

Developing comfort using technology and enhancing tech skills are other ways to prepare for eventual college life. Many apps and software programs help facilitate disabled students’ learning but waiting until the first week of college to learn how to use these programs rarely works.

Q: In your work with students with disabilities, what are some trusted resources that you’ve had them or their parents utilize or read to better prepare themselves for college learning? Why do you consider these resources to be valuable? 

A: For a student with a language-based disability, additional reading can become an additional chore, or the student may not be able to generalize the information to their own situation, so talking directly to someone who has completed a degree in their area of study or at their intended college can be more meaningful. Local support groups (ADHD, dyslexia, autism, etc.) often host panels of students and recent graduates that share this kind of information. A prospective student can request an alumni contact from the college’s admissions office or chat with existing students during a school visit or online information session. Many professionals will grant a 20-minute interview to help a student, or it’s worth paying their billable rate to gain access. Asking the direct question, “What’s something you know now that you wish you’d known when you just started college?” always yields interesting information.

Q: What are 2-3 things you make sure your students know to prepare for college life? 

A: I’m a big fan of having a backup plan before the student becomes overwhelmed or experiences a challenge. Many students are fixated on academic challenges that they may have experienced in high school and don’t consider other issues that may impact their success, especially when living on campus. Answering basic questions like, “Where will you go if you’re sick and need health care?” and “What will you do if your laptop can’t connect to the internet?” can help students develop a network of resources as well as comfort accessing those resources. Symptoms of mental illness can be more complicated to plan for and act against. “What will you do if you experience a panic attack in class, or alone in your dorm room?” Students don’t need to know how to solve the problem, just what first step to take so they don’t get stuck.

Another great support is having an app on their phone and/or laptop to help with scheduling and time management. It can take a while to find the app that resonates with the student and can be something that they practice using during their teen years. Many students with disabilities accept that they often work harder and longer than their peers, so using an app to block out enough time for reading, studying, completing homework, and also relaxing or social events helps the young adult have a realistic understanding of what they need to accomplish each day and can reduce stress and anxiety. Alarms or a feature that texts the student at key points in the day can help as well. While most people would set an alarm for the time they need to wake up, a person who struggles with executive function issues might set a couple of alarms to wake them up, another alarm to warn when showering and routine personal care should be complete, and another to cue them when to start walking to class.

Q: What should they do if they feel like there’s been a violation of their rights while enrolled?

A: While all students with disabilities should officially register with the college’s office that provides student services and accommodations for disabilities, there is a second, more practical approach to working directly with the professor. In many cases, the student can negotiate directly with the professor for accommodations and then rely on support from their official disabilities advisor if they run into resistance. For example, if a professor allows only handwritten notes for an open-note test and a student has dysgraphia or some other issue that impacts fine motor skills, the student can explain that their typewritten notes aren’t an attempt to cheat but rather a use of technology that allows them to capture their thoughts. Or the student can type their notes and then find a friend who can quickly copy the notes into longhand if they have the confidence to understand that strong social skills can be a great compensating strategy to get around laborious handwriting!

Different colleges name resources differently, so first identify exactly where the resources for students with disabilities are housed. It’s important to complete the registration process and then take the time to meet an advisor if it’s not already a part of the process so that the student has an individual point of contact should anything go sideways later. This contact will become the starting point for any concerns that arise, and they can assist with issues arising in other departments, financial aid, and behavior problems like harassment. At a minimum, this professional can help represent that the student has a disability and may need special consideration, regardless of the issue.

Colleges do not have the same formal special education structure that K-12 schools must follow, but students can still formally appeal a poor grade when accommodations were not provided or gain access to a class by showing an alternate competence rather than having completed a specific prerequisite. In general, colleges want to retain students and often rule in their favor, but it can be a real challenge to convince a student to try again rather than just drop out, so prevention, advocacy, and basic finding the right fit on the front end are often better ways to invest time and energy.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

A: Many college processes (admissions, enrollment, registration, and actual class engagement) are cumbersome and require high levels of executive function and communication skills that can cause frustration and anxiety for neurotypical students as well as those with disabilities. Recognizing that these barriers aren’t personal and success in college isn’t based on whether any professor likes them can go a long way towards helping the student persevere. Once a student is in the right class with a cohort who shares their interests, it’s magic to see them soar. Every college student has a goal and something positive to contribute to the world, so finding the right match helps make this goal achievable with manageable stress.