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College Planning for Students with Disabilities

The transition from high school to college is a big one and every student will face some challenges along the way. However, for students with disabilities the transition can be challenging and frustrating if they are unprepared.  Many parents of students with disabilities have learned the basics of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, as students and their families prepare for the transition from secondary school to post-secondary options, they often find they are less familiar with the protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  This link charts the differences between the three laws:

It is crucial that students and their parents become knowledgeable about their rights and responsibilities in post-secondary education because although protections exist, it is the student's responsibility to request and design their own accommodations. This responsibility is ongoing:  for many students with disabilities self-advocacy skills will be key to success, and knowing your rights is one essential element of effective self-advocacy.

There are three levels of learning disability support at colleges.

• Some colleges offer very comprehensive learning disabilities programs, which include trained staff people and a very high level of support and services.

• Other colleges offer services but not a program, which, depending on the college, will vary in support and services.

• Still other colleges offer accommodations for learning disabilities with little or no services, and students must take responsibility for arranging them.

You should learn as much as you can about the services offered at all of your student’s potential colleges before they apply.  While we believe college visits are a critical component to creating your student’s college list (see our blog at it is imperative for a disabled student to visit the colleges prior to applying. Here are some tips to consider depending on your student’s needs and disability.

  1. Research and college visits are imperative. The right college fit is critical for a disabled student.

  2. Make sure psychological testing is current and complete. Check the Disability Services information for the school you are interested in attending regarding Documentation Guidelines. The testing usually must have been done within the last 3 years. Take time while you are in high school to make sure your evaluations are as current as possible.

  3. Consult with the high school to get a good understanding of how much support or special help the student is receiving. It is important to determine realistically whether minimal disability support services or extensive accommodations at the college level will be needed.

  4. Obtain all special testing records and a copy of your student’s IEP or Service Agreement before high school graduation.  Some school systems destroy these records upon the student’s graduation. Colleges, as well as vocational rehabilitation offices, request these records to assist in providing special services to students. Be aware that the college will not use your student's IEP or Service Agreement but you can have your student use these documents to help advocate for the accommodations he/she needs.

  5. Make contact with the local Department of Rehabilitative Services (DRS) office before graduation. DRS offers a variety of services to eligible students such as vocational assessment, college programs, job placement, etc.

  6. Make sure the student’s knowledge of study skills is adequate. In addition to high school assistance, consider special study skills classes/programs offered at community colleges, private agencies, or individual tutoring.

  7. Make sure students have a good understanding of their particular learning disability. They should know and be able to articulate their strengths and weaknesses as well as what compensating techniques and accommodations work best for them.

  8. Encourage students to be their own advocate. A good first step is to encourage them to discuss their disability and needed accommodations, if any, with their regular high school instructors.

  9. Contact the Disability Service Offices of colleges either before applying or after acceptance (this will depend on whether your student plans to disclose their disability during the application process). Get information on what kinds of services and support are available and the process for accessing accommodations. Some typical types of support may be: extended time for testing, preferential scheduling or housing, note taking assistance, academic tutoring and support, etc.  It is important to note that college will not be like high school.  Your student is an adult and will have to sign a waiver if you would like to talk to anyone associated with their service agreement.  Further, no one is going to keep tabs on your student and let you know if they are utilizing their accommodations.  Be realistic and consider this when selecting the college, it’s distance from home and the support available.

  10. Contact the counseling office at the college your student plans to attend to discuss mental health or behavioral support.  Most colleges have psychologists on staff to provide support to the student body. However, if this is an important part of your student’s support network you will want to start planning before move in day.  Typically, colleges will have a great demand for counseling services and student’s may end up on long waiting lists. Plan ahead and if the services are inadequate to regularly support your student ask for referrals in the community.

  11. Visit colleges before making a definite choice. Make sure it is the student’s choice to attend college. The most successful college students with disabilities are those who have high levels of motivation and a good understanding of their particular strengths and weaknesses. They understand that it may be harder and take more time to manage college level work. They are committed to spend that extra time on studying and to request and use appropriate accommodations when needed.

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