The financial burdens of medical care can make it difficult for many students with disabilities to pursue higher education - a harsh reality that can lead to lifelong disadvantages.
Many schools and organizations offer assistance to help students with disabilities reach their goals. From tutoring, to financial aid and tax breaks, students with disabilities and their parents can access a wide range of resources. But finding these resources and applying for them can be a bit overwhelming. Below you will find a wide range of scholarships, grants and tips on how to apply for them.
By the Numbers
of children with a physical disability can't go to college or vocational school due to the financial burdens of their disabilities.
of working-age Americans with disabilities are unemployed.
of working-age Americans with disabilities live below the poverty level, compared to just 9 percent of their non-disabled peers.
The average household income of working-age Americans with disabilities is 53 percent below that of their non-disabled peers.
Scholarships, Grants and Resources
To bring awareness to mobility issues on campus, these $500 awards go to two students. For 2015, students were asked to submit a "visual poem" that could include words or images.Mid-January
The American Association on Health and Disability offers up to $1,000 for college students. The scholarship is for juniors, seniors and graduate students, with preference for students pursuing disability studies.Mid-November
This $1,000 scholarship is open to students with a sensory impairment or physical disability. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and residents of Minnesota.May 31
Intended for students with mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder, this scholarship aims to help students who are recovering and want re-join their careers and everyday life.Late January
Bella Soul awards scholarships to college students with physical ailments, diseases or disabilities such as cancer, cerebral palsy or kidney disease. The award is open to students from any state.Late December
This award is worth $10,000 for students in the U.S. and $5,000 for Canadian students. Open to anyone with a visible or invisible disability, the scholarship is for students interested in financial careers and pursuing degrees in business, engineer, math, physics or statistics.Mid-December
This $1,000 essay contest requires applicants to write 1,000 words on this topic: "What I learned from writing a business plan." Open to college students with any type of disability.Early December
This scholarship is for Oklahoma students with physical disabilities or learning disabilities. Applicants must be full-time students pursuing a degree at an Oklahoma state college or university.Varies
This award of $250 to $500 goes to a student with a disability who wishes to pursue a career in nursing.June 1
This award is worth $10,000 for students in the U.S. and $5,000 for Canadian students. Aimed at students in computer science, computer engineering or electrical engineering, this scholarship is open to applicants with visible or invisible disabilities.Early December
This award of $1,000 is available to 14 students living with the challenges and complexities of hydrocephalus.Varies, with deadlines throughout the year.
Open to all students with disabilities, this award aims for students with demonstrated financial need. The school offers a variety of awards for students with disabilities.Varies, depending on enrollment
These awards of $500 to $2,500 are designed to support students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Applicants must have a documented physical, psychological, sensory or learning disability.Varies, depending on enrollment
Awarded to up to 50 recipients, this scholarship includes $2,000 and a prepaid year of ADHD coaching. The scholarship is sponsored by Shire, a biopharmaceutical company.Mid-February
The Rise Scholarship Foundation offers awards of $2,500 to students with ADHD. The award is paid directly to the school.February 10, 2016
Autism Delaware offers scholarships of $1,000 each to adults with autism spectrum disorder who want to pursue college education. Applicants must be accepted into a college, university, community college or trade school.Mid-February
Named for a 14-year-old boy who died after he wandered away from school, this $1,000 scholarship is sponsored by a law firm. The scholarship goes to a college student who is living with autism or has a loved one with autism.Late July
Open to students with psychiatric disorders or Asperger's syndrome, this award requires a minimum GPA of 2.5.Varies, depending on enrollment
Open to anyone ages 16 to 30 with autism, this scholarship awards $1,000 each to two students pursuing a secondary education. Applicants submit an inspirational essay explaining how the scholarship will help them. Stories are posted on the Kelly Law Team website.Late June
This $500 scholarship was developed by Kerry Magro, a motivational speaker who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4. The scholarship is given out twice a year, once in the fall and once in the spring.Early December
These $3,000 awards go to full-time students with autism. Finalists must submit proof of an autism diagnosis. One caveat: It's a one-time only award; past winners can't reapply.Early May
This organization offers several scholarships with moderate to severe hearing loss. Applicants must have been diagnosed with hearing loss before their fourth birthday, and the minimum grade-point average is 3.25.Mid-March
This $2,000-a-year scholarship is available to students from the U.S. and Canada who use Baha hearing implants. Minimum grade-point average is 2.5.October 1
A $2,000-a-year scholarship, this award is available to applicants with Nucleus cochlear implants. Students must have a GPA of at least 2.5.October 1
This $1,000 award is open to applicants who live in a 16-county area of Tennessee. The scholarship is open both to hearing-impaired applicants and to hearing students who aim to serve the deaf community.Inquire for details.
This $1,000 award is open to hearing-impaired students pursuing a bachelor's degree at a four-year school. Minimum GPA is 3.2.May 1
This scholarship from the National Center for Learning Disabilities is offered to two high school seniors aiming to pursue postsecondary education. Applicants must have a documented learning disability.Mid-December
EKU offers two $1,000 scholarships to students with dyslexia or another reading-specific learning disability. One scholarship is for an incoming freshman, the other for a current student. The award can be used only at EKU.June 1
This award is for Georgia State students with a documented disability that limits the ability to read, write or understand spoken language. Applicants must demonstrate financial need.Mid-April
Open to IU students with learning disabilities, this award gives preference to applicants from Tennessee's Davidson County. Applicants should show financial need and have a 3.0 GPA.Varies, depending on enrollment
This Vermont college that specializes in students with learning disabilities offers scholarships from $5,000 to $30,000 based on financial need. Awards are limited, and Landmark College urges students to apply early.Varies, depending on enrollment
This merit-based scholarship requires the student to demonstrate their uniqueness as a person. Awards can range from $5,000 to $10,000 for the year.Varies, depending on enrollment
The organization awards three scholarships to high school seniors from Iowa who plan to pursue higher education. The $1,000 scholarship includes a payout of $250 after the student registers for the first term and $750 after the winner completes the first year.Varies, depending on enrollment
This award of up to $1,000 goes to one or more high school seniors with financial need, a certified language-related learning disability and artistic talent. Scholarships are renewable. Students should take art classes during each semester of college.By nomination; inquire for details.
This $2,500 award is open to students who use a wheelchair or mobility scooter. Students must have a GPA of 3.0 and at least one year of college experience. Ameriglide also gives a pool wheelchair lift to the school of the winning student.End of May
This award is for students who have a physical disability and use a wheelchair. It is open to students from a five-county area of southwestern Florida.March 1
This award for students with significant mobility challenges is worth up to $30,000. Winners must attend Edinboro University in Pennsylvania or the University of Tampa in Florida. Applicants must have at least a B average.
Application deadline: Through local Education Foundations; inquire for details Ethel Louise Armstrong Scholarship
This award is for female graduate students with physical disabilities and enrolled in U.S. universities. Amounts range from $500 to $2,000.
Open to IU students with physical disabilities, this award aims for students with demonstrated financial need.Varies, depending on enrollment
Open to IU students with limited mobility, this award gives preference to students with demonstrated financial need.Varies, depending on enrollment
This $1,500 award is available to students with cerebral palsy, or with an immediate family member with cerebral palsy. Applicants must have a 3.0 GPA.July 31
These awards go to students born with spina bifida. There's a four-year award of varying amounts and a one-year scholarship for $2,000.Early March
This $7,000 scholarship goes to students with spinal-cord injuries. There is no state residency requirement, but preference goes to business majors and law students.Varies, depending on enrollment
The organization awards $5,000 to a graduate student with a disability. The student must be pursuing a master's or doctoral degree in communication sciences and disorders.Late May
This trust provides scholarships to disadvantaged or minority students, with special emphasis for applicants with substantial speech, language or hearing impairments.Varies, depending on enrollment
One scholarship of $1,000 to an undergraduate or graduate student in the field of rehabilitation or education of those who are blind or visually impaired. Sponsored by the American Foundation for the blind, this scholarship requires proof of legal blindness.Rolling, from early February through late May.
One scholarship of $1,000 given to a female undergraduate or graduate student studying classical or religious music. Sponsored by the American Foundation for the blind, this scholarship requires proof of legal blindness.May 31
These $3,000 scholarships are for legally blind students pursuing full-time, post-graduate studies.Varies; inquire for details.
This award goes to IU students with visual impairments or students whose parents are visually impaired. Applicants must have at least a 3.0 GPA, and working students get priority.Varies, depending on enrollment
This organization gives up to 20 scholarships worth up to $10,000 to students entering their freshman year of college. Lighthouse Guild also gives one scholarship worth up to $10,000 to a graduate student. Applicants must provide proof of legal blindness but need not demonstrate financial need.End of March
This award of $1,000 to $6,000 is available to legally blind students.Varies, inquire for details
Four scholarships of $2,500 each to undergraduates or graduates who are studying full-time in the field of rehabilitation or education of people who are blind or visually impaired. Sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind, this scholarship requires proof of legal blindness.Rolling, starting in early February and ending in late May.
Two scholarships of $2,000 each to a full-time undergraduate or graduate student in the field of engineering or in computer, physical, or life sciences. Sponsored by the American Foundation for the blind, this scholarship requires proof of legal blindness.Rolling, starting in early February and ending in late May.
Two scholarships of $1,000 each to women who are enrolled in a full-time four-year undergraduate degree program in literature or music. Sponsored by the American Foundation for the blind, this scholarship requires proof of legal blindness.Rolling, starting in early February and ending in late May.
This program gives $500 to one man and one woman. Applicants must be legally blind, have a GPA of at least 2.5 and be a member of the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes.July 31
This award goes to University of Utah students with physical disabilities, with preference for students with visual impairment. Students also must show "courage and determination in living with and overcoming physical limitations." The amount varies.Varies, depending on enrollment
This program awards $2,000 to students with bleeding disorders. There's also a $2,000 scholarship for a parent, child or sibling of someone with hemophilia, and $4,000 for a student with a bleeding disorder to pursue a medical degree.April 30
The organization awards $1,500 to a student with hemophilia or another bleeding disorder. Any U.S. citizen attending undergraduate or graduate school is eligible.May 1
This $1,000 award is available to students diagnosed with a primary immunodeficiency disease.March 31
This award from the Cystic Fibrosis Scholarship Foundation is worth $20,000 over four years. Applicants must be high school seniors with a GPA of at least 3.2 and an SAT score of 1750 or higher or an ACT score of 25 or higherMid-March
This $2,500 scholarship goes to a student with Down syndrome, or to a sibling of someone with Down syndrome.April 1
The organization for people with dwarfism offers scholarships of $250 to $1,000. Top priority goes to students diagnosed with dwarfism who are members of Little People of America, but immediately family members of dwarfs are also eligible to apply.Inquire for details.
These awards of $1,000 to $3,000 are available to students with MS or who have a parent with MS. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society says it awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to 834 students in 2015. Most recipients get a one-time award of $1,000.January 31
This award, worth up to $3,000, is given to students with Down syndrome to pursue postsecondary education.Inquire for details
UCB awards up to 30 one-time scholarships of $5,000 each. Applicants must have epilepsy or be a family member or caregiver of someone with epilepsy. This program has awarded more than $1.5 million to more than 300 students over the past decade.Mid-May
This $1,500 scholarship is for lifetime members of the Disabled American Veterans Auxiliary. Funds are for full- or part-time students attending U.S. institutions.Mid-March
Colleges and Programs Specifically Designed for Student with Disabilities
Some colleges and universities offer financial aid for students with disabilities. A handful of private schools focus on learners with special needs. Here are a few of them:
Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a school for deaf students, offers merit-based scholarships for "exemplary" achievers. The gifts range in dollar value. Gallaudet University also directs students to apply for dozens of endowed scholarships for applicants who fit certain criteria. One award is for students from Africa or Europe, another targets undergrads from Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Beacon College, a school in Leesburg, Florida, for students with ADHD and learning disabilities, offers a variety of scholarships to undergrads.
Landmark College in Putney, Vermont, specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities. The school says 59 percent of students received Landmark College scholarships in 2019, totaling millions of dollars.
The University of Iowa's REACH program offers a two-year certificate to students with multiple disabilities. The program has awarded nearly $1 million in scholarships in recent years. Iowa's REACH program doesn't provide credit towards a degree, but it helps prepare students with disabilities to pursue a degree.
Medical Tax Deductions and Other Potential Tax Breaks
In some cases, the IRS considers tuition a deductible medical expense. Here's how it works: In addition to the costs you'd expect such as long-term care premiums, the IRS also lets those with special needs add tuition costs to medical expenses. Taxpayers can deduct medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of adjusted gross income.
The IRS says you can deduct "costs for a school that furnishes special education if a principal reason for using the school is its resources for relieving a mental or physical disability." This includes the cost of teaching Braille and lip reading and the cost of remedial language training to correct a condition caused by a birth defect.
The deduction also can apply to room, board, books, computers and travel costs. But be sure to check with your tax adviser before taking advantage of this benefit.
Financial Help for Students with Disabilities: Questions and Answers
Reecy Aresty, a longtime college financial aid adviser, has watched American universities make huge strides in accommodating students with disabilities. "There's so much more attention given to students with disabilities," says Aresty, author of How to Pay for College Without Going Broke. "That's one of the blessings of living in the 21st century." While colleges have grown more welcoming to students with special needs, financial aid remains confusing for all students. Aresty offers some advice for navigating the money maze.
What's the biggest challenge for students with disabilities?
The challenges are academic and financial. All the financial aid in the world is useless without an admission ticket, so be in touch with colleges early on. Before a student even applies to a college, find out how the school is going to deal with your issues. Let them know who you are and why you want to apply there. Have an ongoing dialogue with the chairman of the department you're interested in. That greases the skids when the application comes in, and it helps the admissions department look at the whole person rather than just test scores and grade-point average. The whole person is more important than a test they took on a Saturday morning. For students with learning disabilities, the SAT or ACT can be traumatic, because you're only two-thirds of the way through when time is running out. For students with disabilities, it's important to include letters from doctors — and not just one doctor. There might be a psychologist as well as a physician.
Can the college help students with disabilities fill out the FAFSA?
No. That's a no-no. The college can't really have any part in that, because it would show preference. If the college had any involvement, it would be a problem. At any rate, disabilities don't come up on the federal form, and medical expenses will not show up on the FAFSA. You call it to the school's attention by writing a letter.
So if schools offer no guidance in applying for financial aid, what sorts of assistance do schools provide?
For students with disabilities, a lot of good things have happened - private tutoring, assistance from professors and graduate students. Students who need a lot of medications might be accommodated with a private bathroom in the dorm. When it comes to taking exams, they're going to get private rooms and a lot more time.
What advice do you give students with disabilities who are seeking financial aid?
File early, because there's only so much financial aid. And the earlier you file, the better your chances for need-based aid. There'll never be a problem getting a loan — the government has all the money in the world to make loans. Federal loans aren't always a bad thing. Who wouldn't want to borrow money at no percent for four and a half years, and have 20 years to pay it back? Parents should know that there's no direct communication between parents and schools; everything goes directly to the student. So parents need to be aware of the student's communications with the school through the portal on the college's website. Students can be very remiss in making deadlines.
For Americans with disabilities, unemployment rates are shockingly high. Is it risky for students with disabilities to take out loans they might not be able to pay back?
Absolutely not, because your repayment plan is based on income. Someone who's making $25,000 or $30,000 a year could get a deferment.
There are many private scholarships for students with disabilities. Should students pursue them?
That depends on the student's financial situation. I discourage any family that qualifies for need-based aid from applying for outside scholarships, because the school will just take it away. Say a school gives you $10,000 in financial aid and you win a scholarship for $1,000. All of a sudden, the $10,000 in aid is reduced to $9,000, because you've got outside support. I tell students, "Don't waste your time applying for merit-based scholarships." If the scholarship is paid directly to the student rather than to the school, don't try to hide it from the financial aid office. If they ever find out, they'll throw the student out for lying.
What mistakes do you see students make in applying for aid?
There are eight opportunities for financial aid because there are eight semesters. Most families don't realize that. They think, "Oh, we filed the FAFSA, we have to wait until next year." You can appeal in January, especially if your situation has changed.
Student Loan Forgiveness and Discharge
If you become disabled after graduation, you might be eligible for loan forgiveness. The U.S. Department of Education, for instance, offers complete discharge of Direct Loans, Federal Family Education Loans and Perkins Loans to borrowers deemed to have a total and permanent disability. The Department of Education has strict rules for what qualifies as a total and permanent disability. You must get a doctor's certificate stating that you haven't been able to work for the past five years or won't be able to work in the coming five years. The federal government also honors disability findings from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration.
See the MoneyGeek.com Student Loan Forgiveness & Cancellation page to learn more about the programs that may be available to you.
Additional Resources for Students with Disabilities
Published by the U.S. Department of Education, this page contains a wealth of information about loans, grants and work-study. There are helpful guides for preparing for college, avoiding scams and managing debt.
Run by the federal Department of Justice, this site offers information on the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act.
This site is run by Mark Kantrowtiz, an expert on paying for college. It includes calculators and other tools to help you makes sense of the college funding maze.
The College Board's search tool boasts information on 2,200 scholarships worth $6 billion.
This U.S. Department of Labor site lets you search thousands of scholarships by disability, geographic location and study level.
Managed by the George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, this site is a national clearinghouse for information about postsecondary education for students with disabilities.
This site gathers links on a variety of topics, including equipment reviews, advice for caregivers and links to IRS and Veterans Affairs resources.