More than ever, students with disabilities are able to participate equally in higher education. A combination of amended legislation and auxiliary devices has transformed the landscape for college students with disabilities. In addition to their legal rights, these students have multiple resources available to them to ease the transition from high school to college. See what colleges are doing to set up students with various disabilities for success, including resources and specialized support services.

Financial Aid for Students with Disabilities

The government, as well as numerous colleges and organizations, are dedicated to helping students with disabilities pay for a college education. Whether you’re looking for financial assistance to cover an undergraduate or graduate degree program, chances are there’s a scholarship or grant opportunity available to help you achieve your academic goals. Find out more below.

Finding a Job After Graduation

Once you’ve earned your degree, the next step is finding a job. This process can be difficult for anyone, but people with disabilities are up against a different set of challenges. Fortunately, there are federal and state laws in place to ensure that job-seekers – and workers – with disabilities have access to equal opportunities and are not discriminated against. Learn more about these laws and how they affect you.

Types of Disabilities

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), “disability” is the legal term for an individual who has a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits at least one major life activity. Take a closer look at the most common disabilities that college students are managing, including how each disability impacts academic attainment and what accommodations and assistive technologies are available to ease the process.

Attention-Deficit /Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
What is it?

ADHD is a brain disorder that expresses itself in a constant pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity. People with ADHD often have difficulty completing tasks, concentrating, controlling impulses, planning, listening, and engaging in sedentary tasks.

How does ADHD impact a student’s college education?

According to a PubMed review, anywhere between two and 12 percent of college students exhibit symptoms of ADHD. With completely new surroundings, college students with ADHD find it difficult to focus, which can lead to low motivation, lack of organization, and forgetfulness, all of which can negatively affect academic performance.

Classroom Accommodations

Testing in a quiet place free of distractions

Preferential seating at the front of the class to make it easier to stay on task

Access to specialized tutoring for learners with ADHD

Assistance with developing study skills and time management strategies

Auxiliary Aids/Assistive Technology

Text-to-speech readers

Assisted listening devices to eliminate background noise and improve concentration

Talking calculators

Time Timer, a watch or clock that shows remaining time with a shrinking red disc

Organization and task management software/apps

Resources for Support and Advocacy
Attention Deficit Disorder Association

ADDA is one of the leading adult ADHD organization in the world. The nonprofit focuses on helping adults with ADHD, including college students, live better lives.

ADDitude

ADDitude is a print and online magazine that provides strategies and support for students with ADHD and other learning disabilities.

CHADD

This organization provides resources, including an annual conference, for people with ADHD.

National Resource Center

This CDC-funded program, which is also a part of CHADD, provides the latest science-based information on ADHD.

Totally ADD

Totally ADD is dedicated to helping adults with ADHD, as well as their families, employers, and health care professionals. One of its founders, well-known Canadian comedian Rick Green, uses humor to describe his own challenges with having ADD.

Autism
What is it?

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder, impacts the nervous system. Depending on the severity, autism results in symptoms such as difficulties with verbal and nonverbal communication, obsessive interests, and repetitive behaviors.

How does autism impact a student’s college education?

The autism spectrum covers a wide span of behaviors, including misreading social cues, experiencing stress in group environments, and sensory distractions. Notably, some people with autism also often exhibit distinctive strengths that can be beneficial in educational settings, such as “out of the box” thinking, keen visual-spatial skills, and strong attention to detail. Autism symptoms range from mild to severe; college students with autism tend to be on the less affected end of the spectrum.

Classroom Accommodations

Priority registration for classes

Isolated testing environments

Preferential seating to avoid sensory distractions

Access to note-takers to key in on important information

Permission to bring sensory or comfort items to class

Extra time to transition between classes

Auxiliary Aids/Assistive Technology

Assisted listening systems to eliminate background noise

Voice-to-text software

Time and task management apps

Resources for Support and Advocacy
Autism Research Institute

This organization meets the needs of the global autism community through research, networking, education and support.

Autism NOW

A national resource where people with autism can find materials, information, and other helpful resources on how to manage autism in the workplace and the community.

Autism Society

A grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of those with autism by increasing awareness, advocating for necessary services, and providing the latest information on treatment, research, and education.

Navigating College: A Project of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

Offered by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, this guide is a step-by-step look at college life for those with autism.

Blind and Low Vision
What is it?

People with blindness or low vision experience varying degrees of sight loss, even with glasses or contact lenses. Total blindness is the complete inability to see; legally blind refers to anyone who cannot read letters on the 20/100 line on the Bailey-Lovie chart; and low vision is defined as anyone with visual acuity of 20/70 or worse as well as those with light, glare, contrast, or light/dark adaptation sensitivities.

How do visual impairments affect a student’s college education?

College students with visual impairments and blindness have difficult taking lecture notes, taking exams, and reading texts. Getting around campus may also be problematic, especially when the physical environment is unfamiliar.

Classroom Accommodations

Permission to record class lectures

Access to readers and/or note takers during class

Auxiliary Aids/Assistive Technology

Braille displays

Braille printers

Talking calculators

Screen readers or magnifiers

Text-to-speech software

Resources for Support and Advocacy
American Council of the Blind

This organization advocates for people with visual impairments by working for state and national policy changes and improvements.

American Foundation for the Blind

The AFB is a national nonprofit organization that provides programs, services and information for people with vision loss. It works on equal access issues and encourages the development of new assistive technologies

National Association of Blind Students

This division of the National Federation of the Blind offers resources for students with visual disabilities.

National Federation of the Blind-Students

The NFB advocates for those with visual impairments by promoting the adoption and use of emerging technologies for the blind.

Deaf and Hard of Hearing
What is it?

According to the CDC, people who are deaf cannot hear well enough to process speech and language. People who are hard of hearing have mild to moderate hearing loss and are usually able to process speech and language with the help of hearing aids or similar listening devices.

How does hearing loss affect a student’s college education?

A significant portion of learning is achieved aurally, which means many students with hearing impairments have experiential and language deficiencies that can affect their overall academic performance.

Classroom Accommodations

Register for classes with Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART) services, an instant translation of spoken text that is displayed on a laptop monitor

Permission to record class lectures

Access to a sign language interpreter

Access to a note-taker

Auxiliary Aids/Assistive Technology

Assistive listening devices to block out background noise

Video captioning for visual materials

Audio-to-text devices and software

Resources for Support and Advocacy
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

ASHA members include those from speech-language and hearing professions, scientists, and researchers. A section of the site is dedicated to students.

Better Hearing Institute

The Better Hearing Institute offers advice and information for those with hearing loss, including topics such as technology and treatments.

Hearing Loss Association of America

HLAA assists those with hearing loss and their families by raising public awareness and reducing the stigma associated with the disability.

National Association of the Deaf

As the largest advocate for the deaf and hearing impaired in the U.S., NAD provides legal assistance and daily living resources for the deaf population.

Learning Disabilities
What are they?

Learning disabilities are disorders that make it difficult to process information and develop basic reading, writing or math skills. Common learning disabilities include:

Dyscalculia: Severe difficulty making math calculations

Dysgraphia: Inability to write coherently

Dyslexia: Difficulty learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols

How do learning disabilities affect a student’s college education?

There are several types of learning disabilities, but people usually have a learning disability in a particular area such as reading or math. College students with learning disabilities, who are encountering more advanced academic work than they had in high school, and with less one-on-one assistance, may have problems understanding and keeping up with coursework.

Classroom Accommodations

Allowing lighter course loads for full-time status

Course substitutions

Alternate testing environments

Oral tests

Extra time to complete assignments and tests

Access to detailed syllabus before course begins

Access to lessons in both oral and written formats

Auxiliary Aids/Assistive Technology

Aids and devices can vary greatly, depending on the specific type of learn disability, but examples include:

Alternative keyboards that assist with word completion for those who have trouble typing

Assistive reading and writing software

Voice recording apps and devices

Resources for Support and Advocacy
Council for Learning Disabilities

CLD is an international organization of professionals working to enhance education and quality of life for those with learning disabilities.

Dyspraxia Foundation – Further/Higher Education

The Dyspraxia Foundation provides advice for college students with dyspraxia (Sensory Integration Disorder), which often coexists with dyslexia.

LD Online

This site, sponsored by the public television station WETA in Washington, D.C., offers information and advice to people with learning disabilities.

National Center for Learning Disabilities

This advocacy group seeks to improve education and work for equal rights and opportunities for those with learning disabilities.

Physical Disabilities
What are they?

A physical disability affects a person’s mobility or dexterity. Examples include various degrees of paralysis such as:

Multiple sclerosis: A chronic disease that damages the nerves

Cerebral palsy: A congenital disorder that affects movement, posture, and muscle tone

Muscular dystrophy: A group of diseases that cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass

How do physical disabilities affect a student’s college education?

Students with physical disabilities must manage a wide range of academic and social issues. For instance, navigating campus in a wheelchair or with a cane may mean needing to take circuitous routes that can result in being late for class. Being unable to sit at a standard desk can mean having to stand or sit without one. Peers may also be uncomfortable around students with physical disabilities, making group projects and communication challenging.

Classroom Accommodations

Flexibility in getting to class on time

Preferential seating to accommodate wheelchair or other equipment

Access to note-takers

Access to tape-recorded assignments if student has hand limitations

Auxiliary Aids/Assistive Technology

Voice recognition software

Alternative keyboards for easier typing

Hands-free page turning for digital reading materials

Resources for Support and Advocacy
American Association on Health and Disability

AAHD provides a wide range of resources for those with disabilities, including the Disability and Health Journal, fact sheets, and links to resources.

Disabled Sports USA

Students with physical disabilities can participate in sports-based programs designed to foster independence and improve fitness.

National Organization on Disability

NOD partners with businesses to improve employment opportunities for people with physical abilities.

The American Association of People with Disabilities

AAPD works to advance the rights and opportunities of people with physical disabilities by raising political awareness, promoting economic opportunities, and encouraging independent living.

Speech Impairments
What are they?

People with speech disorders may have trouble with their voices or with the ability to produce speech correctly or fluently. Examples of speech disorders include stuttering; apraxia, in which the transmission of brain signals to the mouth is disrupted; and dysarthria, which involves difficulty moving the lips, tongue, vocal chords or diaphragm.

How do speech disorders affect a student’s college education?

In many cases, the most difficult challenge for a student with a speech disorder is overcoming social anxiety when speaking, especially in the classroom in front of peers. College students are often required to speak around people who are unfamiliar to them, posing additional hurdles for those with speech disorders. Many students may be reluctant to speak at all, and need support and encouragement to participate in class.

Classroom Accommodations

Substitute written papers or projects in place of oral presentations

Auxiliary Aids/Assistive Technology

Speech delivery technology

Software that helps improve speech and language skills

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices such as picture communication boards

Resources for Support and Advocacy
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

This member organization for speech, language, and hearing professionals works to support scientific research in the field, and to set and maintain standards of practice.

National Stuttering Foundation

A self-help group for people who stutter, NSA provides support and information through a variety of programs and services.

Students with Speech Impairments

Rutgers University sponsors this page offering advice and resources, including academic considerations and accommodations, to faculty working with students with speech impairments.

The Aphasia Hope Foundation

Since 1997, AHF has provided resources such as news, information, and therapies for families of those with aphasia to promote access to treatment and good quality of life.

Dysphagia Research Society

DRS is a member-based community that promotes research and awareness of dysphagia, with a focus on the science of swallowing.

Strategies for Success

Before College

Transitioning from high school to college is a pivotal time in many students’ lives, but it can be more challenging for those living with a disability. Preparation is key. Here are some of tips for succeeding academically and socially in a college environment from Allison Miller, who lost the ability to hear in her left ear.

Understand your rights

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects the rights of students with disabilities, and colleges are responsible for meeting these requirements. Says Miller, “I reviewed Section 504 often over the course of my education, and I still refer to it.”

Gather the required documentation

Colleges may request specific documentation as proof of your disability in order to use assistive services. Make sure you have all required paperwork and records organized and ready.

Know where to go for help

Colleges and universities typically have dedicated departments to help students with disabilities. Find out the name of the department that offers assistance, and where it is located on campus. For instance, some colleges call the department “Special Services” while others may call it “Disabled Student Services.”

During College

Below are some tips to help you thrive as a college student and successfully get to graduation day.

Make sure you understand the academic expectations

Most instructors clearly spell out their expectations in the course syllabus, so read it carefully and ask questions if you need clarification about anything. Be sure to also let your instructors know about any special accommodations you need. “I always made it a point to speak with each professor before classes began in order to explain my situation,” explained Miller.

Make sure you receive the proper accommodations

Each college has its own accommodation process, but students can expect the following typical steps:

Register with the disability support services coordinator (DSS) on campus and provide the required documentation

Discuss your accommodation needs, including what you have worked with in the past and what you expect to need in college. Keep the DSS apprised of any changes that need to occur.

Speak with your professors about the best way for you to receive accommodations at the beginning of each semester.

Be open and get involved

It can be tough to adjust to any new environment, but it’s important to remember that all new college students—whether or not they have a disability—are facing many of the same issues, such as making new friends, discovering and cultivating interests, and balancing the demands of school and a social life. Get involved in clubs or activities that reflect your interests, whether it’s attending basketball games or joining a campus political organization.

Also be open about discussing your disability, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Many people are willing to offer assistance, but need your input on what will be helpful. Finally, don’t forget about your “old life.” Keeping in touch with your family and close friends from high school will help you stay grounded.

Be your own advocate

Whether needing extra classroom assistance or help with access to a campus activity, self-advocacy is essential for anyone with a disability. “I had to learn to become my own advocate,” says Miller. “The more you stand up for your rights as a student with a disability, the easier it gets.” It will be entirely up to you to register with the college’s disability services office, request necessary accommodations, and arrange for support services.

Utilize all your disability resources

Support staff can assist you in working toward the goals you have for college, including social and life skills, financial literacy and self-advocacy. Guidance counselors can also help you:

Practice using auxiliary aids and services

Effectively explain your disability to peers and instructors so they understand your unique needs

Meet other students with disabilities through groups, organizations, or events

Take advantage of other resources that are available to you as a student

College campuses have multiple resources to support its student body. Some of the most common support services that may be particularly helpful for students with disabilities include:

Campus Center Services

Counseling Center

Consultations

Counseling sessions

Learning Services Center

One-on-one tutoring

Study groups

Writing Center

Teach writing strategies

Writing workshops and assistance

Career Center

Prepare for job interviews

Career counseling and assessment

Help with resume writing

Q&A: Understanding Your Rights

What are your basic rights as a student with disabilities, and how can you find out more? This section offers an overview of what you need to know.

What is Section 504?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a piece of federal disability rights legislation. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) oversees the implementation of Section 504 under the U.S. Department of Education. Under section 504, any organization that receives federal funding—such as an academic institution—is legally obligated to provide equal benefits, services, and opportunities to disabled students, including equal access to classrooms and living accommodations.

Who does
Section 504 cover?

Section 504 covers anyone with a physical or mental condition that substantially restricts one or more major life activities.

Postsecondary academic institutions that do
not receive federal funding are exempt from
complying with Section 504. However, in
most cases students attending these
academic institutions are still
covered by Title II of the
Americans with Disabilities
Act (ADA).

How do college students receive accommodations?

College students must disclose their disability status in order to receive academic accommodations and assistive services, such as priority class registration, access to
note-takers and interpreters, or
the use of speech-to-text
software.

What is Section 504?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a piece of federal disability rights legislation. The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) oversees the implementation of Section 504 under the U.S. Department of Education. Under section 504, any organization that receives federal funding—such as an academic institution—is legally obligated to provide equal benefits, services, and opportunities to disabled students, including equal access to classrooms and living accommodations.

Who does Section 504 cover?

Section 504 covers anyone with a physical or mental condition that substantially restricts one or more major life activities.

Postsecondary academic institutions that do not receive federal funding are exempt from complying with Section 504. However, in most cases students attending these academic institutions are still covered by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

How do college students receive accommodations?

College students must disclose their disability status in order to receive academic accommodations and assistive services, such as priority class registration, access to note-takers and interpreters, or the use of speech-to-text software.

Other Important Legislation

Americans with Disabilities Act

Title II of the ADA regulates state and local governments, and provides protection against disability discrimination in services, activities, and programs provided by public institutions.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

This act has regulations that cover children and young adults through age 21, including transition services for future college students.

Assistive Technology Act

Provides eligibility for state organizations, including colleges, to receive grant funding for assistive technology programs.

Interview with a College Graduate

expert

Marijoyce Naguit offers some insight on what it was like for her to be a college student with a disability:

What is your disability?

I was born with severe hearing loss. I wear hearing aids to help me hear every day sounds and conversations; however, I’m still unable to hear certain frequencies of sounds such as high pitch noises like a teakettle blowing or a whistle. I’m also unable to hear low or soft sounds such as someone whispering, even if it’s directly into my ear. I have adapted to my hearing loss by learning how to read lips when conversing with others.  

How did hearing loss affect your college experience, both academically and socially?

Academically, I had to make sure I talked to all my professors early on to let them know that I had a hearing impairment and that I would need to sit in the front of their class since I do a lot of lip reading. If I had questions or felt I missed something important during class, I attended office hours or waited after class to talk to my professor. Also, within the first week or two of classes, I’d make it a point to make friends with a few people who could potentially be note-takers for me. Doing so also helped me socially as I made friends outside of the classroom with those who chose to help me by becoming my note-taker.

What were some of the biggest challenges or frustrations you experienced as a college student with hearing loss and how did you overcome these challenges/frustrations?

One of the biggest challenges I experienced as a college student with a disability was providing proof of my hearing impairment in order to receive disability services such as sign language interpreters. In order to utilize the services that were available to me through the college, a lot of paperwork had to be completed and I had to take multiple hearing tests to provide current results to the disability program. I wasn’t prepared for the process, which delayed me receiving services. However, after completing all the required forms and registration, it was easy to sign up and receive the services I needed. 

Did you use any assistive devices during college? If so, what?

During college, I used an assistive listening device. Along with that device, I also used services such as sign language interpreters and note-takers. In smaller classes, I’d sit in the front of the class so I could try to read the professor’s lips.

Did your disability play a role in determining which colleges to apply to and eventually attend? If so, how?

I chose to not have my disability play a role in determining which college I applied to and eventually attended. I grew up with a family that supported every decision I made in my educational career. I knew that no matter what school I attended, there would be services provided for those who had a disability and that my family would also help me if there were any gaps in those services.

What advice would you offer college students who have a disability?

Don’t let your disability determine what college to go to. Most colleges offer various services to students with disabilities so there will likely be resources available to help you be a successful student.

Do not be afraid to ask for help. You need to be your own advocate. Also, no one knows better than you what you need and what could potentially help.

Utilize all the services available to help you become successful in your studies. Again, don’t be afraid to ask.

Let your professors know about your disability because they can help you on a one-on-one level if you ever need it

Tips for Parents of College Students with Disabilities

As a parent of a child with disabilities, it’s natural to worry. Here are some tips to help manage the transition into college.

Contact the college’s disability support office

The disability support office will likely play an important role in your child’s transition to college. Each school often has specific guidelines for documenting a disability, so be sure to find out early on what will be required to qualify for accommodations and services.

Make sure you understand Section 504

Know what rights your child has in case you need to help him or her receive all services and accommodations available or in case you need to help them understand certain laws and regulations. It will be up to you and your child to initiate the registration process and ensure all needs are being met properly and according to the law.

Encourage and allow your child be an advocate for him or herself

As a parent, you want to make things easy for your child, but college students need to learn how to make mistakes – and how to correct them. Show your child that you’re there for support and backup when necessary, but put the primary responsibility is on him or her to ask for help when it’s needs it. In addition, parental rights typically cease when children reach the age of majority, so it’s a good time to let your child begin advocating on his/her own.

Allow your child to choose which college to attend

You may be want to keep your child close to home or may feel a particular college is better than another, but remember that it’s your child who will be attending the school, not you. The most successful college students –with or without a disability – are those who are highly motivated. Let your child figure out which campus he or she is excited about. That excitement can help make the transition a little less scary and can also serve as motivation.

Life After Graduation

Students with certain disabilities may qualify for a total and permanent disability (TPD) discharge of federal student loans, which means they will not be required to repay their federal student loans. Find out more details about the program, including an overview of the supporting documentation required in the guide below.

Resources

The Childhood Apraxia of Speech Association of North America

CASANA offers resources about apraxia for families, researchers, and professionals, including symposium videos, webinars, events, and conferences.

Disability.gov

This site connects people with disabilities, their families, and caregivers with information on disability programs and services nationwide.

Disability Rights Laws

The Federal Communications Commission offers a primer on The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Section 504.

Making the Transition from High School to College for Students with Disabilities: A Transition Checklist

The Director of the Office of Disability Services at Columbia University created this college preparation checklist to assist incoming students.

Perkins School for the Blind

Perkins serves 200 blind students on its Massachusetts campus, as well as managing an online education portal and overseeing businesses that cover global training and education services and assistive consulting and technology products.

Preparing Students with Disabilities for Postsecondary Education

The Washington State Student Achievement Council produced this comprehensive guide to help students with disabilities prepare for college.

Understood.org – School and Learning

This organization supports parents and their children with disabilities by offering information about technology, personalized resources, and access to experts.

US CAP – US College Autism Project

Sponsored by the US Autism & Asperger Association, this project is designed to share information and resources and provide training, consultation and advocacy services for college students with autism.

Updated: June 8, 2017