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The Complete Guide to College for Students with Disabilities

Making the transition from high school to college is always a huge rite of passage for any student. It can be an especially steep slope to climb for college students who have learning differences or disabilities. But yes, students will disabilities can go to college and even make it to the top of their class.

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There are so many different kinds of disabilities, some of which come with physical attributes. However, most actually can’t be seen on the surface. In fact, a current statistic suggests that one in five youth in the United States has a learning disability, which in most cases is not detectable by sight. College students who are approaching their academic careers in this boat are no less smart than their peers who might learn more easily in a traditional environment. Unfortunately, students with diagnosed disabilities matriculate into four-year institutions of higher learning 50 percent less than their peers, and they complete college only 41 percent of the time. Compared to their non-disabled peers, whose completion is 52 percent, these statistics make it clear that students with disabilities are not getting what they need to succeed in higher education. Though college for students with disabilities can be a challenge, there are many resources that can make it easier to not only stay in the game but to excel socially and academically. 

We created this guide as a toolkit to support students who are navigating college with a disability. Is this you? We hope this set of information and resources helps you find what you need both on and off-campus. College can be such an exciting time, and even with learning differences or a physical disability, there are many ways to embark on a successful academic experience. If you are someone entering or are in college and have a disability, we want you to wear that cap and gown and march to pomp and circumstance, because you got what it takes. We want you to know your rights and what resources are available to you. There are many. Some accommodations might not be the right fit for you and your unique situation. It takes persistence to find the tools that work. Don’t give up. 

Taking the leap from high school to college is huge. It’s not that the safety net shrinks in college, but you might have to work harder to get the support you deserve. The minute you enter college you have to be your own self-advocate in ways your high school was required to do for you. You are also now required to disclose your disability if you want to receive the services that will, in most cases, make your life much easier. Unfortunately, as a result of the stigmas attached to having a disability, many students forgo the process of disclosure and do not receive the accommodations they need to be successful. Sadly, it is only one out of 20 students that actually disclose their disability status in college, for fear of being ostracized. Ultimately, they are the ones that miss out on all of the resources that can make their collegiate experience so much easier and in many cases possible.

Many times students want to start over, and put their disability behind them when entering college and don’t disclose until they are bogged down with learning barriers. Generally, they drop out, or they disclose and begin receiving services their second year. In this case, students often struggle to finish their undergraduate degree in under six years. This is why we recommend going through the process to get your needs met before even stepping foot on campus. We hope this guide will make your academic experience a little easier and that you pick a school that you know ultimately has your back. Some are better than others when it comes to accommodating students with disabilities. There is a lot here, so take your time. Feel free to get a snack and take breaks.

How Disabilities are Legally Defined

There are actually several legal definitions for disabilities. When applying for social security, the definition is pretty specific, though not so helpful for the purposes of education:

The existence of a medically ascertainable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death or endures for a stated period, and an inability to engage in any substantial gainful activity due to the impairment. 

Definitions are constantly evolving and changing about disabilities as does research, medical science, and our awareness of how the human body operates. Next year there might be a new definition that fits your experience better.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has their own language that states:

The definition of a disability as being: statutory with respect to an individual. Here the term “disability” is taken to mean:

  • A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities of such individual.
  • A record of such impairment
  • Being regarded as having such an impairment

There are many distinct learning disabilities that can impact a student’s academic performance. Below are a list of some of the most common among college students:

  • Auditory Processing Disorder (ADP)- This is sometimes referred to as Central Auditory Processing Disorder and it impacts the way sounds are interpreted by the brain. Someone with this disorder may not recognize where sounds are coming from, or the differences in sounds that have subtle variations. One of the primary challenges of this disorder, as a student, is the ability to block out any background noises, making it very hard to focus in group settings. 
  • Dyscalculia- This is a disorder that makes it challenging to order numbers, make calculations, or do basic equations. People who struggle with this might have a hard time counting or even telling time. 
  • Dysgraphia- This is a disability that impacts the way a person writes and accesses fine motor skills. Handwriting can be a tell-tale sign of this one. 
  • Dyslexia- This is a learning disability that impacts the way someone processes language and reading skills. This can make reading comprehension challenging along with language recall and spelling. Sometimes people with dyslexia struggle to order letters and numbers in the right sequence.
  • ADD- This can include difficulty staying focused or conversely hyper-focusing 
  • ADHD- Like ADD people who struggle with this have a hard time focusing and staying on task, but the addition of the H (hyperactivity) comes with other symptoms that may include struggles with impulse control and other behavioral issues. 

Students with physical disabilities are up against some different struggles, as they have to self-advocate in many cases to ensure their classrooms and other spaces on campus can accommodate their unique physical needs. In most cases, the disclosure process will be a little different because often they are more accustomed to having their disability exposed. 

TPSID Program Opportunities

TPSID stands for Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities. You can find TPSID programming in each state in the US. Since they began offering such opportunities on college campuses in 2008, TPSID has invited students to participate in programming on at least 88 college campuses. They have served over 2,800 students with intellectual disabilities. 

TPSID was designed exclusively to give academic opportunities to students with intellectual disabilities. These programs live on college campuses, trade, and vocational schools as well as other sites that offer a post secondary education. One of the primary focal points of TPSID is career and workforce training alongside holistic life and independent living skills. Many TPSID programs are degree or certificate-granting. One of the requirements is that participating students also take part in credit-bearing courses alongside their peers in traditional classrooms. This should consist of at least 50% of their coursework. This rule, however, is not always followed in TPSID programs for a variety of reasons. 

When looking into special need colleges and schools for disabled, exploring TPSID programs first might be a good idea. The fact that TPSID opportunities give students with intellectual disabilities, including Down syndrome and autism, an option to have an immersive experience, can allow for less stigmatization and more possibilities for a normative life and career path in the future. 

TPSID programs vary greatly. Some include housing and access to all student life and extracurricular activities. This can even include social clubs and Greek life. Other such programs are less immersive. Below are two examples of differing TPSID program opportunities: 

Appalachian State University offers The Scholars with Diverse Abilities Program, which fully integrates participants into the campus community. The program lasts two years and has 11 students at any given time. Fifty percent of the students that have taken part in this program have had paid work while participating. This program results in a Collegiate Achievement Award. 

The Bergen Community College offers an opportunity called the Turning Point Program, which is non-residential and also lasts 2 years. This is different from the above program as it is less immersive and more based on vocational training. Students are only in classes with their TPSID peers. All participants will simultaneously engage in volunteer work or have a paid job while getting their education. The outcome of the Turning Point Program is a Certificate of Completion. 

Pursuing Financial Aid

There are many scholarships available that are designed to be used on a college program for students with intellectual disabilities. HEOA is the Higher Education Opportunity Act and has made it so TPSID students, who have an intellectual disability, can now qualify for federal aid that is not loan-based. On the list of non-loan funding options students with disabilities can often qualify for:

  • Federal Pell Grants
  • Federal Work-Study-programming
  • Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants
  • Additional Federal and State Grants

On top of this, students with a myriad of disabilities might also be able to access:

  • Individual training account funds that a One-Stop-Career-Center has set up
  • Self Support (PASS Plans) given by the Social Security Administration
  • Medicaid Funding for Community-Based Supports

Federal Loans are also an option to support programs for college students with learning disabilities. There are a myriad of resources that are either disability specific or directed generally towards college students with disabilities that offer funding. Grants are also prevalent that pertain to a variety of circumstances that this demographic might experience. 

As far as grants go, students with disabilities might also qualify for a variety of federal grant awards. Many of these applications require the prospective students to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form online. Some popular grants that may be applicable to students with disabilities include:

  • The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
  • Academic Competitiveness Grant
  • National SMART Grant

There are many organizations that support research and the success of students with specific disabilities, and many of these organizations have their own scholarship award offerings. Some of these include:

The Organization for Autism Research (OAR) -offers scholarships for students with autism

The Wheelchair Success Foundation offers scholarships for students who live their lives in a wheelchair. 

The Michael Yasick ADHD Scholarship program is one of many opportunities for students who struggle with ADHD. This is one of the most common learning disabilities among college students, so it should not come as a surprise that there are so many resources, including funding possibilities for students with an ADHD diagnosis. 

The National Federation for the Blind offers several scholarships for blind students pursuing higher education

Don’t forget, there are specifically colleges for students with disabilities, which include colleges for students with learning disabilities. Many institutions offer their own funding sources for their student population. For example, Landmark College is on the list, and has been rated by the US News and World Report as one of the most Innovative schools in 2020. They have some unique funding opportunities for their students that could tip the scales on whether or not it is a good fit for you. 

Navigating Campus Disability Services

This might be the most important section of this guide, as navigating campus with a disability has the possibility of presenting a learning curve in itself. The National Center for Learning Disabilities offers many resources for students and faculty who are collaborating on the support for students with a variety of disabilities. This includes physical and learning disabilities. An amendment to the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) came from the National Center of Learning Disabilities and is called the Rise Act. The Rise Act was instituted in 2017 in an effort to better the lives and potential to thrive in higher education for non-traditional students. Three distinct issues that are focal points in this official piece of legislation include:

  1. Information- which ensures that students and their parents have all of the necessary knowledge in regard to disability services on campus, making services more accessible and less stigmatized. 
  2. Accommodations- This part of the act requires college campuses to take IEPs and 504 plans from students to show evidence of their disability when they are seeking services. 
  3. Training- This aspect is for faculty and staff on campus to have access to a technical assistance center that offers learning opportunities on how to support their students with disabilities. 

The Rise Act came into fruition as a result of the many complaints from students and parents about how hard it was to access services. There were also many expressed frustrations about how unequipped faculty and campus staff were in terms of understanding the necessary accommodations that can aid in the success of students. 

The Rise Act has made it easier than it has ever been before for students to have access to the appropriate accommodations and for their support teams to know how to provide the necessary resources. However, there is still work to be done, and students are still required to self-advocate in order to get their needs met. 

Some tips for navigating this aspect of your education: 

Prior to stepping foot on campus know where the Disability Resource Center is and what they have to offer. It does not hurt to make contact with a staff member at the center, and introduce yourself over the phone. This way when you get to campus, there is someone who is expecting you. This might make it easier for you to sit down with this contact when you arrive and go over a variety of support tools that might apply to your circumstance. There might be some trial and error about what resources are effective for your specific disability, because in college there will likely be different offerings than those that your high school provided. 

An interesting statistic is that 94 percent of students with learning disabilities received appropriate accommodations when they were in high school. The staggering counter statistic is that only 17 percent of those same students received accommodations for learning disabilities in their postsecondary education. 

The kicker is that 43 percent of the students that did not access the available support services in college relayed back to the study that they regretted not accessing the supports that were available on campus. 

List of Accommodations for Students with Disabilities 

There are so many new developments in adaptive technologies and even progressive legislations to make college easier for students who have a disability. Many learning differences have a success rate for similar accommodations. Some things to consider requesting for ADHD, Dyslexia, and a number of others include:

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  • More time on tests- often it is time and a half that students with a variety of disabilities receive on tests. If you are hoping to get this accommodation on graduate school exams such as the GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, you must already have a record of receiving this during your undergraduate career.  
  • An in-class notetaker- this is an anonymous service, so you don’t have to worry that the rest of the class knows you are receiving this support. 
  • An alternative location for testing- this is helpful for students who need complete quiet and minimized distractions while test taking. Some students may need to read the questions out loud, and require privacy to do so. 
  • Having faculty members write out all class instructions 
  • Recording permissions for lectures. This often comes with access to recording equipment from the Student Disabilities Services Office
  • A reduced course load that can still count as full-time enrollment
  • Altered test formats that may include oral test taking

More and more there are adaptive tools available for students with autism and other disabilities. Some helpful options include:

  • A website called Appy Autism designed entirely to explore the different apps and technologies developed specifically for students with autism. 
  • Other assistive technologies include Dragon Dictation which enables students to speak their notes, and even their papers instead of typing them. They can then go back and edit the text accordingly. This is helpful for students with autism as well as supporting students with a myriad of other learning disabilities. 
  • Staying organized is important for any college student, but is especially critical for those who have autism among other learning disabilities. A google calendar is a great resource. It is easy to follow and is also accessible to many students because of the ubiquity of google. The shareability of a google calendar also makes it easy to stay accountable to other people.
  • Students with autism often have unique relationship to time, and do better when they have a tool that allows them to show time pass. A tool called The Timer is popular among students with autism and other learning disabilities. 
  • A bigtrack trackball is a good resource for students who struggle with motor skills and need something a little more ergonomic than a traditional mouse.  
  • Some students with disabilities benefit greatly from communication adaptive software. This can include an assistive learning app called tobbii dynovox 
  • Many students with disabilities have a hard time reading without listening along. Audible.com is an excellent resource for those who do better listening to texts. 
  • Something as simple as a touchscreen monitor can make all the difference for students who find it easier to use their finger or stylus to navigate websites instead of a mouse or trackpad. 

Other important accommodations can include larger seats that are accessible to different bodies, or places wheelchair users can park and still see the board and participate actively. Accessible bathrooms and living accommodations should be obvious, but in some cases still need to be fought for. 

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One of the most important skills to have as a college student with any disability is to know you deserve accommodations to make your education easier and in some cases possible. Along these lines it is critical to know your rights, because you have the right to learn without stigma attached to your disability. Research shows that resilience, persistence, and self regulation are critical traits or skills to take into an academic setting with a disability. Having the necessary support can make this experience so much easier. This can include parents and family members, but also therapeutic supports that may include talk therapy, and even access to appropriate community groups.

It is important that students with disabilities are able to experiment with a variety of accommodations to ensure they stay in school. Unfortunately, so many students drop out as a result of frustration and the consequential low self esteem of what feels like failure. Certainly, institutions of higher learning must be accountable to students who require accommodations, though the students themselves are responsible for making sure they access what they need. This includes seeking out the appropriate support in service of their education. 

Related:
What if My College Isn’t ADA Compliant?
What is a TPSID?

Can I Go to College with a Learning Disability?