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College Bound with Disabilities: Insights from Disability Services Professionals

As autumn leaves start to fall, higher education institutions across the nation open their doors to prospective students and their families, inviting them to explore a world of academic possibilities, co-curricular opportunities, and an array of student support services. The journey to college is an exciting one, but for students with disabilities, it can also introduce unique and sometimes intimidating challenges. The shift to college brings with it a change in the landscape of accommodation provision particularly as it relates to the intent of the laws governing these services. Accommodations and services mandated in high school don't automatically carry over to the post-secondary environment. To ensure a smoother transition, it's essential for students to be well-informed about their rights and responsibilities, as well as the responsibilities of post-secondary institutions. That said, you need not face this transition alone. As disability service professionals (DSPs), we understand that change can be overwhelming. That's why we're committed to providing students, families, and educational partners with the knowledge and support necessary for a successful transition. In this blog, our goal is to provide useful insights and tips that you may hear from us at open house events, giving you added confidence for this new adventure.


Understand the distinctions between high school and college


When transitioning from high school to college, it’s important to understand that the intent of the laws governing accommodations shifts. In high school, students who are covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) usually receive accommodations and special support services as part of their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or 504 plans. However, in college, the legal landscape changes significantly under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Whereas K-12 aims to modify the educational environment to guarantee success, post-secondary’s primary goal is to ensure access without fundamental changes to the way things are done.

Post-secondary institutions do not automatically identify students with disabilities like high schools do. It is the responsibility of the student to self-identify and request accommodations. As a result, accommodation requests must be initiated by the students themselves rather than someone else acting on their behalf. This can be challenging for students who previously had teams or family members overseeing their educational needs. It is important to note that privacy laws such as FERPA dictate that information about accommodations can only be shared with family members if the student explicitly gives permission.

Self-determination skills are critical


As students make the leap to college, having strong self-determination skills is essential for success. This means being able to speak up for oneself, set personal goals, and navigate the academic landscape independently. Self-determination is not only necessary to secure accommodations but also to promote personal growth and resilience, particularly at a time when freedom and responsibility merge. These skills enable students to take advantage of opportunities, overcome obstacles, and create a fulfilling and successful college experience. To prepare for higher education, students should understand their disabilities and how they affect their functioning (e.g., cognitive, social, emotional, physical, etc.). The better students understand their strengths and challenges and the more aware they are about themselves as learners, the better prepared they will be to advocate and request the appropriate accommodations in college. One way to help students develop self-determination skills is to encourage them to take an active role in managing their condition, such as scheduling medical appointments or refilling prescriptions. Another strategy is for students to participate in their IEP/504 process.


Be familiar with the documentation requirements.


The student is a vital source of information when assessing how they may be impacted by their disability. A student's personal narrative, describing their experiences with disability, encountered barriers, and the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of past accommodations, is considered a primary source of documentation in the accommodation determination process. In limited cases, this narrative can serve as sufficient evidence to establish disability and the need for accommodations or auxiliary aids.

Colleges usually require more than self-reported information to support accommodation requests, such as supporting evidence that describes the disability, nature and level of impact, and rationale for accommodations. These requirements are usually posted on the disability services office’s webpage of each institution.

While Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) or Section 504 plans can provide information about past impairments and accommodations, they may not be enough to determine reasonable accommodations for college. College education requirements are different from high school, and disabilities may change over time or be expressed differently in various settings. If the current documentation does not meet the college's standards, students will be informed about additional information that is necessary. Sometimes, a new or updated evaluation may be required.


Reach out to the Disability Services Office


Researching disability services offices and inquiring about accommodation options is an important step for students wit

h disabilities as they transition to college. It is just as important that this office is a good fit for the students as it is for the rest of the campus. When connecting with a college or university's disability services office, it's essential to ask the right questions that shed light on the support available and the steps needed to access it. To get this conversation started, here are some key questions to consider:


  • What Services and Accommodations Are Available?

Inquire about the range of services and accommodations provided by the disability services office. Are there options beyond what is listed on the website?

  • What is the process and timeline for applying for accommodations?

Ask about the process for registering with the disability services office. Are there specific forms or documentation required? Is there a deadline for registration?

  • What Are the Documentation Requirements?

Clarify the documentation requirements. What type of documentation is necessary to establish eligibility for accommodations? Is there a preferred format for this documentation?

  • When Should I Contact the Office?

Understand when it's best to reach out to the disability services office. Should you contact them before enrolling, over the summer, or once you've started classes?

  • How Are Accommodations Determined?

Learn about the process for determining appropriate accommodations. Ask about the process for renewing or updating your accommodations as needed, especially if your disability-related needs change.

  • How Are Professors Notified of Accommodations?

Understand how the office communicates your approved accommodations to professors. Is there a formal notification process, or is it your responsibility to discuss accommodations with instructors?

  • What Accessibility Features Are Available on Campus?

Find out about accessibility features on campus, including accessible buildings, transportation options, and assistive technology resources.

  • What is the Office's Policy on Confidentiality?

Understand the office's policy regarding the confidentiality of your disability-related information. How is this information protected and shared?

  • Are There Any Scholarships or Financial Aid Opportunities for Students with Disabilities?

Inquire about scholarships, grants, or financial aid opportunities specifically available to students with disabilities.

  • Can I Schedule a Meeting with a Disability Services Professional?

Request the opportunity to schedule a one-on-one meeting with a staff member from the disability services office to discuss your specific needs and questions in detail.


In summary

The transition to college presents exciting opportunities and unique challenges, especially for students with disabilities. Understanding the shifting legal landscape, honing self-determination skills, and familiarizing oneself with documentation requirements are vital steps toward success in this journey. Equally important is establishing a connection with prospective disability services offices, to ensure that the needed supports are available. Remember, disability services professionals are ready and willing to guide, support, and empower students every step of the way. As students embark on this transformative adventure, may their college experience be filled with growth, resilience, and the realization of their fullest potential.

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