Nearly 80 percent of all high school students with disabilities list attending college as one of their goals, yet only 60 percent enroll and 41 percent complete degrees, according to former Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Although these figures have risen in recent decades due to the passage of inclusive disability rights laws, students with disabilities still lag behind their peers in terms of postsecondary education. While much is being done to empower these students and promote their rights, one of the most important components in the process is helping prospective students and their families self-advocate and be aware of the resources and provisions in place at colleges and universities to help them succeed.
This guide was created to bring awareness to rights and responsibilities of students with disabilities, help them learn how to take advantage of myriad services, and provide expert advice from a postsecondary education administrator who has spent years serving college students with disabilities.
According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), intellectual disability is characterized by limitations in reasoning, learning, problem solving and adaptive behavior. Adaptive behavior includes social and practical living skills. Intellectual disabilities fall under the umbrella of developmental disabilities. Learning disabilities are neurologically-based and lead to processing issues that can affect organization, time management, memory, attention span. Learning disabilities and intellectual disabilities are not the same thing, but some of the resources that can help with intellectual disabilities can also help with learning disabilities, particularly campus-based resources.
A campus-based service to help students work with their learning disability and fully participate in all that college has to offer.
Commonly providing tutoring services alongside one-to-one help with projects, these centers build confidence in all learners by instilling strategies and providing apps or programs to make reading and writing easier.
Example: The Reading & Writing Center at Ventura College, Ventura, CA
AHEAD is a professional organization for individuals within higher education who are committed to ensuring full-participation of students with disabilities.
This organization is focused on the concept of meta-learning, or how to enhance and encourage mental processes that help with learning.
A nationally recognized nonprofit, LDAA works to ensure anyone with a learning disability feels empowered and able to participate fully in their communities.
Operating nationally, The Arc offers a range of services to individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities while also providing education, activism and public policy initiatives.
Countless resources and pieces of research are available through Understood, an organization devoted to helping students and parents better understand and navigate learning disabilities.
This app offers self-directed lessons to help students with developmental or learning disabilities carry out important daily tasks.
iThoughts was specifically designed to help students manage multiple thoughts at once and be able to see big-picture concepts.
Symplur provides a list of popular hashtags related to learning disabilities to help students connect with each other.
This assistive technology helps students with learning and developmental disabilities reach their full potential in areas of language learning, reading, and writing.
Countless devices that help translate written words to verbal communications are available, for computers, laptops, tablets, and mobile phones.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) falls under the umbrella of developmental disabilities, but some crucial resources are specifically tailored for people with ASD. A diagnosis of ASD is usually made at an early age, and people with ASD may experience social interaction difficulties, repetitive behaviors, and issues with verbal and nonverbal communication. People with autism attend and graduate from college, and more colleges are recognizing and implementing ways to help these students be successful.
Several colleges now host these groups which provide a meeting place and resource system for students on the autism spectrum.
Example: Drexel Autism Support Program, Drexel University, Philadelphia, PA
Provides assistance and education to high school students on the autism spectrum making their way to college.
Example: Texas Tech University’s Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research
In addition to myriad resources, Autism Speaks provides an incredibly helpful transition tool kit to help students on the autism spectrum move from high school to adulthood.
ASAN provides a range of resources, policy efforts, and other means of empowering individuals on the autism spectrum to advocate for themselves and their rights.
Support from CAS is specifically tailored to college students on the autism spectrum and is available to students, parents, and professionals who serve them.
Since 2003, NAA has advocated for those on the autism spectrum while providing support services for individuals and families.
The USAAA offers support to individuals on the autism spectrum throughout their lifespan, but also provides the U.S. College Autism Project.
This iPad app helps college students with autism navigate social situations and learn functional skills to serve them well at school.
This assistive technology device provides a variety of different messages and topics to help users verbalize their needs.
LAMP is a style of therapy designed to help individuals with autism increase their verbal skills.
A free app, Smart Steps helps students on the autism spectrum navigate the decision-making process for everyday activities.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) characterizes ADD/ADHD as a brain disorder marked by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. College students with untreated ADD or ADHD may have trouble getting organized, staying on task, paying attention in lectures or missing details in school assignments. There is no cure, but treatments such as medication, education, training and psychotherapy can help manage and reduce symptoms and improve functioning in trouble areas.
Lots of colleges provide a list of tips for students new to college looking to best manage ADD/ADHD symptoms.
Example: The Division of Disability Resources & Educational Services at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
These student centers can provide faculty or peer tutoring to help students with ADD/ADHD comprehend and retain concepts and assist with research and writing.
Example: The Office of Accessible Education at Stanford University
This popular publication provides a voice to teenagers and college students with ADD/ADHD and provides countless resources, articles, blogs, and helpful services to help them succeed.
ADDA empowers individuals with ADD/ADHD across the lifespan, but they also have specific programs for postsecondary students, including regular college webinars.
PsychCentral provides concrete tips to help college students with ADD/ADHD successfully manage their busy days.
CHADD functions as a national non-profit providing resources, tips, directories, and advocacy to those who need it most.
This hip and progressive website brings in lots of videos and multimedia to help engage students in learning how not to let ADD/ADHD overshadow their college experience.
Friendship Circle has rounded up a range of helpful social media feeds on every platform imaginable.
An app for your smartphone or table, Clear is a well-designed, intuitive app created to help with list-making and ensuring everything gets done each day.
This app was designed by neuroscientists to retrain users’ brains in cognitive skills through interactive games.
Countless devices now exist that convert text into speech, while there are also thousands of audio books available to help students focus on course materials.
These handy, affordable devices read out numbers and symbols to provide aural feedback that lets students know they’ve pressed correct keys.
People with speech disorders or disabilities have difficulty producing speech sounds correctly or fluently and may also have voice problems. Some speech disorders include stuttering, articulation and pronunciation. Language disorders include trouble understanding other people when they are speaking or difficulty sharing thoughts through speaking. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, speech and language disorders can result due to an accident or illness, or they have no known origin.
Some colleges provide computers and printers with LED displays, voice synthesized laptops, or special training for faculty members.
Example: Allegheny College, Student Disability Services--Students with Speech Impairments
Universities can share the stories of students with speech or language disabilities overcoming obstacles to find success in college.
ASHA both educates the public about these specific disabilities and helps families find nearby professionals. There is also a self-help group directory.
Providing support and information for individuals, families, professionals, and communities, CSLD is helping break down barriers and understanding and awareness around speech and language disabilities.
Although mainly focused on K-12, NASET offers exceptional resources and lesson guides to help students with speech and language disabilities.
Operating as a branch of ASHA, this organization has more than 13,000 student members at its more than 300 chapters at colleges and universities throughout the country.
For parents with younger students looking for information on how to best support their speech and language capabilities, The Cherab Foundation provides support and community.
This app for children and adults helps problem solve language barriers through reasoning and critical thinking activities.
For students who need assistance with making their voices heard, there are both vocal and larynx amplifiers available.
Created by speech and language pathologists, APS works to treat auditory processing disorders via a bottom-to-top approach.
A raft of AAC assistive technologies exist to help students who aren’t able to communicate via oral speech.
Compiled by ASHA, this comprehensive list includes both blogs and social media feeds about speech and language disabilities.
The National Association of the Deaf characterizes “deaf” as experiencing the audiological condition of not hearing, while hard-of-hearing customarily denotes a mild-to-moderate hearing loss or can also include a person who doesn’t have or want “cultural affiliation with the Deaf community.” Members of the Deaf community share a common culture and language, which is American Sign Language (ASL). A person who identifies as “deaf” may not also identify as “Deaf,” though both groups have the condition of not hearing. Deaf is not considered a disorder or disability, but colleges do offer resources for students who are members of the Deaf community and those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Whether provided via technology or an assistant, many schools provide assistance to students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.
Example: DHOH Handbook from the University of Washington’s Disability Resources for Students
Students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can take part in summer intensives at their university to help them further develop research and career skills.
Example: University of Michigan, Kresge Hearing Research Institute’s Summer Program for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing
HHF is working rapidly to eliminate tinnitus and making hearing loss a thing of the past.
Aside from a thriving online community, NLAA also has more than 200 local chapters throughout America.
In addition to providing advocacy and education initiatives, NAD also has a youth leadership program.
NBDA has been supporting black Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing for more than three decades, including on the national level and via 30 chapters in the United States.
Operating under the umbrella of the Hearing Loss Association of America, YASN works to connect young adults who are deaf or experience hearing loss.
This online community of video bloggers operates much like YouTube but provides visual vlogs.
A completely free app, Dragon Dictation is a lifesaver for individuals who may not be able to follow a spoken conversation. The app transcribes conversations immediately on the screen of any phone, laptop, or tablet.
This innovative app helps those who are deaf or hard of hearing receive an alert via vibrations and flashes whenever it picks up on noises in the room or nearby.
People with visual impairments may experience low visual acuity or blindness. Visual impairment may range from moderate loss of vision to total blindness.
Example: Texas A&M University in College Station has an innovative puppy-raising student organization that trains guide dogs for visually impaired students.
Example:These student groups – such as Braille Birds at Illinois State University – help visually impaired students integrate into both their campus and local communities.
ACB advocates for visually impaired individuals and provides 20 scholarships annually.
The second edition of AFB’s College Bound: A Guide for Students with Visual Impairments is now available through the organizations website.
This organization has been serving visually impaired students for more than 40 years through both national efforts and state divisions.
A nonprofit founded to help individuals and students achieve anything they set their mind to through training, empowerment, and advocacy.
In addition to general efforts, the NFB also operates a student portal and provides scholarships to visually impaired scholars.
The American Foundation for the Blind maintains a presence on social media and also provides tips on accessibility feature for platforms like Facebook.
This innovative app helps visually impaired individuals explore their world via talking maps, special vibrations for street crossings, and announcements for public transport stops.
Where seeking a compass, braille typewriter, raised line paper, or labeling machine, there are many braille technologies available to assist with learning.
This .99 cent app helps visually impaired students find sources of light by emitting a sound that strengths as the user gets closer to the light.
Especially helpful for online students, these devices magnify images onto a monitor to enlarge the picture.
This app is offered by the American Foundation for the Blind and is offered for Android and iPhone.
Physical disabilities are characterized as congenital or acquired physical or motor impairments. Gross motor skills or fine motor skills may be affected. College students living with physical or other disabilities require a wide range of services.
While universities often can’t help with day-to-day transportation needs, they can arrange special transportation for any university-related travel, including field trips or student organization travel.
In the case of an emergency, universities should have an evacuation plan in place to ensure students can move from the affected area.
Example:" Requesting Accommodations for a Physical Disability", The University of Chicago Student Disability Services
AAPD is continually fighting the good fight for anyone with a disability and empowering them to use their voices to do the same.
Operating as a resource center, AAHD provides the latest information and news about advances and chances within health and disabilities and updates on legislation across the country.
COSD supports students with disabilities as they near graduation and work to find their first jobs.
DREAM supports college students naturally by providing services such as mentoring throughout their postsecondary careers and beyond.
This federally-funded organization providing assistance and information to students with disabilities across the United States.
This device allows for hands-free reading via the tap of a wireless pedal.
This app helps users send texts without typing, turn on devices without pressing a button (such as flashlights), and compete many other tasks via voice command.
For students with limited mobility, a foot-controlled mouse can help them better access technology.
This roundup provides students with encouraging social media feeds of people with physical disabilities to follow.
For students who have difficulties using their mobile phone or tablet, Tecla Access controls these devices wirelessly via a powered wheelchair.
While federal mandates concerning the rights of students with disabilities were first introduced by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the number of these learners attending postsecondary institutions started to surge after the passage of the Individuals with Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004. By mandating that higher education be a goal for all students and requiring states to report the number of learners with disabilities enrolling in postsecondary education within one year of graduation, states and institutions are working diligently to ensure this population continues their educations.
Attending college is now a goal for 80 percent of high school students with disabilities, and the number of these learners enrolling in higher education has risen dramatically: only 26 percent of students with disabilities who graduated in 1990 enrolled in a postsecondary institution within four years out of college, compared to 46 percent for 2005 graduates.
What are the laws and programs that have increased participation in higher education for students with disabilities and how do they specifically assist them in their goals?
Section 504 specifically supports students with disabilities by requiring any academic institution receiving federal funding to provide benefits, services and opportunities that are equitable for all students. Students qualifying under this act are defined as having a physical or mental impairments that limit their major life activities, including any psychological disorder or condition, cosmetic disfigurement, or any “anatomical loss affecting one or more of the following body systems:
Introduced in 1990, Title II of the ADA protects students enrolled at public institutions from being discriminated against based on a disability, while Title III protects students at private institutions that provide any examinations or courses dealing with educational and occupational certification. Title III also stipulates that colleges and universities must provide environments and services that are accessible to all students.
Organized in 1979 by individuals with disabilities and parents of those with disabilities, DREDF has worked tirelessly to advocate for the civil and human rights of this population via education, legislative development, public policy initiatives, and training. Over the years the group has successfully prevented the deregulation of Section 504, helped create major legislation furthering the rights of individuals with disabilities, and fought high-level discrimination cases.
IDEA primarily serves students who are still in grade school to ensure they have access to appropriate free education, but the Act’s secondary transition requirements have greatly increased the number of students with disabilities heading off to higher education. Within Individual Education Programs (IEP), students turning 16 must have measurable goals for their postsecondary experience and the provision of transition services – which includes courses of study – to help them reach their goals.
Once a student gets to college, it’s their responsibility to disclose any disabilities and to provide documentation to the office of disability services. It’s also up to learners to self-identify as a student with a disability to their professors and refer them to disability services to verify this information. Some of the accommodations a student can expect to receive are outlined below.
At the University of Texas at Austin, modifications to testing times or environments are offered to students for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to students with ADHD who may become distracted, those with learning disabilities who need an interpreter or extra time, or students with physical disabilities who may need an extended window to complete tasks.
St. Petersburg College in Florida allows students with disabilities to substitute what are deemed nonessential classes within the curriculum if their disability would preclude them from passing the class. A course with similar outcomes but taught through different means is provided as a substitution.
Typically taken on a case-by-case basis, institutions such as the University of Connecticut have provisions in place to allow students with documented disabilities to register early for classes and create a schedule that best suits their needs. Reasons for this may be based on mobility, accessibility, use of assistive technology, or when a personal assistant is available.
In addition to allowing and providing devices to aid students in their learning, many disability services offices, such as the one at University of New Hampshire, have specialists available to help them learn how to use assistive technology and maximize its benefits inside and outside the classroom.
Lots of schools – Ohio State University being one example – provide interpreters and transcribers to ensure students who experience visual impairments, deafness, or hearing loss succeed in the classroom. Students should work with the disability services office at their school to request appropriate provisions.
The University of Miami serves as just one example of institutions receiving federal funding being required to provide accessible dormitories and classrooms to students with disabilities. In addition to arranging for classes to be taught in accessible spaces for students who need to take specific courses, schools also provide accessibility maps to help students find the best routes.
Anne Marie Dobies is the Assistant Vice President of the Griff Center for Academic Engagement at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. Prior to her current role, Dobies served as the director of the college’s Office of Disability Support Services, a position which she now oversees.
It is important for individuals to have a clear understanding of their own disability and how it impacts them daily. Students should work with their school counselors to determine the right fit; search the web and explore all the different options that are available; attend college fairs and community events to discuss majors, academic program, and resources; and visit with the service providers at different colleges to determine if you can find academic success. It comes down to academic programs and if the college is the right fit for you.
The laws shift after graduation of high school, so it is important that individuals know how academic and non-academic accommodations are accessed at the postsecondary level. Self-advocacy is the foundation to knowing your rights and responsibilities, and students should not be afraid to ask questions and seek assistance.
Look at the accommodations that have worked for you in the past and make sure that the college or university that you choose can address these needs.
Know that you have great strengths. Seek out opportunities to help build upon these strengths.
Remember that you are not alone. There are great support systems in place at many colleges that can help guide you and support you along your journey.
Remember that effective communication with support service providers and faculty is key to your success.
Organization and time management are two skills not developed overnight and are continually changing depending on class schedules, extracurriculars, busy semesters, and myriad other factors.
Whether advocating for yourself or a loved one, empowering individuals with disabilities is a vitally important role. Breaking down barriers and educating the public on this population is intrinsic to the progression of our society. Check out these tips on being an advocate for disability rights.
Laws such as the Rehabilitation Act, ADA and IDEA protect the rights of individuals with disabilities and spell out their responsibilities. Learning what these documents contain allows advocates to speak knowledgeably and authoritatively on the subject. Harvard Law School maintains a regularly updated guide on disability laws in America.
Be it on the local, state or national level, pieces of legislation relevant to disability rights are always being passed through different congressional meetings. The Arc provides an active list of current legislative initiatives where your voice can make a tremendous impact.
People don’t know what they don’t know, but it’s the job of advocates to educate them on important topics within disability rights and advancements. The Independent Living Institute compiled a comprehensive Disability Awareness in Action Resource Kit for those who want to bring more awareness.
Understood provides excellent resources for individuals who want to receive training on being an advocate for individuals with disabilities.
There are many organizations on the frontlines of disability rights, fighting for more expansive coverage and care, opening doors for students with disabilities who aspire to college, and educating the public on how they can make a difference. Consider donating to one of these worthwhile organizations to fund their efforts.