The Ultimate Guide for College Students With Disabilities

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college students with disabilities

If you have a disability and are preparing to go to college, it’s important to know that you are not alone. College students with disabilities, ranging from learning disabilities and deafness to speech or visual impairment, are found in almost every school across the country. In fact, according to a 2016 study from the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of undergraduates in 2007 to 2008 and 2011 to 2012 reported having a disability.

Prior to beginning college, you’ll find it comforting to know that most colleges are able to accommodate students with a variety of services and programs, such as tutoring, translators, and sign language interpreters. These types of services can help you adjust to college so you can succeed.

You should also be aware of your legal rights, which can protect you from discrimination and from being denied the services you need.

What Qualifies as a Disability?

According to the American Disabilities Act (ADA), a person who has a disability is defined as one who:

  • Has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, walking, standing, and lifting. It can also include mental activities like concentrating, communicating, reading, or learning.
  • Has a major history or record of such an impairment
  • Is perceived by others as having such an impairment

Common Disabilities and Impairments

Some common physical or mental disabilities that qualify under the ADA include, but are not limited to:

  • Autism
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Blindness or poor vision
  • Cancer
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Deafness
  • Depression
  • Down’s syndrome
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Hearing or speech impairment
  • Heart disease
  • Missing limb
  • Mobility impairment, such as use of a wheelchair
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Paralysis
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia

Legal Rights for College Students With Disabilities

As a student, your rights are protected under the following civil rights laws against discrimination for having a disability.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This law prohibits discrimination against those who have a disability from being denied the opportunity to receive program benefits and services. The law states that “no qualified handicapped person shall, on the basis of handicap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or otherwise be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity which receives federal financial assistance.”

Under Section 504, colleges and universities are not allowed to:

  • Limit the number of students with disabilities admitted
  • Make pre-admission inquiries as to whether an applicant is disabled
  • Use admissions tests or criteria that inadequately measure the academic qualifications of disabled students because appropriate modifications were not made for them
  • Exclude a qualified student with a disability from any course of study
  • Limit eligibility of a student with a disability for financial assistance or otherwise
  • Discriminate in administering scholarships, fellowships, internships, or assistantships on the basis of disability
  • Counsel a student with a disability toward a more restrictive career
  • Measure student achievement using modes that adversely discriminate against a student with a disability
  • Establish policies, practices, or procedures that may adversely affect students with disabilities

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)

This law prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities in public spaces, including colleges that are open to the public, even if it’s privately owned. This law states:

  • No exclusion on the basis of disability
  • No discrimination through contract
  • Participation in the most integrated setting
  • No discrimination through eligibility criteria
  • Modifications in policies, practices, and procedures to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability
  • Modifications in policies and rules to allow the presence/use of service animals
  • No discrimination through association
  • Surcharges to cover the costs of accessibility may not be imposed solely on persons with disabilities
  • Examinations and courses related to licensing or certification for educational, professional, or trade purposes must be accessible
  • No harassment or retaliation
  • Absolute confidentiality

How to Inform Your School of Your Disability

Sharing with others about your disability is a personal choice. Though, you aren’t obligated inform your school about it, you must tell them if you want to receive some sort of accommodation. Some examples may include:

  • Needing a recording device
  • Reducing a course load
  • Needing more time for testing
  • Requesting a school computer with screen reading or voice recognition

Often, school collateral materials, such as recruitment brochures or student handbooks, contain contact information about the Student Disabilities Services office. Once you are accepted into the university, contact them as soon as possible so they can begin making your accommodations. There may be an application form you need to fill out.

You may need to show them proper documentation to prove your disability, such as verification of your diagnosis information from your doctor and how your disability affects your major life activities.

Once you begin classes, you can also speak with your professor about your condition so he or she can best help you succeed.

Disability Services and Tools

Based on your disability and the school you attend, you can receive accommodations services, which may include:

  • Exam modifications, such as extended time or a distraction-free place to use a computer
  • Modified print material, such as in Braille or enlarged text
  • Assistive technology, such as text-to-speech, or speech-to-text software, smart pens (a pen with an audio recorder), text enlarger, talking calculator, etc.
  • Sign language interpretation
  • Removal of physical barriers
  • Counseling and tutoring services
  • Peer note-taking services, usually by a volunteer
  • Campus housing and dining accommodations
  • Transportation or special parking requests

You may be responsible for some of your own adjustment needs, such as a personal care assistant or using a service animal.

Scholarships & Grants

There are plenty of scholarships and grants available that can help college students with disabilities pay for college. The scholarships and grants below are just a few examples:

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education may provide you with grants and on-campus job opportunities specifically awarded to students with disabilities that you may qualify for, including the Federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and the Federal Work-Study program.

There are many other scholarships and grants for students with disabilities but don’t limit yourself to only those types of scholarships. Check your school’s financial aid webpage for any merit-based, non-disability scholarships you may qualify for.

Resources for Students with Disabilities


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