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Going to College with a Disability

  Attending college can cause anxiety for most students.  From admissions deadlines to

  financial aid, most students worry about whether or not they will get into the college

  they like, how they will pay for school and whether or not they will be able to survive

  on their own.  College is a new environment, often away from the comforts of our

  family and home we’ve known since we were little kids.  Moving into a new phase on

  your own can be intimidating!  Every student worries about succeeding in class and

  meeting new people, but students with disabilities have more concerns than just the

  academics and the social atmosphere.  As a student with a disability it is important

  that you choose a school which offers a strong academic program in your desired field

  of study, a vibrant community in which you feel comfortable and an Office of Disability

  Services which makes you feel at home and provides you with the services you need

  to be successful and teaches you methods that will go on to make you successful

                                     after graduation.    


Do you know what field of study interests you?


Begin the search by spending some time deciding what career field you would like to enter. Once you have some suggestions, find people who work in that field.  You could also focus on organizations that hire people in your chosen occupation.   Spend some time interviewing people who are currently working in the field that interests you. An important piece of information to find out from those you interview is where they went to college and if they had the opportunity to go to college again where they would go. Also look at corporations or organizations that hire people in the field of study you are interested in what colleges or universities do they recruit from each year.   Now you can begin researching schools that have strong academic programs in that field or schools that were recommended by corporations, organizations and individuals in the field you are interested in.  Look at their admissions standards online and email any questions to the office of admissions at each school.


Schedule an on-campus tour when possible! 


This is extremely important for any student, but especially important for students with physical disabilities.  Getting the chance to visit campus gives you clues to the social atmosphere, the sense of community and the ease at which you would be able to navigate on your own.  Remember, once you are on campus you are responsible for getting yourself to class, the dining hall and cafeteria!  If you have a physical disability that makes getting around difficult you might reconsider some of your choices after visiting campus. 


If you schedule to attend an on-campus informational event or campus tour call the Office of Disability Services and schedule an appointment on the same day.Meeting with someone from disability services will allow you to gather information about how they accommodate students with similar disabilities, eligibility requirements for services and the types of services provided to students with similar disabilities. Ask questions about how the department might react to a situation where you need a accommodation and a faculty member refuses a reasonable accommodation.  Is that a situation where you are on your own or will the staff of ODS be your advocate?  Make sure you leave with a clear understanding of what services you would receive and how they are funded.  If possible ask to have the opportunity to communicate (by phone or e-mail) with a student who has a similar disability and is attending that institution. Interview that student ask why they selected their school and are they happy or do they regret their choice and why. It is important to learn about what kind of support does you campus provide once you graduate. Do they simply hand you a diploma and say good luck! Or do they have work experience programs that you can begin as early as your sophomore year. Most individuals choose to go to college so that they can be employed. Your chosen institution should have programs in place that will assist you in achieving your goal.


Be sure you know your priorities before you narrow your list to your top choices.  Remember that you are going to college for the academics, not to attend a party every weekend.  The social atmosphere is important but is not the sole reason to attend college.  Remember how comfortable you felt on campus and whether you felt the office of disability services would effectively meet your needs.  Once you have reviewed all of your choices narrow your list to two or three schools and get those applications out!


I’ve been accepted!!!! Now what?


It’s great that you’ve been accepted to the college of your choice.  You can rest easy for a little bit, the college search completed, the application essays finished.  Don’t sit on your laurels for too long.  Now you need to work out the details of what you need to do to prepare yourself for this transition to college.  First, make sure you understand your rights as a college student with a disability.  As a younger student you were covered by the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA).  You are covered under this law through high school.  This law states that it is the school district’s job to ensure that you receive appropriate special education services and that the school adjusts the curriculum to meet your abilities. This law also says that it is the school’s responsibility to identify students who need assistance. Once you are in college you are covered under two different laws, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  These laws entitle you to “reasonable” accommodations without adjusting the curriculum.   This means that colleges are required to accommodate you to a “reasonable” degree. You are also required to identify yourself and provide documentation of your disability.   The college you choose is not responsible for ensuring that you take advantage of services or accommodations that are offered.  It is your job to ask for services or accommodations that will help you succeed in college.


Once you have been accepted to the college of your choice, contact the Office of Disability Services again and inquire about any orientation provided for students with a disability.  If offered, be sure to sign up!  They will provide you with important information regarding the services or accommodations they offer and what you need to secure those services or accommodations.  Orientation schedules differ from college to college, and some may be quite early in the summer.    Be sure not to miss your college’s orientation.  Make sure you contact your housing office and inquire as to how and to what degree your room and bath room can be adapted to meet your needs. This will vary from campus to campus. If you have a physical disability you want to make sure that your room environment is one that supports your physical independence.


Going to college not only requires you to be more independent in terms of your academics, but also in your personal life as well.  Developing strong personal skills prior to heading to college will make the transition much easier for you.  Practice skills such as basic personal skills, self-advocacy and communication at home. 


Personal Skills

Your will need to know how to explain your disability to people who don’t know you as well as explain the accommodations you need academically and personally.  Get ready by writing out a short statement explaining your disability and how it impacts you academically and socially.  Ask your parents, teachers and counselors about services you use at school to help you and services or accommodations you need at home.  Make a chart with all of your accommodations in one column and why you need them in another column.  Familiarize yourself with both your statement of your disability and your accommodations.  Once you feel comfortable, practice telling your parents and teachers about your disability and the services you use and need.  Practicing this way will help you not only develop the skills to advocate for yourself, but will also improve your ability to communicate your disability and needs clearly. 


Self-Advocacy Skills

Self-advocacy is a skill that can help you in a number of areas.  You need to be a good self-advocate to get the academic supports you need, in your living arrangements, scheduling for PA’s and a variety of other situations.  Make sure that you are the one asking for services or accommodations, not your parents!  Be prepared to explain why you need these.  Remember, once you get to college it is up to you to ask for what you need.

Self-advocacy skills will help you in personal situations as well.  Is your dorm not suitable for you?  Are you having issues with your roommate?  Being a strong self-advocate will allow you to discuss issues like these in a productive way. 


Communication Skills

Good communication skills are also a must!  If you cannot clearly communicate with your peers, professors or other adults you will struggle in college.  Make sure that you have all the tools available to you in the communication department.  Being able to express yourself clearly is an important part of self-advocacy as well.  If you can organize your thoughts and words you will find it much easier to ask for what you need or to explain why something is or isn’t working for you. 

Going to college is an exciting time.  Make sure that you are choosing a college that fits your personality and will provide you with the services or accommodations that you need to be successful!  Don’t forget to contact each college’s office of disability services and make sure that you ask good questions about documentation and services provided.  Start planning early and your transition to college will be much smoother!