College Planning For Students With Disabilities

I work with a variety of students, both with and without disabilities.  Some are currently in college, while others are in the planning phases during high school.  There are many lessons and advantages that I can bring to college planning from working with students who are actually in college.  From this I know that students with disabilities who want to attend college must deal with not only the usual challenges of planning for college, but also another set of disability-specific issues.  In fact, college planning for students with disabilities can become so complex that I have a book-length project underway on the subject.

Of the many issues to be considered for a student with a disability when thinking about college, a few important ones are:

The Rules Change For Gaining Accommodations

Colleges get to determine if a student gets accommodations and what they are.  There is no automatic process for gaining accommodations in college even if a student had an IEP or 504 plan in high school- the student must prove to the college that they are entitled to them.  The college can make it very easy or very difficult to prove that a student’s condition merits accommodations.  In one instance I had a college tell a student that an evaluation and diagnosis from her psychiatrist was not sufficient to prove to them that she needed accommodations.  They wanted a lengthy evaluation that cost $2,700, and would not give her the accommodations during her first semester so her grades suffered greatly.  I later spoke with this school’s accrediting body in the interesting of filing an appeal with them, and they said that they don’t get involved in accommodations:  It’s completely up to the school.  They only monitor to see if the school is following its own policies, which they write themselves.  The variability across colleges in ease or difficulty of gaining accommodations makes college choice extremely important for students with disabilities.  For additional information on the IEP/504 transition issue, see the Q&A interview I did with my colleague Rachel Mann from the Disabilities Rights Network in Philadelphia.

College Choice

In addition to varying school policies on awarding accommodations, schools can also be very different across many other factors.  The types of services they offer, disability department staff, and other supports can vary from one college to the next.  In addition to disability-specific issues there are general factors.  For example, urban campuses tend to be noisier than rural ones, and the additional distractions might make life for a student with attention issues more difficult.  Large colleges can be intimidating for some students, and one with social phobia might just withdraw in to their room and not want to leave.  I’ve seen many situations where the general characteristics of the college have either helped or hurt the student, despite how good the disability staff or policies had been.  Both the general and disability-specific college characteristics then become critical factors when choosing a college for students with disabilities.

Student Characteristics And Needs

Students have many individualized characteristics that may or may not be part of a disability.  Part of developing a comprehensive plan for students with disabilities is to consider these needs when making college decisions.  For example, a student may have a horrible time when it comes to writing, which I see often, and may need extra support in that area or additional practice during high school.  Some students need constant monitoring and focusing efforts on academics, but might be strong in social areas.  In other instances, students with disabilities will need to continue with a plan of treatment when they transition to college, so counseling or psychiatric services will be important.  Not all schools have a psychiatrist on staff at the counseling or health center, so drawing upon local resources and developing a “continuation of care” plan will be important so they don’t encounter problems once on campus.

Comprehensive Planning And Support

Students with disabilities who plan to go to college must have support that considers both the usual college issues, like majors and being accepted, but also disability-specific factors.  Finding a college that has “disability friendly” policies, qualified support staff, and the services necessary to help them succeed can be time consuming.  Parents and students should start early, hopefully at the beginning of the student’s junior year in high school.  While other students are focused on simply getting in to a college they want, planning for students with disabilities should consider supports and factors that will help them succeed once they’re there.