Going To College With A Disability

College Planning And Disabilities

A disability need not stop any student from pursuing higher education.  In fact, students who go to college with a disability can be very successful, and often see graduation when many of their non-disabled peers do not.  Those with physical disabilities can show a college their limitations and needs in very concrete terms, such as mobility on campus.  However, those with non-physical disabilities often have fluctuating conditions, try to ignore the tacit warning signs of a problem, or want to conceal their condition from a prospective school.  Many of the students that I’ve worked with have had some form of disability, whether formally or not formally diagnosed.  This is a key distinction, since an undiagnosed issue carries no weight when it comes time to ask for special considerations that can make the difference between success and outright failure.

Without variation, every college I’ve spoken with has told me that they can help students with disabilities.  Yet, I have an equal number of accounts from parents who have told me “the college said they could handle it, and didn’t.”  Having a worked directly with students with disabilities for more than a decade, and also having written detailed intervention plans for them, I always speak directly with those who will be in charge of helping any student that I refer to a college.  Sometimes I am very confident about placing them there, but in many instances I’m not.  Inevitably the bottom line for a college is always that students must “avail themselves of the available resources,” which is the standard code phrase that the student must come in when they need help.  The reality is that students who are in trouble in college, whether disabled or not, only rarely come in to seek help.  One study showed that only about 10% of students who need help would ask for it.  This doesn’t count the many students that I know who did, and were very dissatisfied with the services provided by the college.  In reality, colleges are educational institutions, not treatment institutions, and these roles should never be confused by parents and students when planning for college.

Disabilities While In College

A secondary factor that is often overlooked when thinking about the overlap of college and disabilities is this:  Disabilities can develop while a student is in college, and not necessarily before.  The age of onset for many adult emotional disorders, like depression, is typically around age 18-24 years, which is exactly the traditional ages of college students.  The stress of college can sometimes trigger bouts of depression, which by medical definition, need only last two weeks.  In 2007 and 2008, student surveys were done across 40 U.S. campuses, and the results reflected that students were very stressed, and depression occurred at much higher levels than in the non-college population.  Other disabilities (whether temporary or permanent) that students can experience are anxiety issues, panic attacks, mood disturbances, eating disorders, drug and alcohol issues, ADHD, and many more.  If not caught in time, a well intentioned, bright student could find themselves on academic probation or fail in college due to even a temporary disability.

Non-physical disabilities, due to their lack of apparent impact, must be taken seriously by parents, students, and professionals when considering college.  While having a disability will not give you special consideration for admissions, once you’re accepted, you can and should request the accommodations needed to succeed.  Acknowledging the condition and adjusting for it may be all that is needed.  Students who plan on attending college should have any concerns about their physical or emotional health evaluated before starting, since a missed condition can lead to academic problems or outright failure once the pressure of a tough semester hits.  Finally, for those students who do develop a condition while in college, it’s critical to work with a professional who understands both the college system and disabilities in order to help you regain your footing toward graduation.  In so many students that I work with, the signs of a looming disability had been there before college, unseen by planners and professionals, and were only noticed after the student had done poorly or simply failed in college.

Jeff Ludovici works with students and families across the U.S. about issues pertaining to college planning, preventing college problems, as well as getting students re-started if they have had problems in college.  He is based in Pittsburgh, but has clients in New York, Illinois, Indiana, Florida, and other states.  If you have questions, comments, or a student that needs help, feel free to write him at jeffludovici@studentstrategy101.com.

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