Winning in College: A Guide for Students with Disabilities

The transition from high school to college life is difficult enough for any number of students without considering a disability. Odds are that if you have a disability and you made it through high school, you’ve done it with the help of a very disciplined and structured routine order of classes. College life is a very different game, allowing students to make a lot of choices and decisions for themselves.

Students transitioning from the regimented order to this comparative chaos may find themselves lost. That’s not to say that it can’t be done–there have been many, many successful students that have overcome disabilities and found successful academic lives, and successful careers.

2015 Student College Enrollment

Unemployment Rates


In a recent study of students with disabilities, the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that of the 20.2 million students enrolling in colleges in 2015, ~2.42 million (11.1%) of these students have some kind of disability. These numbers indicate a growing trend in enrollment as more and more schools develop the necessary resources to support this group of students. While education does open many door for people to achieve more satisfying and higher paying careers, education should be understood in the context of employment. The unemployment rate of people with disabilities tends to double the rate of people without disabilities. In December 2015, the unemployment rate of people without disabilities was around 4.6% compared to a 10.3% rate of people with disabilities. It won’t improve your circumstance much to get your education and end up unemployed anyway. That being said, students with disabilities should also consider what kind of job they want when they graduate.


Finding the right university is a daunting task, but it can be done. Take your time with the process, and be sure to be thorough in your inspections of different school’s facilities and The biggest mistake that students with disabilities can make in choosing a college or university to go to is to not consult with the school about their disability. While this is a fully voluntary action, it’s highly recommended for students to disclose this information so that they can make a decision as to whether their needs will be met. By law, students are protected from discrimination based on their disabilities, so it’s in the student’s best interest to be open about their needs.

Transition into College

Transitioning into college life is a rite of passage—a sign of independence and growing up. For many young adults, this means leaving home and doing things for themselves. For some students with disabilities, this is interpreted as a time to stand on their own and ignore the help available from schools. However, this independence can have a significant negative impact on their academic performance. A study by the National Center for Learning Disabilities showed that 94% of students with learning disabilities received some sort of help or accommodation while in high school, compared to 17% who received accommodation in college. Of those that never received help in college, a further 44% of students surveyed indicated that they thought some assistance would have been helpful.

Many schools offer a traditional college experience complete with living on the dorms and going to classes, but in recent years distance learning has grown as a legitimate choice for students hoping for a university education. In fact, many top tier universities have some kind of distance learning or online program that makes it easier for students to attend class. Some schools even have hybrid classrooms, requiring only digital attendance while students watch their professor’s lecture online.

Regardless of your preference of school-type, there are some basic things you should know before starting your journey. This guide outlines some of the civil rights and liberties that students with disabilities are entitled to, and describes how universities approach students with disabilities. On top of that, we outline a few strategies for finding a school that is a good fit.

The moral of the story?

If you want to succeed and be the best you can be, don’t be afraid of getting help. Everyone needs help at some point, and the sooner you realize this the closer you will be to attaining your goals. 

Disabilities Defined

A disability is not something that defines you, but it is important to know how the United States legal system defines disabilities so that you know how to protect yourself from discrimination or unfair retaliation. A person with a disability has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. Major life activities are considered to be activities that may include walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, speaking, learning, working, caring for self, and performing manual tasks. Additionally, to be considered as a disabled individual, a person must be regarded as having an impairment to a life activity, or have a record of such an impairment.

Many impairments fall under the overall umbrella of disability and may include the following: blindness, chronic health impairments, deafness or being hard of hearing, mobility impairments, head injuries, ADHD, learning disabilities, psychological disabilities, and developmental disabilities. The range of disabilities is wide, but thankfully students with disabilities are entitled to certain rights in the United States that maintain an even playing field for everyone.

Rights of Students with Disabilities

The Office of Civil Rights

Before discussing specific pieces of legislation, the first thing you should know about is the Office of Civil Rights. As a part of the Department of Education, the office of Civil Rights enforces the ADA and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. If you have any questions about your rights as a student with a disability, you should start at the OCR. Discrimination complaints can be filed here and they will investigate your case.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was groundbreaking for people with disabilities because it was the first civil rights statute that prohibited the discrimination of qualified individuals with a disability. Under this law, an institution receiving federal funding cannot limit the number of students with disabilities admitted. It also prevented schools from conducting inquiries befo