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 before admission as to whether a student had a disability. This law extended beyond the admissions process and into actual coursework as well. Students could not be restricted because of their disabilities, and could also not be advised into a more limited career choice because of their disabilities. The only exception to this last point was if the student did not meet strict professional standards then a counselor could dissuade a student from a particular course of action. In this act, schools were prevented from enforcing rules and policies that would adversely affect the performance of a student in class work, essentially enabling an equal playing field for students from all backgrounds.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

The origins of this law finds its roots in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which made discrimination based on race, religion, sex, nationality and other personal factors illegal. This watershed piece of legislation in United States history, enabled the Americans with Disabilities act of 1990 to extend similar protections to Americans who had a disability—discrimination of an individual thus became an act that was punishable by law. There are two titles directly poignant to disabled students looking to attend post-secondary education. Title II of the act prohibits discrimination by public entities on the state and local level. What this means is that public colleges and universities cannot directly discriminate against students with disabilities without facing serious sanctions and penalties. Additionally, Title II requires schools to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled students (more on this later). Title III prohibits discrimination by private colleges and universities with the exception of religious institutions. However, if a school receives any kind of federal funding for its programs, research, or even student financial aid, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act applies to that school.


Proving discrimination because of disability can be a very difficult thing based on the varying degrees of evidence required to prove either the intent or the circumstance of the situation. The battle is winnable, but the burden of proof is significant.  In this case, be sure to keep documentation and records of specific incidents where discrimination occurred. 

University Policies Regarding Disability

While legislation has created a starting point for the equal treatment of individuals with disabilities, every school has its own policy regarding disability. All schools are federally mandated to offer “reasonable accommodation” for a student’s disability. But what exactly constitutes “reasonable accommodation” is up for debate–some schools lead the way with accessibility, while others lag behind. Generally speaking, accommodation can include things like the following:

  • Physical facility modifications–ramps, curb cuts into the sidewalk, hand controls
  • Learning assistance such as interpreters, readers, note takers, computer assisted transcription, listening devices and telecommunication for the hearing impaired
  • Additional time to complete tests, coursework, and graduation
  • Replacement of non-essential courses towards degree requirements
  • Tape recording of class
  • Modifications of tests and performance evaluations to not discriminate against those with disabilities

While these accommodations are helpful for students, the school is not required to make a change that would result in a fundamental change in how their programs are structured. Essential courses generally cannot be waived due to a disability.

Examples of University Policies

Note to the Student

As a student it is your responsibility to seek out the school and figure out whether or not their services and accommodations are appropriate for your specific needs. Informing the school of your specific needs is not required and is fully voluntary. But if you would like the school to make academic adjustments for you, you will need to inform the appropriate school department of your disability, and most likely provide documentation of your disability.

This area also represents a major shift in the responsibilities of the school towards your disability. School districts are generally responsible for identifying a student’s educational needs and provide them with special education needs. A postsecondary school’s main responsibility is to provide accommodation so that it does not discriminate on the basis of disability. Whether that accommodation meets your specific needs is up to you to figure out.

Disability Documentation

To receive academic accommodations and support, students must first register with the school and submit current documentation by a licensed or certified diagnostician or medical professional. Documentation must be a comprehensive assessment including recommendations, rationale for accommodations, and recommendations for treatment. Documentation must clearly state the diagnosed disability, the functional limitations resulting from the disability, a complete educational and developmental history relevant to the disability for which the accommodations are being requested. In some cases students are required to prove through documentation that their disability results in a “material functional deficit” and that the deficit is demonstrable by generally accepted comparison measures.


Some schools may not know how to adequately accommodate your disabi