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Command Education’s Guide to Navigating High School and College with Disabilities

The process of preparing for, applying to, and getting into college is a rewarding, albeit complicated, process. If you’re a student with disabilities, you may face more obstacles than your non-disabled peers on the path towards your dream college. Your chances of successfully navigating this ever-changing obstacle course drastically improve when you’re informed of your rights and begin planning early on. Even though your college will have student disability services, not all of these services are created equally, and not all schools enforce progressive and empathetic policies, so it’s important to be your own best advocate.

Requesting Accommodations in K-12

Disabilities and Applying to College

Preparing for College

Requesting Accommodations in K-12

Seeking Accommodations

The education system caters to the majority, and without access to the proper accommodations, differently-abled students can fall through the cracks. Even though learning without proper accommodations can feel frustrating and futile, the stigma that accompanies physical, mental, and learning disabilities discourages many students from seeking the accommodations they need in order to thrive academically. However, students in K-12 and in college can and should obtain accommodations in and out of the classroom.

Leveling the Playing Field: Accommodations in Grades K through 12

For students in grades K-12 in public school, the process for requesting and receiving accommodations is pretty straightforward, as the federal government requires schools provide “Free and Appropriate Public Education” for students with disabilities under  both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Accommodations are provided through either a 504 or an IEP plan.

What types of accommodations exist?

There’s a broad range of possible accommodations—as broad as the range of disabilities. Accommodations might include extended time for exams or in-class work, large print textbooks, physical or occupational therapy, alternative testing locations, frequent breaks, or peer note taking. Here’s a list of some other potential accommodations. Bear in mind that possible accommodations aren’t limited to this list, so if you feel the need for a different accommodation, it’s important that you speak up for yourself and ask for what you need.

Requesting Accommodations in Grades K-12: The IEP and the 504

An IEP* (Individualized Education Plan) and a 504 (named after Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) both ensure that K-12 students with disabilities have equal access to free and appropriate education. 

IEPs are created for students who, rather than following the traditional classroom curriculum, require special education with individualized learning objectives. Students with one or more of these 13 disabilities, including ADHD, autism, and learning disabilities, among others, may qualify for an IEP. 

504s, on the other hand, are created for students who don’t require a special education but do require learning or assessment accommodations. Section 504 covers a broader range of disabilities, including invisible disabilities, like low vision, poor hearing, or chronic illness, as well as physical handicaps, mental and psychological disorders, among others. 504 plans are not standardized in the same way as IEPs are; whereas IEPs set annual individualized goals for the students to meet through accommodations and modifications, 504s generally list the accomodations a student is entitled to and the people who are responsible for ensuring that they receive them. 

Both an IEP and 504 come at no cost to students or their families. This table further explains the differences between a 504 and an IEP.

IEP and 504 evaluations are very different. There are two primary types of IEP evaluations: private, conducted by professionals outside of the school, or public, conducted by the school. An IEP evaluation is thorough, involving an evaluation team whose goal is to determine whether a student’s disability negatively impacts his or her ability to receive academic instruction as well as which curriculum modifications and accommodations will best allow the student to meet his or her individualized learning objectives. The objective being that they learn in the “least restrictive environment,” spending as much time with their peers as possible.

Between submitting the initial request to the first day your student begins receiving accommodations, there are many steps to obtaining an IEP. In short, after a request is submitted, an IEP evaluation team—which must include a child’s caregiver, psychologist, a classroom teacher, a special education teacher and a district representative—will evaluate the student on a range of skills, such as classroom and academic performance, communication, health (vision, hearing, fine motor, etc.), social skills, and executive functioning skills, among others. Here’s a thorough guide to the process. Once the evaluation is complete, the evaluating team will meet with the parent, and sometimes the student, and present an initial evaluation, and discuss and agree upon the services and accommodations they feel the student requires. A completed IEP might include the following components: Present Levels of Performance, goals that are SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, and time limited), assistive technology, and a description of special education services. An IEP is re-evaluated every three years, and reviewed annually. A parent may request a re-evaluation earlier than the three year mark.

Obtaining a 504 evaluation is similar in many ways, but because the 504 and the IEP are technically created under different laws and because the 504 covers a broader range of students, the 504 evaluation is different from the IEP evaluation. qualify for a 504 plan There are less strict requirements concerning who must be part of an 504 evaluation team than for the IEP, and, similarly, even fewer requirements for what must be included in a 504 plan. Most requirements regarding the evaluation vary by state, and some even by district. As a result, 504 evaluations and plans differ by disability and location.

Both an IEP and a 504 ensure that students receive a series of accommodations catered to their needs. Additionally, while IEP and 504 will not directly carry over into college, the evaluations are used as the foundation for the accommodations students receive in college. High schools are required to create an IEP transition plan for their students**. 

*IEPs are available at public and charter schools. Private schools may offer something similar, called an Individualized Service Plan.

**Schools are not required to provide students with 504 transition plans, but some will do so upon request

Requesting Accommodations on Standardized Tests

Standardized tests are a crucial component to admissions to most four year colleges and universities. Registering for accommodations can help you to succeed to the best of your ability on SATs, ACTs, PSATs, APs, and SAT IIs.

You’ll need to request accommodations or assistive technologies on College Board and ACT exams prior to your exam date. College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities requires that you submit requests at least seven weeks in advance. Most students and their parents work with their school’s coordinator for College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD). The SSD coordinator has the ability to submit accommodation requests on your behalf online. First, your parent or guardian must sign a Parent Consent Form, allowing for accommodations to be requested. In most cases, College Board will consent to any accommodation you receive as part of your IEP or 504. Sometimes, College Board requests additional documentation, such as an official diagnosis, which the SSD coordinator will submit by fax. The SSD will review the request, then and the SSD coordinator, parent and you will be notified once a decision has been made.

The ACT has a much faster turnaround; the request is typically processed in about four weeks. Just as with the SAT, you need to have a Consent to Release Information to ACT on file. A school official must submit a request to the Test Accessibility and Accommodations System on your behalf with the proper documentation. The ACT requires proof of  a professionally diagnosed disability and a 504 or IEP. The school official will be notified once a decision has been made. 

As your study for your standardized tests, you should make sure to accurately recreate the testing environment to the best of your ability, including completing practice exams within the correct time frame—like time and a half or double time. This will help you determine more realistic goals and expectations for your scores. Come test day, if something about the testing environment is distracting you, feel free to voice your concerns to the proctor and ask to be moved to a separate room.

N.B. Your score report will not disclose the fact that you received accommodations, so colleges will not know if you had extra time or any other atypical testing conditions.

Disabilities and Applying to College

Building a disability-friendly college list

There are a number of factors to consider as you create your college list. Do I want to live in a big city or in a rural community? Do I want to attend a research university or liberal arts college? What am I interested in majoring in? The list goes on and on… and on. 

If you are a student with disabilities, you have to add a few more questions to that list: Is this college legally required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Law? Is the campus accessible? What are the disabled student services offered at this school? Does the school have the ability to accommodate my specific needs?

Under the Americans with Disabilities Law, any school that receives federal funding is both prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities and required to provide equal opportunities and reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities. The first part of that sentence is what’s important: not all colleges and universities receive federal funding. Certain colleges (especially religious ones), don’t accept any form of federal funding in order to maintain their independence, so you might not want to include them on your college list.

A good place to start when making your college list might be these disability-friendly colleges and universities, as ranked by College Choice:

  1. University of Michigan 
  2. University of Southern California
  3. Northeastern University
  4. Xavier University 
  5. University of Texas
  6. College of Charleston 
  7. University of Connecticut 
  8. Marist College
  9. Messiah College
  10. University of the Ozarks

Of course, disability-friendly colleges and universities aren’t limited to just this list, but here are a few factors to consider when adding a school to your list:

  1. Look into resources such as assistive technologies, accessible dorms and dorm rooms, modified courses, and student communities designed for differently-abled students. All of these resources, or the lack thereof, can have a drastic impact on your college experience. 
  2. Whenever possible, you should visit a college campus before fully committing to it. This will give you a taste of campus culture and help you determine how disability-friendly it is. If visitors aren’t allowed in the dorms, ask your tour guide or the visiting office about physical access, its proximity to the counseling office, classrooms and student centers. You can also ask questions about how many students live in each building, the noise level, or any other factors relevant to your disability. 
  3. If possible, try to set up a meeting with a disabled student services counselor on your school visit. This is the person who will help you in your transition from high school and advocate for you throughout college and assist you in your career search. Ask the counselor what types of assistive technologies, accomodations, and transitional programs are offered, and what you’ll need in order to qualify for those resources.

If you can’t visit a college in person, read up about their disabled student services on their website or in forums, watch virtual tours of the campus on campusreel, and try to speak to a counselor over the phone.

Applying to Colleges

The actual process of applying to college is almost entirely identical for disabled students as it is for the general population. You will need to acquire letters of recommendation, send your transcripts and test scores, and write one or more essays. The main difference in the college application process for students with disabilities is that you need to choose whether or not you want to disclose your disability to the colleges to which you are applying. 

How Having a Physical or Learning Disability Affects College Admission

The idea of disclosing your disability might raise questions like “does having an IEP or a 504 affect college acceptances?” It might cause you stress or anxiety. That reaction is completely understandable, seeing as those with disabilities have been stigmatized and marginalized throughout American history. However, having a disability will not necessarily have a negative impact on your chances of admission. 

Typically, as long as your disability is well documented and disclosed somewhere in your application, it will actually help your admissions officer review your application with greater understanding of your situation. The choice to disclose your disability is 100% yours; your disability is part of your personal narrative, and you have the right to decide what parts of your story you share in your application. That being said, this is an important component of that narrative, and it helps paint a more whole picture of you.

If your admissions officer sees that you have a lower GPA or SAT score than their average admitted student, your chances of acceptance might decrease. However, if your admissions officer knows that you have a language processing disorder or dyslexia, for example, they will interpret your grades and scores in light of that. This is not to imply that people with disabilities have an “edge” in college admissions, but rather that students who have struggled because of their disability should not hesitate to disclose that part of their narrative. 

Preparing for College

Once you are accepted into college, there are several logistical matters to take care of, as well as mental and emotional tasks, that should be completed before you start school in the late summer.

Requesting Accommodations

Unlike K-12 schools, colleges and universities are not legally obligated to provide 504s or IEPS to students with disabilities. College students can still receive accommodations under Section 504 of the ADA, but these are granted at the discretion of the college’s Disability Services director. Some colleges have their own eligibility criteria for providing students with accommodations. It is your responsibility to send your college the correct documentation so that their Disability Services director or advisor can determine what accommodations or modifications you qualify for at their university.

Once you accept your offer of admission, contact your college’s disability office and find out who your counselor is. Together, the two of you can discuss the accommodations you think you’ll need and qualify to receive, and how to request them.

Generally, colleges require documentation demonstrating evidence of need for accommodation and history of use of accommodations. Students with learning disabilities or ADHD should also submit a psycho-educational evaluation that was completed within three years of their college start date. Because most colleges take prior accommodations into account when evaluating the need for disabilities in college, it’s important that you be evaluated for an IEP or 504 as early as possible. You can request accommodations you received in the past and wish to continue to receive in college, and you can request accommodations that you haven’t received in the past, but think will be beneficial or necessary in college.

You should begin this process as early as possible; if you wait until the last minute, the college may not be able to accomodate all of your needs in a timely manner.

Remember to consider the following:

  1. Dorm: you can request to be in a dorm with a ramp and elevator, or a single room or low-occupancy dorm, or a room with a specific bed, chairs or bathrooms. 
  2. Meal Plan: many colleges require their first year students to be on the meal plan, as a means to encourage students to eat in dining halls and make friends. If you have specific dietary restrictions, find out which dining halls serve meals that meet your needs, or if you can request and obtain specialized meals from certain halls.

These next few items might or might not be handled through the Disability Services, but you should take them into consideration as you prepare for college.

  1. If you need to receive any sort of physical, occupational, or speech or other therapies or treatments, research where you can receive the services you need. Perhaps you buy school provided health insurance and receive treatment on campus or at your school’s affiliated hospital, if they have one. Or, you need to find a nearby medical center or hospital with a good reputation. If you are attending a college or university far away from where your doctors are located, do some research and find practitioners you can see when you’re at school should you need anything. Have your doctors at home write detailed reports for you to give to your new doctors, so that they can be aware of your history and treatment needs. Have your doctors send over their reports and copies of your medical records.
  2. Similarly, if you are taking any medications, make sure you either have enough medications to last you through the semester or the next time you go home, or have your doctors send prescriptions to a pharmacy near your school that you can access easily.

Ensure a Smooth Transition to College

Here are some more factors to keep in mind as you begin your first semester of college:

  1. Anticipate differences between high school and college. You will be much more independent and responsible for your own success than in high school. You have more agency in terms of designing your course schedule, managing your time and workload, and communicating your needs to your instructor. For instance, in high school your teacher might have automatically provided reading materials with larger fonts, but in college it might be up to you to find the larger font source. If you need a large print text book for a class, ask your professor if they have access to one, or where you can order it online.  Make use of the advisors and counselors your school provides to help you navigate this process, and never hesitate to ask for help or clarification when needed. 
  2. Learn your rights and prepare to express them confidently to your professors. Many college professors are ableist, but call it being “old school” and are resistant to teaching in a universally accessible matter, or refuse to provide accommodations. If this happens, speak to your professor or disability counselor to ensure that you have the tools necessary to reach your potential in that class. It’s important to do this in a respectful and mature manner, no matter how frustrated you may be. Use logic and your legal knowledge to impress upon your professor the importance of providing accommodations for you.   
  3. Download free apps to help you with scheduling, note-taking, or reading. Here’s a great list of assistive technologies you can get for yourself and hold in the palm of your hand.

Whether professors, counselors, TAs, or your peers, you may encounter ignorance, benevolent ableism, and even outright discrimination. None of those things will change unless people with disabilities are present on college campuses and speaking up for themselves and others. Don’t let these hardships discourage you from flourishing intellectually and socially at your college.