Choosing Colleges for Success: Finding Schools That Pay Attention

Pay attention to what? Pay attention to the highly-diverse needs and abilities of learners!

Higher education schools don’t have the same legal obligations as public schools when it comes to providing individualized education plans, and they don’t have the same history of changing instruction and adapting teaching for different learning needs and abilities.  They ARE required to provide you with the ability to access their educational programs, but it’s going to be up to you to find a “user-friendly” school where you can thrive. (-see info on your legal rights in college in the Resource list below).

Most articles about college-readiness tell you to select schools for your academic interests, social environment, and other desired qualities first. Then they tell you to check the school’s “disability-friendliness” with a campus visit to a chosen few schools. Trust me, this is not the best way to do it.  Start checking user-friendliness when your list is still fairly long and widespread.  There are probably hundreds of colleges who offer great programs in your areas of interest.  You’ll get a better school if you pick ones that are more inclusive, because college isn’t only about academics, it’s about growing yourself as a person. Schools that pay attention to the needs of all their potential students let you focus your efforts on doing your best job.

The questions and strategies below can usually be answered with an exploration of the college’s website and/or a phone call or email to college staff in Admissions, Student Services, or Disability Services departments. We’ve only included questions you won’t find in other college-readiness guidelines.  See the Resources at the end of this article for some great step-by-step planning guides.

What to look for on the website:

How accessible is the website? If the school hasn’t bothered to make their website accessible to individuals with disability, will their campus and instruction be any better? Schools that accept federal funding (such as student financial aid) should have a website that complies with federal accessibility laws.

How to check: If you use screen-reader technology, decide whether the website works well with your hardware and software.

If you don’t: in your browser, copy the school’s URL. Go to You’ll see a search box. Paste the school’s URL into the box and press ENTER. You’ll get screenshots of the school’s website page with lots of colored icons. You don’t have to know what all the icons mean. Just see how many of the items listed are ERRORS. More than 10 or 15? It’s not a good sign.  Also check out the “contrast” tab: many contrast errors mean difficulty for screen reading technology-again, not a good sign.

Is there a separate disability services office? How many professionals work in that office? Is the director of that office a member of AHEAD (Association on Higher Education and Disability)*?

It’s not a good sign when a school assigns disability support needs to a single individual (unless it’s a VERY small school) or someone who also wears other hats. If the director is a member of AHEAD, the professional organization for disability support specialists, you know that they follow the best practices in the field, and have resources to influence faculty and college administrators to become more inclusive.

Does the website mention anything about students with disabilities anywhere else besides the section on Disability Support Services?

Do school administrators and faculty support Universal Design for Learning (UDL)?

The use of UDL means that school administration and faculty are committed to teaching to and providing for the widest possible range of abilities. That means physical ease of access, alternative ways of teaching, flexibility in how student work is evaluated, and making sure that students have multiple ways to learn course materials.  It’s a lot of work to implement, so if a school has this process in some or all of its programs, it’s a very good sign.  UDL doesn’t entirely eliminate the need for certain accommodations, but for some issues it may mean that you won’t need accommodations in your classes.

How to check: in the school’s website search box, type “UDL” and/or “Universal Design”. Or, make a phone call to Academic Affairs (in charge of faculty and instruction), Student Services, and/or Disability Services. Ask if administrators and faculty at the school are familiar with UDL or have implemented it in any way. (There’s a short list in the resources section of some schools using UDL. Other schools may be implementing it but not yet be on the list).

What are the requirements for admission? Are they flexible? [For example, instead of an admissions essay, could you submit a YouTube or video of yourself answering the questions posed in the essay requirements?]. Admissions flexibility that’s already in place lets you know that the school is open to alternate ways of doing things and possibly more inclusive.

How many students with disabilities are on campus? Compare the percentage of students from one school to another.  Schools with higher percentages of students with disability for their entire student population indicate schools where they may be familiar with students with diverse needs.

What services and equipment (such as adaptive technology) does the college typically provide to students with disabilities? Who provides them? Where can services and equipment be used? REALLY IMPORTANT: will you need to use separate equipment/software to access/research in the library?

Generally, schools don’t have to provide services and/or equipment for your personal study time. Some schools do have technology that you can borrow for short periods for personal use.

What modifications have faculty and administrators made in the past for students with disabilities?

Ask for some honest feedback: have some faculty not understood their obligations to provide accommodations? Are certain types of adjustments more acceptable than others?

If the school offers online courses, or is online entirely:

May I get a temporary guest log-in to try out the school’s online learning platform, student “gateway”, and other software used for online access? E-learning platforms are supposed to be accessible, by law—but accessible isn’t always the same as user-friendly!

Hopefully, getting this information will help you make a decision about what schools may work best for you.  The resources that follow offer more ideas and information.


DVR counselors and DVR services:

Legal: Your rights and responsibilities as a college student with a disability:

College-readiness resources

Especially, check out the enormous number of resources under:

This resource was developed for Virginia high school students, but it is an extremely thorough college readiness and timeline checklist for any student:

From the Association for Higher Education and Disability:

Self-advocacy and self-determination:

Schools that have special programs for students with learning disabilities:

How college differs from high school. This is a real wake-up call:

An amazing collection of how-tos at:

Self-advocacy and self-determination:

Financial assistance beyond federal financial aid: