So you’re at College…What Next?

Navigating the Higher Education Environment When You Live With Disability

Research over the past 20 years indicates that a fairly high percentage of college students with disability choose not to disclose that disability to a college administration.  They are tired of “being labeled” or singled out because of their situation and simply want to participate in the same way as students without disability.  This doesn’t necessarily mean hiding their disability (pretty difficult to hide a mobility device or service animal), they’ve just “had it” with permissions, meetings, and forms.

At the same time, many students get onto campus wanting not to disclose, and discover that yes, they *do* have to jump through the hoops at Disability Services in order to access strategic supports.

[If you’ve already met with the disability/access services office at your campus, and provided documents to receive services and equipment, you can skip this next section]

If you’re just beginning the access process, this is what you have to do:

Be able to clearly explain your disability and your specific requirements for services and equipment. It’s better to ask for more than you might expect to get, but be aware of the possibility that if the school can’t provide a service or equipment and you absolutely need it, you and your family will have to bear the expense, or you will have to find a school where such services/equipment is available.

Make an appointment at Disability/Access Services

Fill out any forms requesting services and equipment (usually available online)

Make certain you have all required documentation.

Below is an example of typical required documentation.  It can vary from school to school, and you will find a similar list again, usually on the school’s website under “Disability/Access Services”.

“In order for a student to receive an educational accommodation due to the presence of a disability, documentation from a professional service provider must be obtained. Professional providers may include, but not necessarily be limited to, those identified below:

Disability Category         Professional Provider

ADD ADHD                        Psychologist/Psychiatrist

Emotional disability       Psychologist/Psychiatrist

Auditory disability          Certified Otologist, Audiologist

Visual disability               Ophthalmologist, Certified Optometrist

Learning disability          Psychologist, Neuropsychologist, Learning Disability Specialist

Physical disability           Medical Doctor, Physical Therapist, Orthopedic Surgeon, Doctor of Rehabilitation

Chronic health impairment         Medical Doctor, Medical Specialist

Documentation from a professional service provider must be in writing, must be current within three years, and must include the following when appropriate:

A description of the student’s disability and how he/she is affected educationally by the presence of the disabling condition.

Identification of any tests or assessments administered to the student.

For students identified as having a specific learning disability, the assessment must be specific to the student, comprehensive, and include:



Assessment of the student’s information processing capabilities,

Raw data and interpretation of the data

Specific educational recommendations based on the data interpreted.

Effect on the student’s ability to complete a course of study.

Suggestions for educational accommodations that will provide equal access to programs, services, and activities…”

-Source: Tacoma Community College, Tacoma, WA at:

What Happens After the Appointment with Disability Services?

After the appointment, you’ll get an official notification from the Disability/Access Services administration informing you of your eligibility for services, and if eligible, what services you can expect to receive.

You may have to place additional calls to Disability/Access Services to determine when services begin, where to pick up equipment, arrange meetings with note takers, etc.

At most schools, YOU are responsible for notifying each of your instructors (every semester!) of your requirements for accommodations. Hang on to that eligibility letter–better yet, make multiple copies to hand out to instructors.  Having known many college instructors, I suggest you don’t send this by email alone. Hard copy rules in this case.

Informing instructors about accommodations means giving plenty of notice for them to order alternatives to conventional textbooks. If you’re doing this at the beginning of a semester, expect delays getting the material. This sometimes happens even when you had your appointment with Disability/Access Services many months in advance of the semester. If so, you may have to negotiate with your instructor for extensions on assignments.

Make sure you understand the limits of what the school is providing for assistive technology. For instance, many schools limit the loan of portable screen-readers to specified uses or time frames. You may have to provide your own equipment or software outside those limits.

Some Disability/Access offices are one-stop shopping, and can set you up with tutors, any necessary remedial courses and on-campus health services (including mental/emotional health).  At other schools, it’s very fragmented, and YOU will have to find these services separately, even when they are related to your disability.

Most such services are available through departments labeled “Student Services”, “Student Success Services”, “Counseling”, “Health Services” and the like.  If you are unsure of where to find services, you can contact staff in an office usually labeled “Dean of Student Services”.  College Deans are top-level administrators who oversee a number of related departments.  Their staff are knowledgeable about all departments under that Dean’s authority.

Who to Talk with About Issues

What if you have issues with instructors not allowing or ignoring your accommodations?

Your first step should be to re-issue your eligibility letter to that instructor, following up by requesting the Disability/Access office to notify the instructor of your eligibility through their office. If this doesn’t resolve the issue, all schools accepting federal funds will have a Section 504 Coordinator (or similar title) on campus. This person is probably on staff in the Disability/Access Services office, wearing additional hats. Complaints regarding your access to materials, instruction, and class activities go to this person.

If you’re not using a Section 504 plan but still require accommodations, all schools accepting federal funds will also have an ADA Coordinator (or similar title). This person may or may not be located in the Disability/Access Services office but that office will be able to direct you to them.

[The ADA Coordinator is also the person to see when you have an unresolved issue around physical access on campus or with any program offered away from the main campus.]

Complaints about instructors *not* relating to your accommodations are usually addressed to the Dean of Academic Affairs (yes, another Dean), or the Chairperson of the academic department for that instructor.

In most cases, it’s appropriate to discuss any concerns with your instructor before escalating a concern or complaint up the line.

Navigating the Campus:

If your disability includes physical limitations you’re already aware of how many barriers exist to full participation in any environment. Many, many schools were built prior to ADA, and their facilities reflect lots of poor accessibility design. [I attended a school that only had accessible restrooms on every other floor, and in each case those restrooms were at the opposite end of the hallway from the elevators! At another school, I had classes in a building that underwent (planned) replacement of the only building elevator during the height of the semester].

If possible, move onto campus (or visit the campus) early for some “dry runs”. Acquire a campus map to figure out the quickest to get to classes, dining halls and sports facilities.

Make friends with the administrators working at Campus Police. (They’re the ones who assign parking spaces and they also know the best and quickest ways around grounds and buildings.)

It also doesn’t hurt to know the phone number for the folks who run the facilities. This department is sometimes called Physical Plant, Facilities, or Buildings and Grounds. They’re really useful when the accessible restroom is out of order, when the elevator breaks down, and when you want to know if certain areas are clear of snow and ice.

Lots of Fuss-Why Bother?

All this navigation of a college’s bureaucracy seems overwhelming, listed here all at once. Don’t get discouraged. I’ve listed these possibilities here so you can make notes for yourself and be prepared. With luck, you’ll never need to contact some of these offices or people. On the other hand, “entropy happens”—things sometimes go sour. Knowledge is power!


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:


Justin’s Transition to College

My name is Sybille and I’m the parent of a 22 year old son, Justin, who is diagnosed with high functioning autism. I would like to share our experience with transition from high school to adulthood, as well as share a couple resources that have helped us tremendously.

Justin was introduced to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) of Pierce County where he quickly became an advocate for himself. Each county had a DVR office, find your local office at today. After a presentation to the DVR council asking to have a chance to “prove” his skills and abilities, they agreed to work with him. They set him up with Freedom Consulting, a job placement program that helped him apply to Tacoma Community College. He is now attending his first semester at Tacoma Community College.

Things to consider when applying to college:

Most colleges have disability support. Research is highly recommended prior to applying, it’s never too early to start investigating!

Continue using successful and appropriate accommodations. See what worked in your student’s 504 Plan.

Look into the bus transportation buddy system in your county. Pierce Co. offers bus training to learn how to ride public transportation. See what’s available in your area.

Start thinking about transition to employment or higher education early—starting during their middle school years is recommended.

Resources my family has used:

Division of Vocational Rehabilitation

Washington State Offices:

Services offered: Counseling & Guidance, Counselors for Deaf & Hard of Hearing, Assessment Services, Benefit Planning, Independent Living Services, Assistive Technology Services, Training & Education, and Job Related Services.

Freedom Consulting, LLC

Services offered: Work Strides, Dependable Strengths, Job Club, Job Development, Job Retention, Community Based Assessments, Independent Living Services, Benefit Planning Group, and Adult Counseling

Phone: (509) 209-0947


School Books photo by Wonderlane via flickr