Scholarships & Financial Aid for Students with Disabilities

ASO Staff Writers
Updated March 29, 2024
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Students with disabilities deserve an education just like every other student. And like the majority of college students, students with disabilities often have trouble finding ways to pay for school and school related costs. There are many special scholarships and financial aid opportunities intended for particular students, such as minority students, those studying a particular field or applicants with a notable academic record. There are also special financial aid and scholarship opportunities for students with disabilities. The purpose of this guide is to focus on these financial aid opportunities and discuss how to take advantage of them.

Scholarships for Students with Disabilities

One of the best ways to pay for college is with a scholarship. Scholarships are offered by private companies, organizations, schools and more, and the funds do not have to be paid back. Here are some of the best scholarship options for students with disabilities.

General Disabilities

This category of scholarships is for students living with one or more documented disabilities.

The Louie Family Foundation Scholarship

Organization: The Kim and Harold Louie Family Foundation

Amount: Varies

Deadline: March 31

This scholarship is for high school students planning to attend college or university and have shown exceptional levels of achievement. Students with a documented serious disability receive preference.

Elastic Band Co. Scholarship

Organization: Elastic Band Co.

Amount: $1,000

Deadline: March 31

The Elastic Band Co. wants to promote students to enter the fashion and/or entrepreneurship fields, especially those who are minority students or have an ADA recognized disability.

AAHD Frederick J. Krause Scholarship on Health and Disability

Organization: American Association on Health and Disability

Amount: $1,000

Deadline: November 15

This is for students suffering from a disability who are in college or graduate school in order to study a field relating to health and disability concerns.

BMO Capital Markets Lime Connect Equity through Education Scholarship for Students with Disabilities

Organization: Lime Connect

Amount: $10,000

Deadline: Varies

Undergraduate or graduate students with disabilities studying a business, engineering, math or science discipline can apply for this prestigious scholarship.

John Weir Academic Scholarship for College-Bound Seniors with Disabilities

Organization: Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living

Amount: Varies

Deadline: April 1

High school seniors with any significant disability who live in one of the eligible Michigan counties are eligible for this scholarship.

Understanding that students come from a variety of diverse backgrounds and being willing to accommodate is crucial to a student and university’s success. From a deaf student’s perspective, I feel that it’s important that universities focus on the how accommodations, such as c-print, note taking, and even having an interpreter present, will contribute to a deaf student’s success in their field in the working world. I’ve witnessed that it can be easy to get caught up in finances when focusing on the student’s short term success, which will be only 4 four years at a university. 

Victoria Popov 

Senior at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) pursuing a BS in biomedical sciences and recipient of a scholarship for deaf and hard of hearing students.

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Federal Student Aid Programs

When a student prepares for college, one of the most important first steps is to look for federal student aid. This will be available to all students, including those who attend online colleges and those with a recognized disability. Federal financial aid programs can be divided into two types: awards that need to be paid back and those that do not.

Federal student aid programs which must be repaid include:Perkins Loans

These are low interest loans made available to students in extreme financial need.

Stafford Loans

Low interest loans that must be repaid. They can be either subsidized or unsubsidized.

Direct Subsidized Loans

These loans are available to students with financial need. Any interest is covered by the US government.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans

These loans are available to all students, regardless of financial need. The student, not the US government, will pay the interest on the loan.

Direct PLUS Loans

Available to graduate and professional students as well as their parents, to help pay for schooling.

Federal student aid grants that do not have to be paid back include:Federal Pell Grant

Exact Pell Grant amounts will depend on a variety of factors, including financial need. However, the most a student can receive is $5,815 (for the 2016-2017 year).

Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant

This is based on extreme financial need. Between $1,000 and $4,000 may be provided to the student.

Federal Work Study

Students are employed by their school for part-time jobs to earn money to pay for school expenses. Part of the student’s wage is paid for by the federal government. Federal work study is awarded based on financial need.

Financial Aid for People with Disabilities

In addition to the standard federal financial aid possibilities available to most college students, there are certain financial aid options specifically for students with disabilities. We take a look at a few of those here.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is a federal program that provides supplemental income to low-income individuals who are over the age of 65, blind or disabled. In order for an individual to qualify for SSI, they must meet the following requirements:

1.They’re 65 years old (or older), blind or disabled,

2.They are a legal US resident in one of the 50 states,

3.Their income is at or below a predetermined level and

4.They formally apply via application, either by telephone or in person, at the local Social Security office.

For students under 18, their parent’s income and assets will be examined for determining if the student qualifies for SSI.

Plan for Achieving Self Support (PLAN)

PLAN, also known as PASS, is a program run by the Social Security Administration. It is for disabled individuals who also qualify for SSI. What makes PLAN special is that it allows the individual to obtain income to work toward a professional goal, while not compromising the ability to receive SSI benefits.

In order to obtain SSI benefits, an individual must have limited income. So if they find a job that earns enough money, they may no longer be eligible for SSI payments. However, under PLAN, if the individual finds a job or other source of income and spends that money in a particularly productive way, such as getting an education to find better employment, then the Social Security Administration will not count the income used toward that goal for determining if a person is (or is not) eligible for SSI.

In order for a student to take advantage of this program, they need to prepare a plan which sets forth a job the student will work toward, how the student will get there (such as getting a particular degree), the money needed to get to the goal (and how the student will get that money) and a deadline for achieving the goal. Once a plan is created, it can be submitted to the Social Security Administration.

A student will be eligible for PLAN if one of the following requirements is met:

The student would be eligible for SSI, if not for the student’s income and/or assets, or

The student is already receiving SSI benefits, but those benefits will be reduced if the student obtains more income to pay for the work goals, and should the student eventually reach the goal, they will no longer need to receive SSI benefits.

Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary Program

The Comprehensive Transition and Postsecondary (CTP) program is any college program offered by a US Department of Education approved school that is designed to help students with intellectual disabilities. CTP is for those students who want to gain skills for independent living and work. At least half of the curriculum requires the student with intellectual disabilities to interact with nondisabled students.

Basically, the CTP program works by providing opportunities within specific college programs, where students with intellectual disabilities can obtain academic, social, work and practical skills enrichment by interacting with other students, both disabled and nondisabled.

Schools that have CTP programs include:

University of California, Los Angeles

Clemson University

University of Delaware

University of Iowa

Murray State University

New York Institute of Technology

Ohio State University

Vanderbilt University

Virginia Commonwealth University

One of the best professors I’ve had in graduate school believes that a u-shaped classroom is most beneficial to learning. So, every day before class starts all twenty students move our desks into a circle so everyone can feel included and see each other’s faces. This may sound small, but I’ve never experienced that in college, and I’m able to hear and interact with my classmates without difficulty. Professors who take the time to make sure the visual media they show is captioned are similarly helpful. I think that professors should be required to attend disability-specific seminars to learn how they can serve students with disabilities. 

Mary Jane Rogers 

Master’s of journalism student at the University of Missouri, Columbia and recipient of a scholarship for deaf and hard of hearing students.

State Programs for Attending School

Practically all states offer some form of financial aid and vocational assistance to students, whether the student is disabled or not. Most states will have a special agency or department that focuses on higher education, including how to pay for it.>

For example, Pennsylvania has the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA), which oversees Pennsylvania’s state grant and work study programs. The PHEAA also administers the state’s Blind or Deaf Beneficiary Grant Program, which provides up to $500 per year in grant aid to qualified students who are also Pennsylvania residents.

Pennsylvania offers vocational rehabilitative services through its Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR). The OVR provides career services, including certification and training programs. The OVR also provides individualized services to disabled individuals by helping them find, train for and keep gainful employment. These services can include job placement assistance, assistive technology, on-the-job training, skills evaluation and medical diagnostic services.

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state with such programs and agencies. For example, Washington state’s Washington Student Achievement Council provides need-based grants, scholarships and work study programs to students. Washington also has the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), which is specifically tasked with helping disabled Washington residents find jobs. The DVR provides independent living services, career counseling, assistive technology and specialized training and education programs to individuals seeking employment opportunities.

Most states have vocational rehabilitation agencies and programs tailored to those with disabilities, like Pennsylvania and Washington do. However, most states’ college financial aid agencies do not have specific programs for students with disabilities. Instead, the state financial aid offerings available to nondisabled students are also available to students with disabilities. Pennsylvania is one exception. Another exception is South Dakota’s Board of Regents, which offers a scholarship that provides special consideration to students who are disabled.

Acquiring a Disability after Graduation

When a student takes on loan obligations in order to attend school, it’s with the understanding that it will be paid back in full, often with interest. However, federal law provides certain situations where a student’s federal loans do not need to be paid back.>

If a student is declared to have a total and permanent disability (TPD), the student will not have to repay the following federal loans:

Additionally, the service obligation for the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant may be waived.

In order to have TPD loan forgiveness, the student must provide the necessary information to the US Department of Education, who will determine if the student is allowed a TPD loan discharge.

There are three ways a student can show TPD:

Students who may be eligible for the TPD loan discharge can start the application process online, by telephone or by e-mail.

Once a TPD discharge is granted by the US Department of Education, there is a three year post-discharge monitoring period that the student must comply with in order for the loans to stay discharged. This three-year monitoring requirement doesn’t apply if the student is a veteran and obtained the discharge through a Veterans Administration determination that the student was unemployable due to a disability obtained during military service.

Professors can help me by defining better ahead of time certain readings we may have to follow, or sharing lecture notes before class – so I know what I can focus on to make sure I comprehend before arriving to that lecture so I am prepared and understand what verbal cues I need to follow so I can keep up with the class. For every second I get confused with my notes by what was said, I lose about 5 minutes of information in trying to catch up with my mind and my hearing, since I do not hear at the same speed as someone with “normal” hearing would. Also, if the professor is difficult to hear or loves to move around the room a lot when lecturing, I love it when they wear a microphone.

 Jessica Hill 

Doctor of physical therapy student at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and recipient of a scholarship for deaf and hard of hearing students.

A Scholarship Recipient Offers Advice from Frequently Asked Questions

Abigail Brewer is a sophomore at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. She is studying Teaching English as a Second Language with the intention to work as an ESL instructor. Abigail is a 2017 recipient of the Anders Tjellström Scholarship from Cochlear.

Q. What kind of challenges has your disability meant for you?

My biggest struggle as a college student with hearing loss is being open with my friends. I can cover my hearing aid with my hair, so I often find it easier to pretend like I don’t have any hearing loss instead of being real with those around me. However, I have learned over the past semester that my friends don’t mind that I struggle with hearing loss. They appreciate me for who I am, and my hearing loss doesn’t affect their perception of me as a person. Once I discovered that I could confidently live life with my hair up, my view of myself changed, and I began to trust others with my story as well.

Q. How does this scholarship change your college journey?

The scholarship from Cochlear will definitely open up many opportunities for me. The scholarship provides more than just a financial blessing, for it also gives me a chance to share my story with other students. It is such a blessing to know that I will have additional money for books, housing, and tuition during my college years, and I hope to save some of the money as well. The scholarship from Cochlear gives me an opportunity to dream big dreams about what I can do for others both now and in the future, and I am thrilled to have this opportunity.

Q. What could your college do to make life easier for you?

My university does a fantastic job of equipping our large lecture halls with sound systems. My professors use microphones in my large classes to make it easy to hear and understand their words, which is something that all students greatly appreciate. I am grateful that my university has made it a priority to equip our classrooms with quality sound equipment, therefore fostering an easier learning environment.

Advocacy Resources & Help for Students with Disabilities


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