Higher Education for Students
with Disabilities
Rights, Resources and Accredited Online Schools

Meet the Expert

Peggy Perno MSW, LICSW Read bio

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Hannah Fattor Read bio

The transition from high school to college is a big one. If you’re a student with a disability, the additional stresses can be overwhelming. One of the largest changes that you will have to deal with is the substantial difference in scope between the special education services provided on the high school level and those at college. Fortunately, if you have a disability and plan on attending a college or university, you most certainly are not alone.

  • Nearly 22 million students are currently enrolled in American colleges and universities.

  • Approximately 11 percent of all postsecondary undergraduates reported having some form of disability.

WHAT IT MEANS: There are over 2.4 million postsecondary students with a disability attending college in this country.

U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics

We have put this guide together to help students with disabilities and their parents better understand their rights and responsibilities in regard to a postsecondary education. You will also find useful tips and information for locating the college or university program that best suits your needs.

Rights of Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities have substantial, protected rights and responsibilities, but understanding them can be difficult. If you or your child has had a disability diagnosis during early, pre-college life, you are already aware of many of the specific applicable laws and regulations. However, there are several significant differences in the rights and responsibilities of individuals with disabilities who are college bound compared to those of elementary and secondary school students.

For parents of both college age and younger students, we provide some additional guidance here:

FOR PARENTS: Guide to the ADA, Section 504, IDEA & IEP

Every student with a disability should be familiar with the following laws:

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is considered by many to be the first Federal civil rights statute for persons with disabilities. First taking effect in 1977, Section 504 prohibited the discrimination of otherwise qualified individuals with a disability by any program or activity receiving Federal funding or other assistance. For postsecondary education, Section 504 generally requires schools to provide “appropriate academic adjustments” to assist students with disabilities. Additionally, schools that provide student housing must provide comparable and accessible housing to students with disabilities at the same price.

Under Section 504, a college or university may not:

  • Limit the number students with disabilities that it admits
  • Make any pre-admission inquiries about whether an applicant has a disability
  • Exclude a student with a disability from a course of study based solely on their disability
  • Counsel a student with a disability towards a more restrictive career than a student without a disability unless the counsel is based on strict professional licensing or certification requirements
  • Institute prohibitive rules that may negatively affect the performance of a student with a disability

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) was enacted to, in general terms, extend similar protections against discrimination to Americans with disabilities as were afforded under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, national origin, and other factors illegal. Title II of the ADA prohibits disability discrimination by all public entities on the state and local level, including public postsecondary schools. Title III of the Act prohibits disability discrimination by private colleges and universities, except for those controlled by religious entities. However, if a postsecondary school receives federal funding of any kind, including financial aid provided to its students, it cannot discriminate against individuals with disabilities under Section 504 even if the school is controlled by a religious entity.

Nearly all school districts and postsecondary institutions in the United States are subject to the rules of one or both of these laws. As mentioned above, however, the requirements for postsecondary schools differ substantially from the requirements of school districts. Therefore, it is important for students with disabilities who plan on attending a college or university to be informed of their rights and understand those differences. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is tasked with enforcing both the ADA and Section 504, and is a good source of information regarding these rights.

It should be noted here that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), with which many parents and students are familiar, does not apply to postsecondary education.

In addition to the requirements set forth in the ADA and Section 504, individual states may have additional laws setting forth restrictions and requirements regarding students with disabilities. Typically, these state laws mirror the Federal requirements in terms of funding. For example, public institutions in Virginia receiving any form of state funding may not discriminate against students with disabilities. These laws vary, so make sure to check the specifics of any applicable law in your state.

Does Your Condition Qualify as a Disability?

The definition of disability under both the ADA and Section 504 are virtually the same. An individual with a disability is a person who:

  • has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; or
  • has a record of such an impairment; or
  • is regarded as having such an impairment.

Under Section 504, “major life activities” include walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks.

Examples of some of the more common disabilities that fall under the ADA and Section 504 are:

The definition of legally blind is 20/200 vision with best correction, or a visual field of less than 20 degrees. Students who are blind or low vision often have limitations in reading and viewing classroom materials, videos and other presentations. They may have difficulty getting around campus or locating places or materials in a lab or classroom.

IN-DEPTH: Students Who Are Blind or Low Vision

Deafness normally refers to profound hearing loss of 81 decibels or greater. Hard of hearing refers to those individuals with some residual hearing ability. Hearing loss can significantly limit a student’s ability to perceive and understand spoken language in the classroom as well as limit their mastering of English grammatical structure.

IN-DEPTH: Deaf or Hard of Hearing Students

Chronic health impairments commonly refer to visible disabilities as well as invisible illnesses or medical conditions. They include, among other things, HIV/AIDS, allergies, migraines, spinal or back problems, cancer, Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, fibromyalgia, respiratory disorders, seizure disorders, Tourette’s syndrome, recovered alcohol and drug addiction, and more. In many of these cases, the impairment can vary from day to day due to the nature of the disability, medication requirements and physical therapy.

IN-DEPTH: Chronic Conditions in School

Mobility impairments refer to neuromuscular and orthopedic disabilities and can range from slight difficulties in movement to total paralysis. Limitations to students can include physical access to classrooms, offices, labs and rest rooms, as well as the use of standard furniture or other classroom equipment. They may also be limited in the use of fine motor skill tasks such as taking notes, using computers, writing essays and tests or completing science labs.

Head injury commonly refers to brain trauma caused by events that are either external (blow to the head) or internal (stroke or tumor). Limitations can vary significantly, but often manifest as cognitive functioning problems with memory, concentration, response speeds and spatial reasoning, as well as motor skill related tasks like reading, writing, speaking and listening.

IN-DEPTH: Academic Success After a Traumatic Brain Injury

ADD or ADHD refer to a specific type of neurobiological disorder resulting in inattentiveness, impulsiveness, and/or hyperactivity. For students with ADD or ADHD, the limitations include problems with completing tasks, impulsive behavior and difficulty concentrating during class or remembering lessons.

IN-DEPTH: Studying with ADHD

This category, which is sometimes referred to as intellectual and developmental disabilities or IDD, generally refers to students who are diagnosed before age 18 and have difficulties with cognitive language or learning skills, or in physical or behavioral areas. Examples of IDD include autism spectrum disorder; cerebral palsy; Down syndrome; epilepsy; and hearing, intellectual, or visual disabilities. Students who have developmentally disabilities may have problems with critical thinking, analysis and abstract reasoning, among others.

Definitions can vary, but this term usually describes a persistent condition of presumed neurological dysfunction. Students with learning disabilities often are inhibited in one or more area of achievement, such as reading, writing, or math. This may manifest as problems with time management, organization, or sustained attention, as well as deficits in auditory, visual, and memory functions. Examples of learning disabilities include auditory or language processing disorders, dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia.

IN-DEPTH: College Success for Students with Learning Disorders

The category of psychological disabilities covers a wide variety of conditions, including mood disorders like bipolar disorder and depression, anxiety and panic disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia. Many psychological disabilities first appear between the ages of 18 and 25, and can take the form of increased stress, limited class choices due to time of instruction and withdrawal from communication. Class attendance may be limited because of relapses and hospitalizations, or as newly-diagnosed students work to find a treatment plan that works for them.

IN DEPTH: Student Mental Health Resources

Keep in mind that the above list is not exhaustive. Deciding if an individual qualifies as having a disability under the ADA or Section 504 is done on a case-by-case basis. In general, these laws require that the definition of a disability be construed broadly. However, it is important to remember that students are not entitled to protection simply because they have been diagnosed with a disability; the disability must also substantially limit their ability to perform major life activities.

Temporary, non-chronic impairments that have little or no residual effects do not typically qualify as disabilities, however schools may provide specific accommodations for temporary conditions or injuries. Environmental conditions and alternative lifestyles are generally not considered disabilities, including minor illnesses such as a cold or the flu, broken bones that completely heal, illegal drug use or compulsive gambling, but additional legal protections may be available for some situations, such as pregnancy or age.

Informing Your School of Your Disability

Informing your postsecondary school of your disability is not required; it is completely voluntary. However, you must identify yourself and the nature of your disability if you want or need the school to provide academic adjustments or ensure that you are assigned to accessible facilities. You should inform the department at the school in charge of students with disabilities within a reasonable amount of time to allow them to provide the appropriate accommodations.

If you have a disability and intend to request an accommodation from your school, you will likely be required to provide, at your expense, documentation of your disability. The requirements for documentation vary from school to school and are different for every type of disability. Your school’s documentation requirements can be very specific, so be sure that you fully understand them and file your documents in a timely manner.

Under the ADA and Section 504, a college or university must provide reasonable accommodations for students’ known disabilities to afford them an equal opportunity to participate in the school’s programs, activities, and services, including extracurricular activities. What constitutes as a “reasonable accommodation” is a matter of constant debate. However, the overriding rule is that a college or university may not discriminate against an individual solely based on disability and must provide academic adjustments to ensure that the student receives an equal opportunity to participate.

The form of accommodation depends on a student’s specific disability, but they commonly include:

  • additional time to complete tests, course work, or graduation.
  • substitution of non-essential courses for degree requirements.
  • adaptation of, or modification to, course instruction.
  • recording classes, either through audio or video.
  • modifying test taking or performance evaluations for students with sensory, mobility, or speaking impairments.
  • providing qualified interpreters, note takers, readers, computer aided transcription devices, assistive listening devices, and telecommunication devices for deaf persons.
  • adjusting physical facilities, such as removing architectural barriers, installing ramps, making curb cuts in sidewalks and entrances, repositioning shelves, and installing hand controls.

There are limitations regarding what are considered “reasonable accommodations.” A college or university is not required to make any modifications or provide any aid or services that would fundamentally alter the nature of a program. The school, for example, does not have to waive what it determines to be an essential course requirement. Additionally, a school is not required to make a modification or provide an aid or service if doing so constitutes an “undue burden” on the institution. In determining whether or not an undue burden exists, the institution may consider the nature and cost of the modification in the context of overall financial resources.

Examples of devices and services that a school is not required to provide include attendants, individually prescribed devices, readers for personal use or study, or other devices of a personal nature. A school is only obligated to provide tutoring services to students who have disabilities to the same extent they are provided to students who do not have disabilities.

Bear in mind that although schools are required to provide accommodations, it is up to the student to take the initiative in ensuring that the necessary services and aids are provided. No one understands your individual needs better than you, so make sure to communicate those needs to your school’s appropriate department.

There are many questions surrounding service and support animals for students, and what campuses with a general “no pets” policy must do to accommodate service animals for students with disabilities. A service animal is defined under the ADA as “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability”. Service dogs must be under control and housebroken, and damages done by a service dog, as well as the general care of the animal, are the responsibility of the handler. Students with service animals cannot be denied access or service because others are allergic or have a fear of dogs, however those with allergies should be equally accommodated by being allowed to change classes, housing arrangements, or location of scheduled events without penalty.

A growing number of requests for service and support animals on campus is prompting some colleges and universities to adopt policies specifically addressing service animals for staff, students and visitors. The ADA does not include protections for emotional support or therapy animals, however, some state and local laws do.

When students with therapy animals live in campus housing, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development governs, though guidelines do not specifically outline what type of animals can be considered for support. Colleges must generally consider emotional support animal requests, but may require a medical or mental health diagnosis and have other stipulations set before approving a request. Ultimately, each college has the right to decide what will be best for its students.

Choosing the Right School for You

Choosing the right college or university is a difficult and time-consuming process for any prospective student. Federal (and sometimes state and local) laws require virtually all institutions of higher learning make substantial accommodations for students with disabilities, but the quality and extent of those accommodations can vary widely due to several factors, such as budget limitations.

Under the law, it is your right to demand that the school of your choice provide the necessary accommodations and services. However, it is in your best interest to seek out a school with a good track record in providing services to students with disabilities. College is tough enough without having to spend extra time and energy ensuring that your rights are being met. Below are some helpful tips for locating the right school for you:

Distance Learning and Students with Disabilities

Some online colleges and universities have overlooked their legal responsibility to provide equal access to course materials to students with disabilities, as the ADA and Section 504 do not specifically discuss distance learning. However, the general provisions of the laws require that postsecondary schools provide equal access to programs and services offered to the public. Therefore, if a qualified person with a disability enrolls in a distance learning course, then that course should be made available to them and reasonable accommodations provided to ensure an equal opportunity to participate.

Providing equal access to distance learning programs for students with disabilities can be both proactive and reactive. If an online course has a proactive design, it considers the needs of students with disabilities in the initial construction of distance learning programs. For example, courses can be designed with “built-in” accommodations such as closed-captioning and descriptive narration, as well as compatibility with industry-standard adaptive technology. Reactive actions typically refer to modifications and accommodations made after the initial online course design and involve providing adaptive technology hardware and software to distance learning students with disabilities.

If you are a student with a disability who is considering distance learning options offered by a college or university, your responsibilities to the school are the same as if you were applying for any other program. You must identify yourself and the nature of your disability to the school and let them know that you intend to take advantage of their online learning program. The school, in turn, has the responsibility to provide you with reasonable accommodations to successfully access that program. It is entirely possible to design online courses to be accessible to distance learners who come from a range of backgrounds and have a range of abilities, but you may need to insist that the school fully comply with the law.

Schools for Students with Disabilities

When choosing colleges, it makes sense to seek out an environment that is inviting and engaging on a personal level as well as an academic level. Attending a college that puts in extra effort to include students with disabilities can create a supportive environment that helps lead to greater independence and empowerment. Students who have disabilities that require specialized accommodations will find colleges dedicated to providing access to all students.

This university’s individualized support program is designed to develop the skills and knowledge that equip students with mobility impairments with greater independence. Students in this program have access to an attendant care team to assist in some daily living activities, and learn to direct their own care and make responsible decisions about their personal needs.

This university was designed specifically for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Gallaudet offers a range of resources to students, including American Sign Language (ASL) immersion for new signers, interpreters, real-time captioning and direct communication with faculty in both ASL and English.

This college works exclusively with students who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, ADHD and autism. Students can earn bachelor’s and associate degrees, and high school students have access to online dual enrollment courses and summer programs. Instruction is individualized and includes executive function coaching as well as academic and educational technology support.

This historic college provides educational and vocational opportunities for students with visual disabilities and students who are both blind or low vision and deaf or hard of hearing (deafblind). Perkins offers a range of resources to students as well as blind, low vision and deafblind students nationally and internationally, including a library of braille, audio, electronic and large print items available to patrons in the U.S.

One of nine colleges at Rochester Institute of Technology, NTID provides deaf and hard of hearing students with career-focused technical and professional education programs, academic and career support services, and work experience. The college’s faculty specialize in educating deaf and hard-of-hearing students, and students can request access services if a course is not meeting their communication needs.

A two-year transition program that offers college courses, campus internships, and college events to students with intellectual disabilities who are ages 18–22. All students are assigned a peer mentor and receive a Certificate in Service Learning at the end of their completed coursework. The goals of the program are to foster student independence and help them become career-ready.

This college has a history of supporting students with mobility impairments in their process of acquiring a college degree and learning how to direct their lives with independence. Students with a documented disability have access to accommodations and resources to help them achieve their academic goals.

Students with disabilities have access to scholarships, internship opportunities, and other programs through this center, as well as environmental accessibility help, accommodations, and advocacy and support services. Staff at the center communicate student need to faculty, administrators, and community agencies. Students are encouraged to practice self-advocacy, and the college supports their inclusion and success.

Students with disabilities who attend this college have access to a case manager to assist them with individualized classroom accommodations and services, and to work collaboratively with instructors to ensure all students have equal access to materials. If a student needs a personal assistant, Beckwith Residential Support Program at Nugent Hall provides these services. There are also Men’s and Women’s Wheelchair Basketball, and track and field opportunities for students with mobility impairments.

A certificate program that includes students with disabilities in college life. Students in this program attend some university courses with traditional students, receive individual support and small-group instruction, and participate in career experiences designed to empower them to become independent members of the community.

As a federally designated University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), this college offers resources to the community as well as students with disabilities. Research, training, and education are key components of the Institute on Community Integration’s mission, and it supports programs that cultivate students with disabilities as valued, contributing community members.

A two-year, non-degree certificate program for students with intellectual disabilities. The Path to Independence (P2I) offers students a traditional college experience, taking classes alongside their typical peers with assistance from an educational coach. P2I students also receive job experience working on campus, and work with a job developer to find work opportunities for post-graduation.

There are many more programs beyond those listed here. Think College also provides a complete list of colleges with programs for students with intellectual disabilities on their website, highlighting higher education opportunities in nearly every state. There are also many vocational and trade school opportunities for students with disabilities to explore.

Financial Aid

Paying for college is a daunting task whether you have been diagnosed with a disability or not. In fact, in 2014–15, nearly two-thirds of all undergraduate students in the United States received some form of financial aid to pay for college expenses. Fortunately, virtually all forms of financial aid available to students without disabilities are also available to students with disabilities.

Student loans are funds borrowed from the government or other lending institutions to be used for educational purposes, such as tuition, learning materials, housing, and other related costs. To be considered for any federally funded financial aid, students must first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility and requires students to provide information on their dependent or independent status, financial circumstances, and citizenship. All students seeking federal aid must fill out a FAFSA, whether they have a disability or not. One difference between students with and without disabilities as it relates to loans is the calculation of costs for attendance. Attendance costs usually include the common factors of tuition, room and board, etc., but can also include costs related to a disability. Federal loans are typically given in the range of $3,000 to $10,000 a year or more.

Unlike loans, grants awarded to students do not have to be paid back. They typically come from Federal and state programs, as well as colleges themselves. Because grants are not paid back, the criteria for receiving them tends to be more limiting. One of the most widely utilized grant programs is the Federal Pell Grant. The Pell grant provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate students that can be used at any one of approximately 5,400 participating postsecondary institutions. Grant amounts are based on several factors including a student’s expected family contribution, attendance costs at a specific school, enrollment status (full- or part-time), and whether the student attends for a full academic year or less. By law, grants under this program cannot discriminate against students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities may also be eligible for financial help through their state’s vocational rehabilitation program. These programs generally work to help people with disabilities gain employment but can include postsecondary educational financial help to meet an individual’s employment goals. For more information, check with your state’s vocational rehabilitation agency.

Scholarships are similar to grants in that they are not paid back. They can be awarded based on need, merit, or some other criteria. There are numerous disability-specific scholarships available, usually through disability-specific organizations such as the National Federation of the Blind and the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf or Hard of Hearing. Students with disabilities, however, should not limit themselves to scholarship opportunities specifically for their disability—most scholarship granting organizations award their scholarships based upon a student’s skills and abilities.

Get Started: Find Scholarships for Students with Disabilities

Preparing for College: Expert Advice on Common Challenges from a Director of Student Accessibility and Accommodations

Peggy Perno, MSW, LICSW has over 25 years of experience in the mental health field and 18 years of experience in disability services in higher education. She graduated from Fordham University at Lincoln Center, NY with a Masters of Social Work degree and spent several years working in private practice and emergency psychiatric medicine. Her career in higher education began in 2001 at Stony Brook University, NY. In 2012, she accepted a position as Director of Student Accessibility and Accommodation at the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA. Since her arrival at Puget Sound, Peggy has expanded and modernized the department. She has particular interest in the needs of students with social anxiety and autism.

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