Higher Education

for Students with Disabilities
Rights, Resources and Accredited Online Schools

The transition from high school to college is a big one no matter who you are. If you’re a student with a disability, however, 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 are disabled and plan on attending a college or university, you most certainly are not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 11% of all postsecondary undergraduates reported having some form of disability. Nearly 22 million students are currently enrollehttp://studentaid.ed.gov/sites/default/files/2012-13-funding-your-education.pdfd in American colleges and universities. That means there are over 2.4 million postsecondary students with a disability attending college in this country. These numbers also indicate a growing trend in the willingness of schools to provide quality facilities and services to disabled students of every kind.

We have put this guide together to help disabled students 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

The rights and responsibilities of students with disabilities are substantial, but understanding them can be difficult. If you or your child has been dealing with a disability throughout pre-college life, you are already aware of many of the specific applicable laws and regulations.However, there are a number of significant differences in the rights and responsibilities of college-bound disabled individuals compared to those of elementary and secondary school students, and it is very important to understand those differences.

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


Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)


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. In regard to postsecondary education, Section 504 generally requires schools to provide “appropriate academic adjustments” to ensure against students with disabilities. Additionally, schools that provide housing to non-disabled students must also provide comparable and accessible housing to disabled students at the same price.

Under Section 504, a college or university may not:

  • Limit the number students with disabilities admitted;
  • Make any pre-admission inquiries as to whether an applicant has a disability;
  • Exclude a student with a disability from a course of study based solely on his or her 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 adversely affect the performance of a student with a disability.


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA)


The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 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 Act 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 with the exception of those controlled by religious entities. However, if a postsecondary school receives federal funding of any kind, including financial aid provided to its students, it is prohibited from discriminating against individuals with disabilities under Section 504 even if the school is controlled by a religious entity.

Practically 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 laws setting forth additional restrictions and requirements in regard to disabled students. Typically, these state laws mirror the Federal requirements in terms of funding. For example, in Virginia, public institutions 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” includes 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:

Blindness and Low Vision

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


Deaf and Hard of Hearing


Deafness normally refers to profound hearing loss of 90 decibels or greater. Hard of hearing usually 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.


Chronic Health Impairments


Chronic health impairments commonly refer to visible disabilities as well as invisible illnesses or medical conditions. They include, among other things, AIDS, allergies, spinal or back problems, heart disease, lupus, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, 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.


Mobility Impairments


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, and completing science labs.


Head Injury


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


Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD)


AD/HD refers to a specific type of neurobiological disorder resulting in inattentiveness, impulsiveness and/or hyperactivity. For students with AD/HD, the limitations include problems with completing tasks, impulsive behavior, and sustained attention.


Developmental Disabilities


Definitions for developmental disabilities can vary, but tend to refer to students with below average intellectual functioning and potential for measurable achievement in instructional settings. Developmentally disabled students may have problems with critical thinking, analysis and abstract reasoning, among others.


Learning Disabilities


Again, definitions can vary, but generally learning disabilities refer to a persistent condition of presumed neurological dysfunction that may exist with other disabling conditions. Students with learning disabilities often possess average to above average intelligence, but are inhibited from demonstrating that intelligence in one or more area of achievement, such as reading, writing or math. Limitations may take the form of problems with time management, organization, sustained attention, as well as deficits in auditory, visual and memory functions.


Psychological Disabilities


The heading of psychological disabilities covers a wide variety of conditions including mood disorders like bipolar disorder and depression, anxiety and panic disorders, OCD, and schizophrenia. Student limitations 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.

Keep in mind that the above list is not exhaustive. Deciding whether or not 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 a person is not entitled to protection simply because he or she has been diagnosed with a disability. The disability must also substantially limit his or her ability to perform major life activities.

Temporary, non-chronic impairments of short duration with little or no residual effects do not typically qualify as disabilities. Additionally, conditions that do not qualify include environmental conditions and alternative lifestyles. Examples of conditions that commonly do not qualify include: minor illnesses like a cold or the flu; broken bones that completely heal; illegal drug use; compulsive gambling; pregnancy; old age; bisexuality; and homosexuality.


Informing Your School of Your Disability


Informing your postsecondary school about your disability is not required. It is fully voluntary. However, you must identify yourself and the nature of your disability if you intend for the school to provide an academic adjustments or ensure that you are assigned to accessible facilities. You will need to inform the department at the school in charge of students with disabilities within a reasonable time to allow them to provide the appropriate accommodations.


Documentation of Your Disability


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.


Types of Accommodations


Under the ADA and Section 504, a college or university must provide “reasonable accommodations” for a student’s known disability in order to afford him/her an equal opportunity to participate in the school’s programs, activities and services. This includes 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 on the basis of disability and must provide academic adjustments to ensure that the student receives an equal opportunity to participate.

Obviously, 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;
  • Tape recording of classes;
  • The modification of test taking or performance evaluations so as not to discriminate against students with sensory, manual or speaking impairments.
  • Providing qualified interpreters, note takers, readers, computer aided transcription devices, assistive listening devices, and telecommunication devices for deaf persons
  • Physical facility modifications, 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 result in a fundamental alteration in the nature of a program. The school, for example, need not waive what is determined 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, factors to be considered are the nature and cost of the action required in the context of the overall financial resources of the institution.

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. In regard to tutorial services, a school is only obligated to provide them to students with disabilities to the same extent they are provided to non-disabled students.

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.

Choosing the Right School for You

Choosing the right college or university is a difficult and time consuming process for any prospective student. This is particularly true for those individuals with disabilities. Because federal (and sometimes state and local) laws require it, virtually all institutions of higher learning make substantial accommodations for students with disabilities. The quality and extent of those accommodations can vary widely, however, due to a number of 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:

  • Start your search early. Students with disabilities should consider contacting prospective schools as early as their freshman or sophomore years in high school. Contact the school’s disability services office and let them know of your interest. Get as much information as you can regarding access and accommodations provided for your specific disability. Check back with them regularly for any updates in their disability programs
  • Visit prospective school campuses. There is nothing like an on-site visit to really understand the difficulties you might face and the facilities and services available to overcome them. Check for general access accommodations such as handicapped parking, accessible classrooms and buildings with elevators, and cut curbs and entrances. If you are planning to live on-campus, visit the school’s residence halls and dormitories. If you are looking for a full college experience, make sure that living accommodations for disabled students will not isolate you from the rest of the student population
  • While you are on campus, be sure to visit the school’s disabled student services office and speak directly with the people in charge of those services. The size and accessibility of the DSS office can be a good indicator of the resources available to disabled students. Have some specific questions ready regarding how accommodations are determined and specific services are provided. Also ask about disabled student retention rates and whether or not they keep track of disabled students once they graduate.
  • Check the school’s website for a disability services page. Many colleges and universities maintain comprehensive online pages devoted specifically to the facilities and services provided to their disabled students. As with its DSS office, the quality and extent of a school’s disability services website can be a good indicator of total on-campus resources available.
  • Contact current students with similar disabilities to find out what their experiences have been. This can be difficult if you do not personally know anyone at the school. However, you can check to see if the school has a disabled student club or organization and contact it. Also, search common social media such as Facebook or Twitter. You’ll be surprised how many people you will find that are anxious to fill you in.

Accreditation and Accredited Online Schools

Accreditation is a literal stamp of approval. It signifies that one or more respected educational bodies have thoroughly vetted an academic institution or program. Accreditation of collegiate institutions occurs on four basic levels: regional, national, programmatic, and faith-based.

Regional accrediting agencies predominately cover the non-profit post-secondary institutions in their area. In contrast, national agencies focus mostly on for-profit schools and vocational- and tech-oriented career centers. When identifying a school of interest, make sure to investigate who accredited the institution and when. If the college has regional accreditation, credits earned have a greater chance of transferring to a college under the purview of a different region. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), an estimated 63 percent of regionally accredited institutions accept credits from schools in a different region. However, the GAO indicates that just 14 of regionally accredited institutions accept credits from colleges approved by a national body such as the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). Many online schools fall into this national bucket. In contrast to the GAO, however, the DETC asserts that most colleges and employers view national and regional accreditation on equal terms.

Students interested in a specific program at a college or university should check its accreditation level and status, as well. For example, subject areas such as law, medicine, or education may have a certain set of standards needed to achieve full programmatic accreditation. If a students wishes to become a teacher and graduates from a program that lacks the proper credentials, finding a job after graduation could prove more difficult.

Distance Learning and Disabled Students

The area of distance education is still relatively new and the consequences of online course study for students with disabilities are evolving. Colleges and universities developing new distance learning programs are all too often overlooking their legal responsibilities in providing equal access to disabled students. 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 disabled students can be both proactive and reactive. Proactive actions refer generally to the universal design of online courses. That is, taking into account the special needs of disabled students in the initial design 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 disabled distance learning students with adaptive technology hardware and software.

If you are a disabled student 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. Remember, this is a newly evolving area of concern for most institutions, so it is up to you to insist on the school’s full compliance with the law.

Financial Aid

Paying for college is a daunting task whether or not you are dealing with a disability. In fact, nearly two-thirds of all undergraduate students in the United States receive some form of financial aid to pay for college expenses. Fortunately, virtually all forms of financial aid available to non-disabled students are also available to disabled students.


Loans and Grants


Student loans are borrowed funds 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, you must first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). The FAFSA® is used to determine eligibility and requires that you provide information regarding dependency, financial status and citizenship. It is required of all students seeking federal aid whether they are disabled or not. One difference between disabled and non-disabled students 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 disability. Federal loans are typically made in the range of $3,000 to $10,000 a year or more.

Unlike loans, grants are monies awarded to students that do not have to be paid back. Grants typically come from Federal and state programs, as well as postsecondary institutions themselves. Because grants are not paid back, the criteria associated in receiving them tends to be more limiting. One of the most widely utilized grant programs is the Federal Pell Grant. The Federal Pell Grant Program 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, the cost of attendance at the specific school, enrollment status (full-time or part-time), and whether the student attends for a full academic year or less. Pell grants require the filing of the FAFSA® application. By law, grants under this program cannot discriminate against students with disabilities.

Disabled students 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 and, in some cases, can be based on need. Scholarships, however, are typically awarded based upon 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 the disabled. Remember, most scholarship-granting organizations award their scholarships based upon a student’s skills and abilities, not their disabilities.