Higher Education for Students with Disabilities

ASO Staff Writers
Updated March 29, 2024
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Rights, Resources and Accredited Online Schools

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, according to the 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:

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:

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.

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.

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, including online trade schools.

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.

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.

Advice on How to Overcome Challenging College Situations

  • Students with ‘invisible disabilities,’ such a learning or psychological disabilities, do not look like they have a disability, and may find barriers to resources and accommodations as a result.
  • It can be difficult to tell what disability resources to look for in a college.
  • Students may struggle to identify administrative support systems in place for students with disabilities.
  • A college can refuse to provide accommodations for a student who has a disability.

Helpful Resources for Students with Disabilities


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