HOW TO: Be A College Student With A Disability

If you were a student with a disability in elementary, middle or high school and are now in college, you’ve probably noticed a huge difference. Gone are the intervention specialists and teachers who read your IEP or 504 and kept you on track educationally, emotionally or physically. College professors expect you to manage your classes, your student life, everything, on your own. They may never have heard of an IEP or 504, and they may not understand that you may need accommodations. But you do. Still. So what should you do?

You hopefully received in high school what the law calls FAPE – a Free and Public Education. If you had an IEP, it should have been tailored to making sure you received specialized educational services under IDEA – the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Or you may have had a 504 plan – accommodations for your disability that you were entitled to based on Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Here’s the bad news. Colleges don’t have to provide a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) to you. This is because colleges are not subject to IDEA.

However, you still have protections. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 2008 prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in college.   This means that those accommodations you received under an IEP or 504 in high school may still apply in college.

The huge difference between high school and college: you are your own advocate. In high school you had teachers, parents and administrators helping you and advocating for you. You may have gone to your annual IEP or 504 meetings, where a lot of school staff and you and your parents hashed out a plan that was the best fit for you to learn what you needed to learn.

But in college, you are the one who needs to bring up your need for accommodations.

– The “How To” –

  1. Identify yourself to the college as a student with a disability. Colleges should have an office responsible for disability services. Check out their website and see what kinds of documentation they require, and what services they routinely offer. For example, Columbus State Community College offers Read and Write Gold for everyone on campus regardless of disability.
  2. Get tested, if necessary. The college may need documentation. Colleges can set their own requirements for documentation, and often a copy of your 504 Plan or IEP is not enough to prove that you currently have a disability.
    • Who pays for any testing you may have to get? In high school or below, the school district paid for any evaluations. Colleges are not responsible for paying. If you qualify for your state vocational services, the state may pay. Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) at can help. Otherwise, you are responsible for paying for an evaluation that the college needs to determine if you have a disability.
  3. Documentation to show the following:
    • That you have a disability;
    • The disability substantially limits a major life activity; and
    • The disability shows the need for academic adjustments (or accommodations).
      • When don’t you need documentation? A medical diagnosis may be enough for a college, proved that it includes how the disability impairs you as a student. Colleges have leeway in making this determination – you may be required to provide additional documentation.
  4. Work with the college in determining which accommodations are necessary for you. It isn’t as simple as showing the college what you got in high school and asking for the same accommodations. Remember, you don’t have the right to specialized educational services. Colleges do not have to give you any accommodation that fundamentally alters the program or result in undue financial burden on college. For example, you may get extra time on a test, but the college won’t have to change the content of the test.

Remember, the person at the disability office is not like your intervention specialist or teacher in high school. The disability officer evaluates your documentation, works with you to figure out which services you need, helps you with arranging services and testing modifications, and deals with any problems that may come up. The officer does not tutor you, give you counseling, or help you manage your time. Depending on the college, other offices may provide tutoring, counseling and other services.

Who pays for aids or services you may be entitled to receive? Colleges cannot require that you pay for them, and they can’t charge you more than non-disabled students. In most cases the college is responsible for aids or services, although colleges don’t have to pay for aids or services that are an undue financial burden on the college.

Finally, you should plan on initiating this process as soon as possible. Don’t wait until after you have struggled all semester in a class! These are proactive accommodations – the point is to help you as problems arise, not give you a pass afterwards. Ask for accommodations before you take the test, write the essay, or do the lab. Be your own advocate. We have encountered issues where colleges were not aware of the disability, no request for accommodations were made by the student, and now the student is facing academic probation or expulsion.

– Think about the following –

  • Understand your disability. Be able to explain it clearly to others.
  • Acknowledge your areas of strength as well as weakness. We all have them. Own them.
  • Make sure you are prepared for the classes. If you are weak in math, take preparatory classes so that when you get to college you can succeed. Take the summer school program in your college. Community colleges are excellent places to take classes, get used to college, and still have a bit of a safety net. Columbus State Community College has excellent disability services. Call them.
  • Learn time management and organizational skills. All college students need them, but disabled students often have to work harder and longer than the average student. Make sure that you work smarter, not just longer.
  • Finally, do your research when considering colleges. Some colleges are better suited than others for your type of disability. Visit, ask questions, and look at the requirements for the program(s) you are interested in. Don’t waste your time and money in a program that is not a good fit.

If you feel that the college has discriminated against you because of your disability, work with the disability officer. If that doesn’t work, move higher up the chain of command. And if you need someone to advocate for you, contact Albeit Weiker, LLP. We understand higher education and disability law.   You may not be entitled to a free and appropriate college education, but you have legal rights as a student with a disability.

Questions? Call us! 614.745.2001



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