How to be a college student with a disability
If you were a student with a disability in k-12 and are now in college, you’ve probably noticed a huge difference. 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. What should you do?
Identify yourselfIdentify 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.
Get tested, if necessaryThe 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.
Document your disabilityFind 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.
Work with your collegeWork 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.
Who pays for the 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.
When should you contact disability services?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.
Things to rememberUnderstand 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.
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 an attorney who understands 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.
Who pays for the testing?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. For example, Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) at http://www.ood.ohio.gov/Core-Services/BVR can help. Otherwise, you are responsible for paying for an evaluation that the college needs to determine if you have a disability.