Students With Disabilities: 2017 Resource Guide

A resource for students with disabilities who are looking to enroll with a university, uncover financial aid and scholarship information, or who are looking for information associated with student life once on campus.

Preparing and planning for college can be exciting for everyone. If you are a high school student, you have probably already thought about the college that you want to attend. If you are a high school student with one or more disabilities, you may have some concerns about which college to choose, how your disability will affect your studies and social life – and how you will manage your disability while living away from home. Just 34 percent of students with disabilities completed a four-year degree within eight years of finishing high school, according to the National Center for Special Education Research—compared to 56 percent of all students nationally who the National Student Clearinghouse reports graduate within six years.

Fortunately, there are many resources available to you on most campuses nation-wide. Educate yourself about what these resources are and how they can best be put to use as you begin your college career. Whether your disability affects your mobility, or your ability to learn – most colleges and universities have modified their campuses for greater accessibility and are equipped with modified teaching and learning techniques. There are dedicated professionals to help make your college experience a positive one.


Transitioning from High School to College

Transitioning from high school to college is a right-of-passage that is difficult for any student. For those with a disability, it can seem overwhelming. Oftentimes families have struggled to get their student’s needs met in elementary and high school and now feel that they are facing the same struggles again – only this time with college. In order to make the transition as easy as possible, it is important for the new graduate and his or her family to begin making plans early.

In order for the student to have a successful college experience – it is also important for the college to be the right fit for the student. Not only in an academic sense, but for personal needs as well. Knowing what accommodations are made for disabled students related to housing options, retention of students with disabilities, campus resources and job placement for students with disabilities should all be considered before applying to any college or university.


Rights Of College Students With Disabilities

As a college student with disabilities, you need to fully understand your rights as you move towards your college education. Federal, state and local legislation has been passed for the sole purpose of helping disabled students receive the services and accommodations that will help you reach your goal as a college graduate. They can seem complicated – but if you drill down and look at each piece as it pertains to you, you will be able to understand how these rules and legislation has been designed to represent you in a college setting.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 504 

One of the earliest disability rights legislation was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) which is overseen by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) which is a part of the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges and universities that receive federal funding are legally obligated to provide certain services, opportunities and equal benefits to disabled students. In order to continue to receive federal funding, colleges and universities are required to provide to disabled students equal access to classrooms and facilities as students without disabilities.

You may wonder if your disability is covered under Section 504. The legal text of this Act identifies the disabled student as a “qualified individual with a disability.” The provisions are defined as individuals with a physical or mental condition which substantially restricts at least one major life activity. Examples of the impairments provided by the Department of Education are as follows (this is not a comprehensive list):

  • Digestive diseases
  • Emotional or mental illnesses
  • Learning disabilities
  • Musculoskeletal impairments
  • Organic brain syndromes
  • Respiratory conditions
  • Sensory organ impairments

This section was considered the first federal civil rights statute for those with disabilities. It took effect in 1977, with Section 504 prohibiting any discrimination of qualified individuals due to a disability. This was for programs or activities that receive federal funding or other assistance. Section 504 requires schools to provide “appropriate academic adjustments.” Schools that provide housing to students without disabilities must also provide comparable housing to students with disabilities. This housing must be at the same price as housing for students who are not disabled.

Section 504 specifically says that universities and colleges:

  • Cannot advise a disabled student to choose a more restrictive career path unless the choice is limited by professional licensing or certification requirements.
  • Cannot exclude a student from any course study based only on the student’s disability.
  • Cannot limit the number of students who have disabilities.
  • Cannot ask if the application has a disability during the pre-admission process.

Limitations of Section 504

There are some post-secondary institutions that do not receive federal funding – thus, they are not required to comply with Section 504. Usually the reason for this is that the funding was denied, declined or the funding was revoked. Schools may decline federal funding for reasons such as regional, political or for ethical reasons. Federal funding may be lost due to the school failing to comply with federal standards.

If you decide on a school that does not receive federal funding and is not required to comply with Section 504 – you may be covered by other disability rights legislation such as Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Title II. Disabled students attending public colleges are protected from discrimination by Title II which protects the activities, services and programs provided by public colleges.

Title III. For-profit and private colleges are required to adhere to Title III which requires these colleges to provide an accessible environment for disabled students in an academic setting.


A college or university is also a service industry and you are the customer. You want to make sure that the college is a right fit for you. It must have:

  • Geographically located in the area where you want to live.
  • Program that you are interested in.
  • Reasonable accommodations for your disability.
  • Tuition that fits into your budget.

Do not be afraid to ask the hard questions when you interview colleges. The departments and staff are there to help you.

Check Websites

Always check the website of the colleges you are interested in. They should have dedicated disability services page. This information will give you a good idea how invested the college is in providing accommodations and resources for their students with disabilities.

Contact Potential Colleges

Make sure you contact the potential colleges well ahead of time. Start your search as early as your freshman or sophomore year of high school. Making contact and finding out what type of accommodations and resources are available for students with disabilities before an application is sent in will help reduce stress and make the process easier for you and your family. You can begin your contact via email and phone calls. As you narrow your search, you will want to arrange for a campus visit.

Release of information

You are not required to release information regarding your disability. However, in order for you to receive services and accommodations from the college that you attend – it is important for you to inform them of your disability and the accommodations you will need. The more they know about your needs, the more you will be able to successfully fulfill your class requirements, while having a positive college experience. For the college that you attend to fully understand your needs, they may ask for information such as:

  • Current disability diagnosis
  • Medical reports that document your disability
  • Reports that show the impact your disability has had on your previous academic studies
  • Your doctor’s credentials

Documentation Of Your Visibility 

If you request accommodation for your disability from the school you choose to attend, they will usually request documentation of your disability. They will be very specific as to what information they need, so it is important for you to get this information to them in a timely manner.


Do Your Qualify for Disability Accommodations?

The ADA and Section 504 have a specific definition for disability.

  • A person with a mental or physical impairment that will substantially limit one or more life activities. A life activity includes walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, caring for oneself, working and performing manual tasks.
  • A person who has a record of such an impairment.
  • A person who is regarded as having such an impairment.

Visual Disabilities

If you are a student with low vision, or legally blind, you probably have limitations when viewing materials in the classroom. Videos and presentations may be difficult for you to see, and you may have problems as you move about campus. The definition of legally blind is 20/200 with best correction.

Hearing Impairments

Profound hearing loss or being deaf is usually defined as hearing loss of 90 decibels or more. Hard of hearing means that the student has some hearing ability – while deafness refers to no hearing. Significant hearing loss and deafness is significantly limiting to student’s in a classroom setting.

Chronic Health Problems

Visible disabilities and illnesses or medical conditions that cannot be seen are disabilities that may require special accommodations in a college setting. Spinal injuries, heart disease, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, seizure disorders and multiple sclerosis are just some of the disorders that may require special considerations while attending a college or university.

Mobility Impairments

There are many conditions and illnesses that affect mobility as well as fine-motor skills. Orthopedic, as well as neuromuscular disabilities can limit students to access common areas in a college setting. Classrooms, housing and restrooms are especially important areas to check for ease of access. Students may have difficulty taking notes, using computers or completing lab projects. Whether you have your own equipment or need to seek help from the college – be sure to get detailed information on the help that may be available to you.

Cognitive Disabilities

Brain trauma can manifest in cognitive functioning. Problems with memory, motor-skill and concentration may be affected. Speaking and listening may also be a contributing factor to special needs during college.


Inattentiveness, impulsive actions and hyperactivity may be a disability that has created limitations when it comes to completing tasks and remaining attentive during learning periods. This is a common disability and many colleges have found successful ways to assist their students in order for them to achieve success in the classroom.

Learning Disabilities

Generally speaking, learning disabilities refer to a persistent condition caused by a neurological dysfunction. This may or may not exist alongside other disabilities. Students who have a learning disability often struggle in areas such as writing, math, reading, critical thinking or abstract reasoning. They may also have problems with time management and memory functions.

Psychological Disabilities

There is a wide variety of psychological disabilities including mood disorders, bi-polar disorders and depression, as well as anxiety, panic disorders and obsessive compulsive disorders and schizophrenia. Students with these disorders may become easily stressed.

Whether the student qualifies for a disability under the ADA or section 504 is usually decided on a case by case basis. A diagnosis does not automatically qualify a student to receive disability accommodations. The psychological disability must substantially limit the student in the ability to perform a major life activity in order to fall under the requirements for reasonable accommodations.

When a condition or impairment is temporary and non-chronic that has no residual effects – it usually does not qualify as a disability.

Visit Universities to Learn More

Choosing a college is a serious task and you need answers to many questions before making a decision. Make a list of questions you need answered as you visit potential colleges. Talking to the Disabled Student Services staff is a great start to get your questions answered. The best way is to visit each area of campus that you will be using in order to see for yourself if the areas will work for your specific disability.

There is no better way to see if a school is the right fit than to personally visit the campus. With an on-site visit you will be able to see first-hand if there are difficulties you may have to face if you are a student there. You will be able to speak directly with the disabled student services staff to fully explain your disabilities and any special accommodations you will need if you choose to attend their college. During your visit, you will want to cover some of the following areas of concern:



If you are planning to live on campus, check out the dormitories or residence halls. How accessible are they? If you have a car, is there adequate parking? Will you be isolated from the general student population?

General Accessibility

Even though most public places are handicap accessible – they sometimes are not all as ‘easily’ accessed as they should be. Make sure you will be able to enter the buildings where your classes will be held as well as student unions, book stores and cafeterias.

Course Modifications

Depending on your disability and your major, you may need to substitute or modify non-essential courses required for your degree, so it is important to find out if this is something the college will allow.

Time Allowances

Additional time to complete tests, course work – or graduation. Many colleges will allow those with certain disabilities extra time to complete tests and course work. They will also allow additional time to enable students to graduate from their desired major.

Exam Modification/Assistance

Many types of disabilities require assistance or modification during administration of exams and quizzes, whether it be testing in a separate room, or assistance with reading the test itself.

Priority Registration & Books

Registration and buying books can be hectic and overwhelming. Many colleges allow students with disabilities priority registration and book sales to ease some of the stress for disabled students.

Sign Language Interpreters

If you are a student who needs a sign-language interpreter, making sure this is a service provided by the college is important.

Tape Recording

Some students with disabilities can benefit by tape recording or even video-taping their classes. This is a question you will want to ask as you learn more about the colleges you are interested in attending.

Note Takers/Computer Aids

For students who need assistive listening devices or telecommunication for the deaf – it is important to find out what assistance is available through the college and what type of devices are allowed in the classroom.

Other Tech Assistance

There are many ways that colleges can provide technology assistance for its disabled student population. You should be familiar with what options are available to you.

Reasonable Accomodations

Colleges are not all the same when it comes to making reasonable accommodations for their students with disabilities. Many go above and beyond – but not all. Even though colleges and universities are required to make reasonable modifications to assist their students who have disabilities, there are limitations to this requirement.

  • A school is not required to make modifications that will alter the nature of a program.
  • A school does not have to waive an essential course requirement.
  • A school is not required to modify or provide an aid or service that is considered to be an undue burden on the school.

Devices and services that schools are not required to provide to disabled students are – for example:

  • Attendants
  • Prescribed assisting devices
  • Readers for study or personal use
  • Tutors: The school’s only obligation is to provide tutoring services for all students.

Online Learning and Disabilities

Online classes can be very helpful for students with disabilities. You will be able to do most or all of your course work from home, using technical equipment you are familiar with. There are many online schools – and it is important that you choose one that offers legitimate programs and that has been accredited by an appropriate governing body.

An accredited online school signifies that at least one respected educational body has thoroughly vetted the school and its programs. If you are interested in a specific program at a particular school that offers courses online, you will want to check its accreditation level and status.

This is particularly important for certain areas of study such as law, medicine or education. These areas require a certain set of standards and requirements for program accreditation. If you wish to become a teacher – and have attended a non-accredited school, you may find it difficult to find a job once you have graduated.


Many colleges and universities offer distance learning programs for their students. They sometimes overlook the needs of the disabled student and their responsibility to provide equal access for them.

Since the ADA and Section 504 do not include or discuss distance learning, some of the general provisions included in the laws state that all colleges or universities provide equal access to services and programs that are offered publicly. If a person who is qualified enrolls in a distance learning course – even those with disabilities – the course must be made available to them. They would need to receive reasonable accommodations to participate in the distance learning course to ensure that they have an equal opportunity to participate in the program.

When considering to enroll in distance learning courses, your responsibilities are the same as if you are applying to any other program. It will be important for you to identify your disability and inform them of your interest in their distance learning program. They have the responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations for you to successfully access and complete the course.

Since this is a relatively new area for some distance learning schools, it is up to you to insist that the school comply with the law as it pertains to students with disabilities.

Financial Aid and Scholarships

The cost of college can be an overwhelming subject for any family – but sometimes even more so for families of students with disabilities. Not surprisingly – nearly two-thirds of undergraduate students in the U.S. are or have received a form of financial aid during their college experience. Financial aid can be used for college expenses as well as paying for the actual courses and books. Nearly all forms of financial aid that is available for students without disabilities are also available to students with disabilities.

Student loans are funds that are borrowed from lending institutions or the government. This money can be used for other necessities other than strictly tuition – such as housing, books and other needs.

Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) – This form is used to determine whether you qualify for a government loan. This form is required of all students – disabled or not. There is a consideration regarding disabled students relating to calculating the loan. The normal costs are common factors, but for a disabled student the costs related to the disability is also taken into consideration. The form is primarily concerned with:

  • Citizenship
  • Dependency (whether you are claimed on someone else’s tax return)
  • Financial status

These federal loans are usually approved for amounts of three to ten thousand per year or more, depending on the cost of the college you are attending and other important factors. When you are approved for a student loan, you typically will begin paying it back when you have finished college. The interest rate of these types of loans are usually significantly lower than traditional loans.

Grants differ greatly from student loans. This money does not need to be paid back. The money from grants usually comes from state and federal programs. Some colleges and universities offer grants for its students. You will find the criteria for grants more limiting than for loans.

Federal Pell Grant – A Federal Pell Grant is the most widely used type of grant used for college and postsecondary schools. This program offers grants on a need-basis for low-income students. It is available for undergraduate as well as some post-graduate programs. The amount of the grant to be given to a student is based on several factors:

  • Cost of attendance
  • Expected contribution made by the student’s family
  • Whether the student is full or part-time

In order to qualify for a Pell grant, the student must file a FAFSA application. Students with disabilities cannot be discriminated against when being considered for a Pell grant.

Financial help may also be available to disabled students through their state’s vocational rehabilitation program. The programs may include financial help for college in order to help meet employment goals.

Many states also offer state grants as well as loans.

You are not required to pay back monies received through a scholarship. Scholarship awards are typically based on certain criteria such as merit. There are many types of scholarships available and many go unclaimed. Students with disabilities are also available through disability-specific organizations. 

An example of specific disability scholarships includes the National Federation of the Blind as well as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf or Hard of Hearing. A disabled student should not limit themselves to applying for only disability types of scholarships. Most scholarships are awarded based on merit, abilities and skills.

A program that pays monthly benefits to people with low incomes, age 65, blind or with other disabilities. These funds are available as a supplement to a person’s income. The amount varies the cost-of-living by state. The income of the student’s parents is considered when determining the amount of money that will be given.

High School and College Financial Aid

Your high school and college financial aid office professionals are the best resources for information about ways for you to pay for college. The best way to learn more about loans, grants, scholarships and other paths to take in order for you to pay for college is to contact your financial aid office at your high school or college. They will be able to give you information regarding scholarships as well as help you fill out forms and applications.

Technology and Tools

 According to the National Center for Education Statistics – approximately 11.1% of all undergraduates in the 2011-2012 school year had a disability. This shows that major strides have been made to meet the needs of disabled students in order for them to have a successful experience in college.

Colleges and universities continue to move forward to make their classrooms and campuses more easily accessible for students with disabilities. The problem of campuses being physically accessible to disabled students is not the only area that has been improved.

Important changes are continually being made to enhance the academic and social needs of disabled students as well. Students, who in the past may have found it difficult to perform college-level tasks, are now better able to obtain college degrees.

Current Technology to Help Students with Disabilities

Advancement in technology and increased awareness of the needs of disabled students have changed the outlook and ability for many students with disabilities to further their education by attending a college or university. Development and use of accessible technology for those with disabilities improves the success rate for disabled students to complete their education.

Under Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, agencies must be aware of existing resources in order for this information to be dispersed to disabled students. With this, the Department of Justice works consistently to make sure technology will improve access for those with disabilities – and does not create new barriers.

The field of technology – namely apps, websites and software – are specifically designed to help those with disabilities. These advances have greatly improved and changed the college experience for students with disabilities

The following listing gives you an idea of some of the technology that is available for disabled students. 

Applications (Apps)

Dragon dictation This easy to use application is used by many professionals to convert the spoken word into written text. Available across multiple platforms, it makes lectures readable and easily understood.

inClass A materials organizer – inClass will help students keep their course schedules and events organized to avoid being late or miss classes and activities.

ASL Dictionary With the help of an ASL Dictionary, you will be able to communicate with other ASL speakers. Each of the 5,200 signs is demonstrated with a helpful video clip.

Say Hi! AAC Displaying images or playing sounds – allows students with limitations in mobility and/or speech to communicate.


Merit Software Solutions This helpful software assists the student with reading comprehension, math and vocabulary at varying levels of difficulty.

Co:Writer Word prediction software for your Mac or PC will automatically suggest words when you begin to type. This will allow quick shortcuts to help you select the right word.

Mind Reading. For those with autism, this software helps to learn and recognize emotions in voices and faces.

Stay Focused A customizable Chrome add-on allows students with ADHD to be able to block websites that waste time, in order for them to stay on task and focused on studies.

WYNN With this software, students with dyslexia are able to convert paper documents into digital files with optical character recognition that is specifically designed for dyslexic students.



ADDITUDE ADHD College Survival Guide For students with ADHD, this digital publication helps with college selection, the application process as well as the challenges of being a college student with ADHD.

The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity This digital resource collects helpful advice from dyslexic students as to what technology has been helpful for them, as well as other helpful tips as they navigate through college life.

LDOnline A digital resource published by PBS, compiles newsletters, multimedia and personal stories regarding learning disabilities.

Navigating College Autistic former and current college students contribute articles about their college experiences – in order to advise and give insight to college life for autistic students.

New Mobility Informative information for those who use wheelchairs – this online magazine features event listings and accessibility advocacy information.



2016-2017 Resources

The 2016-2017 school year shows thousands of scholarships available to students with disabilities. Unfortunately, many of these scholarships go unclaimed each year. Scholarships pertaining to specific types of disabilities can be found through organizations or by a listing on When looking for a scholarship, it is important to review the broad range of qualifications needed in order to have your application accepted.

Apply for each scholarship that you qualify for. This can sometimes be a little labor intensive but worthwhile in the long run.

Understanding the Current Legislation

A student with a disability will see a few differences in his or her rights when they leave high school to enter a postsecondary school. As a high school student, you were probably familiar with the rules as they pertain to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For college students, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act become more important. Understanding your rights as a disabled student will take away many of the stresses that come with new situations.

These laws, rules and legislation do not often change. Being your own advocate, or having someone who will take that role is of the utmost importance as you make the transition into a college or university setting. Even though the rules seldom change, there may be updates or subtle changes that may affect your situation. Though you need to practice your self-advocacy skills when you enter college, you should not have to spend an excessive amount of time that should be spent on your academic studies.

Every postsecondary school – college or university must have a disability services coordinator to address concerns and assist students with disabilities in identifying the needed accommodations for a successful college experience.

Grievance processes

Most often, colleges have informal as well as formal complaint processes. If you are not satisfied with the informal outcome of your disagreement, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) protects you if you are dissatisfied with a college’s grievance procedures. You can file a complaint with the OCR or a court. Make sure that you have identified all of the details that support your request.

A Successful Transition

While students with disabilities may face challenges – it is important to remember that everyone faces challenges. Today, more than ever before, colleges and universities are taking an active and proactive stance on assisting their disabled students have a successful college career. There has never been a better time for people with disabilities to attend college.

Unfortunately, a very low percentage of college students with disabilities take advantage of many of the resources that are offered at their college. The reason for this is two-fold. One- students are reluctant to ask for help and two- they do not have full knowledge of the resources available to them.

Laws and legislation has been put in place to make college a successful reality for you. Take advantage of today’s ever-expanding world of new technologies as well as the resources that are available for you at many colleges and universities. With them, you can embrace the challenges head-on and reach your goals.