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How to Request Disability Supports in College — An Overview and Checklist

Jennifer Sullivan


Now is a great time to start planning your prospective college visits for spring break and during the summer and fall months.

If your son or daughter has a disability such as a learning disability, physical disability or mental health issue, there are some key questions to keep in mind when touring a college campus.

Most admissions officers and tour guides will provide brief overviews of support services that are available to all students, but you may want to be prepared with a few important questions that are specific to your child regarding disability supports and resources on campus.

One of the major differences between high school and college is that higher education places greater responsibility on the student to seek out and access disability support services.

By law, colleges and universities must provide access to all programs, activities and services on campus for students with disabilities. In order to do this, each college has an office, department or administrator that will provide accommodations for access. The purpose of this office is to ensure the college’s alignment with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. This office can have many names including Student Accessibility Office, Disability Services Office or Student Success Office.

As you prepare for college campus visits, I suggest browsing a prospective college’s website and in the search bar (usually found at the top of the website) type in the term, “disability.” This search word will usually locate any article about disability supports on the college’s website or bring you to the location on the college’s website where the word disability is mentioned. This will allow you to do some research at home before the campus visit.

QUICK TIP: The Disability Office link is usually the first link at the top of the search results for "disability."

Another difference between high school and college is that high school teachers are informed about your student’s disability because of documentation in their IEP. In college, it is your student’s responsibility to disclose their disability (if they choose to) and apply for accommodations through the campus disability office.

Even if your student mentions their disability in the admissions process, once they are admitted to college no one on campus will be aware of your child’s disability needs unless they visit and register with the disability support office.

Each college has a separate and defined process for how to request accommodations. Here is a general overview of how to access disability services in higher education.

Step 1: Register

Students with disabilities are responsible for making their need for disability-related accommodations known to the campus disability office and requesting academic accommodations (often in writing through a college-specific form). Students should research the college’s process either by looking at the college website or scheduling an in-person visit to this office during their campus tour.

Step 2: Documentation

Students must provide medical or psychological documentation to the campus disability office that describes their disability and how the disability impacts their daily functioning. If providing a psycho-educational evaluation as documentation, most campus disability offices require a dated evaluation within the last three years. Students may provide their high school IEP or 504 plan; however colleges are not legally required to follow this document. However, most college disability offices will use an IEP document as guidance in determining appropriate accommodations (in addition to a student’s own voice).

To summarize: Accommodations are determined on a case-by-case basis by each institution depending on the needs of the student.

Step 3: Meet with Disability Office Staff to Discuss Accommodations

Students will meet with disability office staff to discuss and request accommodations needed to support them in each of their classes or in accessing campus activities. Students should self-advocate for supports that have been helpful to them in the past. If you haven’t done so already, it can be helpful to have a conversation with your son or daughter about their disability, how their disability may impact them in a college setting, and identify any supports that helped them be successful in high school. In my experience, students often don’t know what accommodations they utilized in high school and thus don’t know to advocate for these supports in college.

Step 4: Notify Instructors of Student’s Eligibility to Use Accommodations

Campus disability office staff can help students determine appropriate accommodations and can assist in communicating student disability-related needs to faculty and staff. Faculty notification usually comes in the form of a letter that a student receives from the disability office and identifies the student as someone who has disclosed a disability and therefore is eligible to access accommodations. Students will need to notify each professor by providing a hard copy of this letter or providing the letter to each professor via email (depending on the designated policy of each college).

Step 5: Request to Use Accommodations During Class/Testing

Once a student has registered with a disability office and if they have been found eligible to receive accommodations, it is up to the student to self-advocate and ask for the accommodations. Professors try their best to remember which students in their courses receive accommodations, but professors aren’t perfect. In college, students are expected to communicate with instructors when accommodations are needed to be used.

For example, colleges may have a website or form that students need to complete when requesting accommodations for an upcoming exam or test.

QUICK TIP: Classroom accommodations may be different than testing accommodations. For example, Student A may need extended time on exams but this would not be a college-level classroom accommodation for homework assignments (see list below).

Some common accommodations used at the college level are:

  • Classroom Accommodations (i.e. priority seating near front of the room, access to class notes, access to computer, breaks as needed, etc.)
  • Testing accommodations (i.e., extended time on tests; use of readers, scribes, clarified directions, breaks as needed, use of computer for written answers, etc.)
  • Testing in a room with limited distractions
  • Textbooks in an alternate format
  • Note-taking tools (such as Livescribe Pen, Sonocent, etc.)
  • Text to Speech software (i.e. Kurzweil, etc.)
  • Screen magnifiers (JAWS, etc.)
  • First floor dorm room for students will physical and mobility challenges

CHECKLIST: 6 Questions to Ask a College Disability Office:

  1. How many staff (full-time, part-time, peer mentors) are in the Disability Office?
  2. Are there deadlines or important dates that students need to know in order to request accommodations (for classroom or testing purposes)?
  3. Does the Disability Office offer extra fee-based systems of tiered supports such as academic coaching (for students with ADD), executive functioning support, autism social supports, etc.?
  4. What is the college’s process for requesting accommodations? Can students complete the process online or do students need to visit the Disability Office in person? How are faculty notified of student accommodations: online or       in- person?
  5. What methods does the Disability Office use to communicate with students? Email, text, college online learning management system (such as Blackboard, Moodle rooms, Starfish, etc.)?
  6. Does the Disability Office have a FERPA release form that allows parents to communicate with Disability Office staff regarding their student?
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    Jennifer Sullivan, M.S., has over 17 years experience in both higher education and K-12 schools as an academic advisor, instructor and former Director of Parent Programming on a college campus. Currently she is a private college coach/tutor supporting students with learning disabilities, autism and anxiety. Jennifer enjoys writing — and connecting with parents of college students! Visit her website: www.fastforwardcollegecoaching.com.
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