Choosing the Right College: A Guide for Students with Disabilities


For many students, the journey to finding the perfect college involves meticulous research, campus visits, and contemplation about various factors such as academic programs, campus culture, and extracurricular activities. However, for students with disabilities, there's an added layer of complexity: ensuring that the chosen institution can provide the necessary support and accommodations to foster their academic success and overall well-being.

(Photo : UNSPLASH / Josh Appel)

Justin Pierce's experience highlights the importance of thoroughly researching colleges to identify those that offer comprehensive services for students with disabilities. Pierce, who is visually impaired, found his perfect fit at DePaul University in Illinois, where proactive support from the Center for Students with Disabilities helped him thrive during his academic journey.
But what exactly should students with disabilities look for when researching colleges? Here's a comprehensive guide to help navigate this crucial decision-making process:

Know Your Rights

Before diving into college research, it's essential for students with disabilities to understand their rights under the law. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 mandate that colleges and universities receiving federal funding must provide reasonable accommodations to guarantee that students with disabilities enjoy equitable access to education.

Gregory A. Moorehead, Director of the Center for Students with Disabilities at DePaul University, emphasizes the importance of proactive communication and self-advocacy in the college application process. Unlike K-12 education, where administrators actively seek out students with disabilities, higher education places the responsibility on students to disclose their needs and provide relevant documentation to access accommodations.

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Connect With Disability Services

Early engagement with a prospective college's disability services office is crucial. Annie Tulkin, founder of Accessible College, underscores the importance of understanding the types of accommodations offered by different institutions. Whether it's priority registration, alternative testing procedures, or assistive technology, students should inquire about available services tailored to their individual needs.

Rob Stahl, Executive Director of Student Health Services at Hofstra University, highlights the significance of a dedicated disability support services office as an indicator of a university's commitment to accommodations. Moorehead suggests that students explore additional resources offered by these offices, such as specialized support for specific disabilities or conditions.

Check Physical Accessibility

Physical accessibility is another vital aspect to consider when evaluating college campuses. Tulkin advises students to assess the campus layout, including factors like ramps, elevators, and accessible facilities. Stahl recommends confirming the availability of accessible classrooms, restrooms, and other amenities to ensure a barrier-free environment.

Moorehead suggests discussing individualized accommodations with prospective universities, considering factors such as academic program requirements and flexible scheduling options tailored to students' needs.

Ask About Range of Services Provided

Students should inquire about the full spectrum of services available to them, ranging from academic accommodations to mental health support. Stahl emphasizes the importance of investigating services like note-taking assistance, extended exam time, and alternative formats for course materials.

Moorehead suggests considering accommodations specific to academic programs and exploring options for special housing needs or the presence of disability-related student groups on campus.

Review the School's Website and Social Media

A university's mission, values, and commitment to disability inclusion can often be gleaned from its website and social media presence. Tulkin recommends looking for disability-related student groups or cultural centers as indicators of a supportive environment for students with disabilities.

Stahl suggests researching student advocacy groups and inclusive policies to gauge the level of support available to students. Active participation in disability advocacy organizations can signify a vibrant community dedicated to promoting inclusion and accessibility.

Research Financial Aid Options

Finally, students should explore financial aid options tailored to their needs. Moorehead suggests leveraging scholarships specifically designed for students with disabilities, such as those offered by DePaul University. Tulkin advises students to explore state vocational rehabilitation programs and consider appealing financial aid packages to account for disability-related expenses.

Starting the college research process early and seeking guidance from professionals can help students with disabilities navigate the complexities of choosing the right institution. By placing importance on accessibility, support services, and a friendly campus atmosphere, students can confidently begin their college experience and flourish. 

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