Preparing Students with Disabilities for College


Preparing Students with Disabilities for College

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A practical guide to helping your child with disabilities thrive in college

Do you have a senior in high school? Are you in the midst of helping your child fill out college applications, write essays, or apply for scholarships while trying to help him or her get through the year with decent grades? Senior year is full of expectations for all high school kids—to get into college, to win the championship, to go to the prom, to get a job—and for those of us with teens who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger’s syndrome, or learning or other disabilities, and therefore need more support, senior year is a stressful time.

Many teens who have struggled through school may not be interested in college at all, or at least not right away. But others have interests that make college a good choice. For young adults with a disability, going to college is hard, but with the right supports and accommodations, along with strong self-awareness and self-advocacy, many thrive in college and enter the workforce ready to shine.

Most colleges have a Disability Services Office that offers a range of services from tutoring to help requesting accommodations to accessing assistive technology supports. At most colleges and universities, the process is very similar. They ask that you make an appointment at the Disability Services Office and bring documentation about your disability and review what accommodations you can ask your professors to provide based on the documentation and your needs.

College versus high school: Key distinctions and protections

College life is very different from high school life, and students and parents need to know those distinctions.

College students have a right to decide if they want to disclose their disability. They must disclose it to the Disability Services Office, but they do not have to disclose it to their professors.

College students can choose how and when to use their accommodations. They should also notify the school as soon as possible to adjust any accommodation that may not be working.

College students are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. That means they can decide not to allow the college to share information with their parents.

Individualized education programs (IEPs) aren’t used in college. Only accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act are available to students who can demonstrate they need those accommodations to level the playing field.

There are no case managers. Students must ask for accommodations and go to each professor themselves to request those accommodations.

Students must provide all their documentation at their or their parents’ expense. Colleges do not provide evaluations.

Accommodations that worked in high school may not work in college. For example, in high school, students might have more time to complete assignments; but in college, students might have only three graded projects in a semester, so if students spend more time on the first project, they would have less time for the other two.

Instructors decide what the essential course requirements are. Instructors also determine whether a student has met those requirements or not.

More executive functioning skills are required. In college, unlike in high school, instead of having the same schedule every day, students might, for example, go to one class only twice a week yet have the same amount of homework for that class as they would for a high school class that meets five days per week—requiring a lot of executive functioning skills!

Are you starting to see a trend?

The responsibility of asking for and getting accommodations from professors is all on the student. The Disability Services Office will help the student know what they can ask for, but the student has to do the asking. The student also needs to know what they need and be willing to speak up about their needs. That’s a big difference from high school, where they may not even know what their disability is or what accommodations they receive.

Steps to prepare your teen for college

Now that you are trembling more than you already were, there are practical steps you can take to prepare your teen for college (which are really preparing them for life!).

1. Talk to your teen about the impact of his disability. For instance, does he know that the Read and Write extension on Google helps him prepare and produce better papers?

2. Talk to your teen about how she wants to describe her differences. She might want to use a catch-all phrase, such as some learning differences/disabilities instead of nonverbal learning disorder or inattentive combined type ADHD.

3. Before his next IEP, sit down and create a “what’s working” and “what’s not working” sheet for every class. Help him identify what helps him learn best.

4. Ask her to advocate to teachers about her accommodations. Start no later than her senior year.

5. Teach or enlist help teaching your teen study skills. Rereading notes before a test is not going to cut it. Teach your teen how to plan for and prioritize school work and other activities every week.

Also check out another ESME article about college for kids who struggle in high school and aren’t sure they are ready for the rigors of college.

Sending our kids to college with the skills they need to thrive is one of the many responsibilities of being a Solo Mom. The more honest we are with our kids about the impact of their disability and the more we talk with them about their needs and advocate for them with their high school teachers, the more likely they will do well in college. It will be an adjustment and will probably include some mistakes along the way, but that is part of growing up, isn’t it?

Start early, look at schools, research careers, plan for both the short and the long term, and your teen will be prepared for college.

For those who would like more information, the United States Department of Education has a booklet for college students titled Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education.

Did you know that ESME is offering a $1,500 college scholarship to a child of a Solo Mom?


Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.


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