ADA Accommodations for Students With Disabilities in College

Danika McClure  | 

For students with disabilities, traversing the college process may seem daunting. Fortunately, there are laws in place that help these students to be able to successfully complete post-secondary studies. There are some things that students and parents should know before starting the process.

Accommodations for College Are Different From High School

The legal rights of students may continue after they finish high school, but there might be a level of transition that students with disabilities ought to be prepared for as they progress to the next stage of college life.

“Legal rights may continue,” write the experts at The Learning Disabilities Association of America. “It depends upon the facts in the individual case.” In order to find out the best accomodations for your student or the protections that they are entitled to, it’s best to look into your own individual case and which congressional protections you or your child fall under.

For example, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II), prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Nearly every school district and post-secondary school in the United States is subject to one or both of these laws, which have similar requirements for accommodations. Most colleges and universities, however, function differently from their high school counterparts.

“For instance, Section 504 requires a school district to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to each child with a disability in the district’s jurisdiction,” write the special needs experts at the organization Friendship Circle. “Whatever the disability, a school district must identify an individual’s educational needs and provide any regular or special education and related aids and services necessary to meet those needs as well as it is meeting the needs of students without disabilities.”

Personalized Education vs Reasonable Accommodations

Unlike high school, colleges are not required to provide FAPE support. Instead, federal regulations require that colleges provide reasonable accommodations to ensure that their courses do not discriminate on the basis of disability. They must also provide comfortable and accessible housing to students with disabilities at the same cost that they offer housing to non-disabled students.

Additionally, many high school students with disabilities are eligible to receive Individualized Education Programs (IEP). Once students graduate, however, IEPs no longer apply to them when they make the transition to go to college.

“The disability service model at college is very different from the one high-schoolers (and their parents) are used to,” writes Jim Rein, a former Dean at the New York Institute of Technology. “Colleges tend to offer different types of support…Colleges may also vary in their requirements for documentation. Another big difference between high school and college is that your child has to seek out the supports that colleges offer.”

In essence, students with disabilities must be prepared to advocate for themselves in a higher education environment.

Legal Rights and Definitions: College Students With Disabilities

In order to best advocate for themselves, students need to be able to understand their rights fully. Part of that means having a complete understanding of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

In essence, Section 504 prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities, stating that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United states…shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity.”

Qualifying Individuals

If you were previously protected under IDEA regulations, Section 504 might apply to you. That’s because Section 504’s definition of a disability is broader than the protections that might be covered under the IDEA definition. To be protected under Section 504, a student must prove one of the following to be true:

  • They must have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities
  • Have a record of this impairment
  • Or be regarded as having this impairment

List of Accommodations for Students With Disabilities in College

With proof of eligibility, students may be entitled for for a number of classroom accommodations when they transition to college, including:

  • Audio-recorded texts of course materials
  • Sign language or other effective methods of making lectures or orally recited materials available to those who are deaf or hard of hearing
  • Classroom equipment that is adapted for use by students with manual impairments
  • Physical facility modifications that can include ramps, curb cuts into the sidewalk, and hand controls
  • Interpreters, readers, note takers, computer assisted transcription, listening devices, and telecommunication
  • Additional time to complete tests, coursework, and graduation requirements
  • Replacement of non-essential courses towards degree requirements

To further understand which accommodations you qualify for, it’s best to speak directly with the disability resource center on your campus.

Disclosing Your Disability and Requesting Accommodation

As a student with a disability in elementary, middle, or high school, you are under no obligation to share information about your disability to receive accommodations. In most cases, your parents, family members, or guardians were there to assist you with arranging the accommodations most appropriate for your diagnosis and helping you navigate IDEA and ADA requirements.

Once you leave high school however, as a person with a disability, you are covered under the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. If you want to be eligible for reasonable accommodations, this requires that you disclose your disability to your college or university or another covered institution.

Should you desire and need accommodations, it is up to you to share information about your disability with your institution.

While you are never obligated to disclose your disability to your college or university, according to the U.S. Department of Labor there are a five situations in which you might consider asking for disability accommodations at the collegiate level. Those can include:

  1. Prior to enrollment, if you happen to need accommodations during the application process.
  2. During your enrollment period, especially if you anticipate that you will need accommodations to complete your coursework.
  3. During your course of study, in case you discover that you need accommodations at any point during your course.
  4. After being diagnosed.
  5. Never. You may choose to not disclose your disability if no accommodations are needed, or if you have chosen to enlist private help in dealing with your individual needs.

In order to disclose your disability, determine the personal privacy boundaries you have concerning the information you choose to share with your university, and choose a time when you can thoughtfully and intentionally explain your struggles, strengths, and weaknesses with others. Also insure that you have proper documentation about your disability, types of documentation that have worked for you previously, and resources that you anticipate will help you to be successful in your collegiate studies.

For students with disabilities, the transition to collegiate life can be a challenging process. Knowing their full legal rights, however, students with disabilities should be able to access the accommodations necessary to have a successful and fulfilling college career.


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This post was updated April 18, 2018. It was originally published April 19, 2018.