Disclosing Disabilities in College

By Elizabeth C. Hamblet

From application through graduation, college students with disabilities have the choice to share their disability or not. Here’s a guide to help you make decisions about disclosing your disability and requesting accommodations in college.

When You Are Applying

You do not have to share your disability during the application process, and you should know that:

  • Colleges can’t ask you if you have a disability.
  • High school transcripts can’t say that students had an individualized education program (IEP) or 504 plan unless they’ve taken classes in which the curriculum was modified.
  • Your high school case manager will not send your IEP or 504 plan with your application.
  • If you take the SAT or ACT with accommodations, your score report won’t say you did.
  • There are only two ways a college might find out about your disability without you disclosing it: a well-meaning recommendation writer could mention it (but you can politely ask them not to) or, if you attend a high school that specifically serves students with disabilities, the school profile that gets sent along with your transcript will likely say what the school does (so you may want to ask to see the profile so you know what it says.)

Once You Enroll

You will continue to have a lot of control over your disability-related information and other information related to your college attendance.

If you’re not interested in receiving accommodations through your college’s disability services office, you never need to let anyone know you have a disability. Colleges cannot force you to register with the disabilities office even if you disclosed your disability in your application.

If you want to receive accommodations, you will need to complete your college’s disability services registration process. It usually involves filling out an online form about your disability and what accommodations you need, and submitting your disability documentation. (Make sure to ask if you need accommodations to access and fill out the form.) The process may also require an intake meeting, where a disability services staff member may ask you some additional questions.

In Class

If you had an IEP or 504 in high school, some of your teachers and administrators may have known about your disability. Because the Family Educational Rights Privacy Act (FERPA) transfers educational decision-making to students when they turn 18, things are quite different at college. 

FERPA outlines who controls which people get to see students’ educational records: parents have control until a student turns 18. At 18, you are in charge of who has access to your educational records. If you turned 18 in high school, you probably learned about FERPA because, as a legal adult, you were responsible for signing your IEP or 504 plan. FERPA doesn’t specifically lay out how colleges have to handle students’ disability-related information, but colleges tend to treat the information very carefully.  

Colleges do not share with faculty or staff members which students are registered with disability services. If you are registered, the only people who need to know are those involved in providing your accommodations. That may mean specific professors or, in some cases, staff members in other offices or departments if you have accommodations related to dining, for example, or use of the fitness center.

If one or more of your professors needs to provide an accommodation for you, disability services will send them a message via email or a portal, or they may give you a physical letter to hand deliver to the professor. You will likely get to decide which professors get the notifications. If your accommodation is needed for math class but not history, for instance, you can choose to have only your math professor receive notification of your approved accommodations.

The accommodation notification is unlikely to go into detail about your disability. It will just state what specific accommodations have been approved for you. If a professor asks to know what your disability is, you aren’t required to share that information. If you decide to share some information and they want to know more, you are not required to go beyond what you’ve already said. Share only what you are comfortable with. 

Once you’ve established accommodations in your first term, many colleges don’t require you to do anything in subsequent terms to keep them except respond to any messages from disability services asking you to confirm that you still plan to use your accommodations. This may require something simple like responding to an email or logging in to an online system. Some colleges, however, require you to register again each year. If you need to change your accommodations to meet the demands of new classes, you can contact disability services to work with them on the updated accommodations you need.

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