Navigating College with a Physical Disability

By Annie Tulkin

When you have a physical disability, such as a mobility or sensory impairment or chronic health issue, there are additional considerations when you’re looking at schools, such as physical accessibility, access to medical care and services, and available accommodations and modifications. Every college that receives money from the federal government is required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, but that looks different from campus to campus. 

Here’s what students with physical disabilities need to know to find a college that meets your needs.


Support in high school differs from support in college, because the laws that apply aren’t the same. 

Laws for K-12 Students 

  • The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applies to public Pre-K-12 schools, and provides for “free and appropriate public education and services” for students whose disability has an adverse impact on their education. An individualized education program (IEP) outlines the accommodations and services a student requires based on their needs and according to the provisions of IDEA. IEPs do not transfer to college. 
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act 1973 (commonly called “Section 504”) provides protection against discrimination on the basis of disability and applies to both high schools and colleges. Pre-K-12 students who receive accommodations under Section 504 may have a “504 plan,” which outlines which accommodations they receive. Section 504 applies to college, but the accommodations outlined in a student’s 504 plan from high school aren’t automatically applicable in college.

Laws for Colleges and Universities:

The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that colleges and universities provide “reasonable accommodations.” Section 504 requires colleges and universities that receive federal financial funds to make modifications or accommodations to ensure that educational programs are accessible “to the greatest extent possible” by all students. Both laws protect students from discrimination on the basis of disability. Personal aides and services, such as a paraeducator, personal care attendant, occupational therapy, and physical therapy, that some students have access to in high school are not provided under the ADA.

How to Access Accommodations for Physical Disabilities in College

During your college search, do these things for any college you are considering:

  • Check the school’s and disabilities office’s websites for:
    • The mission statement of disabilities services
    • Specific information for students with physical disabilities 
    • A campus map that indicates accessible routes and entrances 
    • Accessible transportation
    • Information on how to request accommodations and accessible housing
  • Connect with the office of disabilities services and ask these questions: 
    • Do they provide the specific accommodations you need (or comparable accommodations), and do they have other accommodations you may not have thought of? 
    • Are there current students with physical disabilities on campus? 
    • If so, can you be put in touch with any students who are willing to share their experiences of having a physical disability on that campus. First-person information can be really helpful.

The disabilities office staff are the people who will help you access the accommodations you need if you select that college, so it’s important that you feel comfortable and supported by them. If you don’t, it may be an indication that the school will not offer the experience you need. 

Consider Your Accommodation Needs

In college, you are responsible for talking to disability services about your need for accommodations or modifications. Some common modifications and accommodations include:

  • Physical accessibility
    • Classroom relocation
    • Central residence hall
    • Accessible transportation
  • Classroom
    • Extra time for assignments and exams
    • Notetaker
    • Record lectures
    • Accessible classroom furniture
    • Priority registration
    • Assistive technology 
  • Housing 
    • Residence hall location (central location and low- or ground-level floor)
    • Personal care attendant for students who need support with activities of daily living and independent living. If you will need a PCA to be able to live on campus or attend classes, this article may be helpful: How to Secure Housing and Manage PCA Services at College.
  • Recreation: 
    • Adaptive and inclusive sports
    • Accessible fitness facilities
    • Access to campus events such as speakers and concerts

Request Accommodations at College

Once you commit to a college, if you want to receive accommodations, you will need to reach out to the disability services office and follow their process for requesting them. The process typically requires you to provide documentation—ask the disabilities office for the guidelines—and meet with a counselor in the disabilities office. It’s a big shift from the K-12 setting, where your guardians may have played a large role in advocating on your behalf. In college, the expectation is that you will self-advocate. 

With planning and preparation, students with physical disabilities can be comfortable and successful in college. Researching colleges and doing up-front work can help ease the transition. 

Here are a number of other resources that can help:

Search Resource Center

Type your search term below
Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.