Researching College Disabilities Accommodations
By Joanna Nesbit
For students who need accommodations for physical, learning, or emotional challenges, one of the most important student support services is the campus disabilities office (some schools use different names for this office).
The disabilities office helps you make sure the school provides you with the support necessary for you to be able to participate in the academic and campus life of a school. The federal government actually requires colleges to make “reasonable accommodations” to support students with disabilities in attending college.
Even so, colleges don’t provide the same services in the same way. In fact, they vary quite a bit. That’s why it’s important to research each campus’s services for your particular disability.
What the Disabilities Office May Help With
For students who are wheelchair users, support includes making sure buildings are accessible by wheelchair. For a student with visual impairments, it includes ensuring that physical spaces, course materials, and lectures are accessible to them (there are services such as live readers and materials in alternate formats that can provide access). For students with diagnosed learning disabilities, it might be extra time on tests.
The disabilities office usually works to coordinate accommodations with faculty and other campus offices. To receive accommodations, you must be able to show an established disability (a doctor or other professional must have done an evaluation and made this designation). However, the disabilities office doesn’t necessarily grant every request, which can often be surprising for families to learn.
Your New Responsibilities
The office will work with you, the relevant campus office, and maybe even your treating clinician to come up with a good and equitable plan for you. Unlike in high school, where a parent or caregiver may have helped you manage accommodations, students who are age 18 or older are legally responsible to manage the process themselves. This includes reaching out for support and registering with the disabilities office.
Even after you register, it’s still your job to access the support during the year. Most colleges expect students to play an active role in managing their accommodations, and for many students, it’s the first time they’ve handled it.
What to Look for in a Disabilities Office
If you know you need support or accommodations, find out whether the disabilities office has experience helping students with needs similar to yours. Some colleges go beyond the minimum provisions, while others may not even have a full disabilities office but instead just one person on staff who handles requests for support. You may be able to learn a lot from the school’s website. Here’s what to look for:
- Does the college have a dedicated disabilities office? Not all colleges use the word “disability,” so search online using words like “accessibility” or “academic resources.”
- Does the webpage for the disability services office clearly lay out the process for initiating a conversation about support?
- Does the office list its staff and their areas of expertise?
- Does the webpage list the kinds of challenges it has helped students with and examples of support?
- Does it list extra services (for example, weekly check-ins, tutoring, or executive-function assistance)?
If the information isn’t complete, call the office to get more information about the percentage of the student population they support and what sorts of needs the office helps with. The staff should be open to sharing this general information with you, your family, or a guidance counselor.
Even if you don’t currently need the disabilities office, you can still learn something about the campus’s approach to student support. The disabilities service is a window into administrative caring and campus culture.
To learn more about what to expect in college, check out the following resources:
- 7 Steps to College Success: A Pathway for Students with Disabilities (3rd edition) by Elizabeth C. Hamblet
- The K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences from the Princeton Review (updates frequently so look for the most recent edition)