A Quick Guide to Getting Disability Services in College

If you’ve been receiving accommodations through an IEP or 504 plan in high school, it’s a good idea to seek continued support in college. College is a big transition for everyone, and even if you haven’t felt the need to use your accommodations much in high school, you might find that they’re a huge help in your college years. Getting services in place early on is a smart, proactive way to set yourself up for academic and personal success. 

It’s important to understand that your IEP or 504 plan doesn’t “follow” you to college. The laws that protect K-12 students with disabilities no longer apply after you’ve graduated from high school. This doesn’t mean, however, that you have no legal rights to accommodations or that you can’t access support in college. 

College students who have disabilities are protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act and section 504 *, which states that educational institutions that receive federal funds or serve students who receive federal aid can’t discriminate against people based on their disabilities. Colleges do have certain legal responsibilities to their students with disabilities, but they are not accountable for providing and delivering support in the same way that K-12 institutions are. It’s up to you to be proactive and work with your college to get the help you need.

* Note: Section 504 is different from a 504 plan. Colleges may provide accommodations that will give you equal access to education, but they don’t create a plan for such accommodations that they are legally obligated to follow.

How Do I Get the Services I Need?

Start early (before you even get to campus). You can request accommodations at any point during college, but it makes things easier if everything is in place before you need help. If you wait until you find yourself struggling, seeking out help then will be just one more thing you’ve got to take care of and manage. Get the ball rolling over the summer before you leave for college or soon after you arrive at campus. Since colleges usually require current documentation of your disability, it’s also best to request services while the testing you received in high school is still recent.

Get in touch with the student services office (often called the Student Disability Office) at your college. Make connections with people in the office and get to know them so they can help you access the services that will support your success. There are many ways these folks can help, but to make the most of their support, you have to get to know them well enough that they understand your needs.

Provide documentation of your disability. Colleges aren’t obligated to identify and evaluate a student’s disabilities in the same way that K-12 schools are. You will need to give them current documentation such as a high school IEP or 504 or medical records to demonstrate your disability. 

Request reasonable accommodations. Under the ADA, colleges are legally obligated to respond to requests for accommodations that will provide you with “equal access” to education. It’s important that you are able to articulate the accommodations you need and explain how they will support your success. 

Obtain any specialized equipment on your own. Unlike high schools, colleges are not required to provide equipment or technology of any kind. The disability services team can, however, be a great resource to help you find what you need.

College is all about stepping into adult life and taking on new responsibilities, and it’s up to you to ask for and use accommodations. Once you are over 18, your parents aren’t actively involved in making this happen. Sure, they can give you advice and support, but when you work with the disability services office, they’ll expect you to manage your case on your own. 

You have rights as a college student with disabilities, and you owe it to yourself to get the support that will enable you to thrive. If you felt embarrassed about using accommodations in high school, it’s time to let that go! Don’t let your assumptions about what other people might think get in the way of your achievement. Be informed, be assertive, and be your own best advocate: it will pay off in your success!

Legal Housekeeping for College Students

There’s a lot to think about when you go off to college. In the scramble to take care of the big things — packing, shopping for dorm decor, negotiating travel logistics, trying not to have a nervous breakdown — it’s easy to forget some of the less exciting but nonetheless essential tasks…like signing advanced health care directives.

When you turn 18, you are legal adults, which means that your parents/guardians lose the legal authority to make decisions for you. They won’t legally be able to access your medical, academic or financial information or represent you in these areas. Should you have an accident or become otherwise incapacitated, they won’t be able to act on your behalf unless documentation is in place. They may not be even be able to get information from hospitals about your condition in the event of an emergency.

You’ll need the following if you’d like your parents/guardians to be able to continue supporting you with regard to medical and financial information and decisions: 


Durable Power of Attorney This document will able your parents/guardians to act of your behalf in legal and financial matters without you losing any ability to act on their own. It gives families the ability to do things such as pay bills, apply for loans, and access or transfer funds, which can be useful if you are studying abroad, sick or injured, or just overwhelmed with school work and in need of some help managing your affairs. This document can be drafted to become effective immediately upon signing and can be revoked at any time, as long as you aren’t under a disability. 


Advanced Health Care Directive If you have an accident or other health emergency and is incapacitated, this document gives your family the authority to make decisions on your behalf. It can also include information about your wishes regarding organ donation and end of life decisions. A HIPAA waiver will give your family access to your medical records so they are able to make informed decisions regarding care. 

You might also consider as a separate document an Advanced Directive for mental health care, which would enable your family to make decisions and direct care for you should you experience a mental disability and need your family to represent you. 

FERPA Release Parents/guardians are sometimes surprised to learn that they are not able to speak to colleges to discuss their adult child’s grades and academic progress. A FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) form must be signed for your family to access records and talk to colleges about you. The forms may be requested from colleges. 

While most families see the benefit of advanced health care directives and durable powers of attorney, the FERPA release can be tricky. Should students have privacy regarding their academic records and progress? Is it healthy/valuable for families to monitor adult children in this way? At what point do students become responsible for their own educations? 

While we all hope there will never be a need for our families to intervene on our behalf in a medical or legal situation, for many families, knowing that they have the ability to make decisions and direct care in an emergency is comforting. Clearly, whether or not to create these documents is a decision that should be made only after clear discussion and agreement between you and your family. As a young adult, your privacy is important to you (and might be a sticky subject with your family); strive to find a balance between assuring their ability to support you in serious situations and maintaining a comfortable level of control over your own life.  


Regardless of what you and your family decide, this is a worthwhile conversation about issues that all responsible adults should address. None of us can predict the future, and thorny situations and emergencies unfortunately do arise. Investing a small amount of time and energy now can enable your family to contribute to your well being in critical times, and by negotiating and navigating the process, you’ll be taking another important step on your path to adulthood.  

It’s Okay If You’re Not Okay

For many young people, the past nine months have been the most frightening, confusing, lonely, frustrating, sad, anxious and disappointing of their lives. Sure, the vaccine means there is finally an end in sight, and you can look forward with hope, but it’s hard not to think about all of the things (and maybe even people) you will never get back. For some of you, it’s still challenging to face each day, and to manage school and responsibilities as effectively as you did back in the Before Times. It can be even more difficult when the message you’re hearing from those around you is that you should be used to the situation by now, and you should just get on with life in this “new normal.” 

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College Application Anxiety? Take A Breath

Applying to college can be one of the most stressful experiences in a teen’s life. If you’re doing it in the middle of a pandemic (and possibly a natural disaster or two), you might be experiencing major anxiety this fall. While you probably can’t control the things that are causing your worries, through the practice of mindfulness, you can manage the way you handle them…and bring more calm and positivity to your life now and in the future. 

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The Problem With Prestige

It’s human nature to want to be “the best” sometimes, and to have other people look at our accomplishments with admiration. The desire for prestige can be especially prevalent when you’re thinking about college. It might feel really important to attend a college that is considered “elite” — one whose name people will recognize and whose exceptional reputation will make you proud. But sometimes, the desire to attend a prestigious college can complicate your college process — and your life. If you’re finding that anxiety about getting into a “big name” college is rising, it’s time to take a step back for some perspective…and to learn how to manage the pressure for prestige.

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The Gift of “I Don’t Know”

A big part of planning for college is focused on the future. What schools will I apply to? What will I major in? Who am I going to be when I “grow up”? At times, it might seem like everyone around you has answered these questions (and that you’re being plagued by adults who won’t stop asking them), and if it can be unsettling and even embarrassing if you haven’t yet.

But there is another way to look at the uncertainty you might experience when you’re planning for college: As a gift. As crazy as it may sound, that feeling of “I don’t know” can be a positive, and if you embrace it, it can benefit you not only on your journey to college, but throughout college and your future. What does “I don’t know” really mean? 

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