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!

Finding the Right College to Support Your Special Needs

No two people learn the same way. For those who have learning styles or challenges that aren’t compatible with a traditional high school approach, finding a school that is a good match (or finding ways to make your current school better serve you) can be its own challenge. That’s what makes planning for college so exciting: It’s a perfect chance, and maybe the first one you’ve ever had, to choose the educational environment where you will thrive. 

Your success and happiness in college depends in great part on how well your college meets your needs. If you already have an IEP or 504 plan in high school, you probably have a good understanding of what those needs are. If you’ve never had formal diagnostic testing but just know there are things that could help you do better in college, pay attention to those. Whatever you need, there are colleges that can provide it. 

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