College & Career Guide for Students with Disabilities

College students with disabilities have rights that allow for specific accommodations to help them succeed in school. Learn about legal protections, scholarships, technologies, and other assistance available to students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities made up 19.4% of enrolled undergraduate students in the U.S. according to the most recent data release from the Department of Education (DoE). However, many of these students may be afraid to or not know how to advocate for themselves and obtain the assistance they need. Data on graduation rates for students with disabilities can be hard to come by, but based on a recent study by the DoE National Center of Education Statistics, only 54.2% had graduated with a bachelor's degree after six years. One possible reason for this low graduation rate is that only 35% of students with disabilities chose to disclose those disabilities to the college or university they attended, and only 24% chose to utilize accommodations. This guide is intended to help students with disabilities learn about their rights, the laws that protect them, and the resources available to help them see through their goal of obtaining higher education.

Rights of College Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities enrolled in college or university have certain rights that are recognized by law. These rights are enumerated in several different laws and cover topics like the right to an appropriate education, rights to privacy, and rights to reasonable accommodations to assist in their education. However, these laws also define 'disability' differently, which can make figuring out exactly what applies fairly complex.

Laws Protecting Students with Disabilities

There are three major laws which protect and define the rights of those with disabilities throughout the U.S. The first is the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which prevents discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Title II of the ADA mandates that public areas, including public schools and universities, cannot discriminate and must provide reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities. Title III covers private schools, requiring much the same.

The second law is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prevents any program or activity that receives federal funding from excluding individuals who are still qualified to participate. Since federal funding is quite pervasive, particularly through education, this applies to a huge variety of programs and institutions.

The third law is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that states identify and evaluate children with disabilities within their borders, guaranteeing them a 'free and appropriate education.' This law largely governs students in public schools and may have helped provide accessibility and accommodations that you utilized from elementary to high school.

There are also other laws that may be relevant to students with disabilities. The Assistive Technology Act exists to promote the use of and access to 'assistive technologies,' which range from wheelchairs to hearing aids to accessibility adaptations in public spaces, such as grab bars and ramps. The intention is to allow Americans with disabilities of all ages and at all stages of life to more fully participate in society. The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) protects the privacy of a student's educational records, providing rights to parents and students, once they turn 18. Students of age and their parents have the rights to access education records maintained by the schools they attend, the right to request changes to those records, the right to control whether records are disclosed (with consent), and the right to lodge complaints against a school should they violate the protections enshrined in FERPA.

If you believe that you are experiencing discrimination in violation of the above laws, there are measures you can take to preserve your rights. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) has information on the rights of protected classes and information on filing complaints. While students experiencing discrimination may have the option to file a grievance through internal complaint offices, they are not required to in order to file through the OCR. Complaints to the OCR can be filed through an online form, mailed forms, or email, and should include as much information as possible about the discriminated party, the incidents of discrimination, and where and when they took place. Complaints can be submitted by witnesses or individuals acting on behalf of someone who's been discriminated against, but must be submitted within 180 days of the last act of discrimination.

For additional assistance when experiencing discrimination, consider consulting the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), a nonprofit organization established to advocate for the federal protection of Americans with disabilities. NDRN was created by the U.S. Congress to act on behalf of those with disabilities, and the organization is active in all U.S. states and territories. The NDRN places education at a high priority and is quick to challenge legal changes that may impact those with disabilities negatively.

What Qualifies as a Disability

Disabilities are defined in two different ways, depending on which law is most relevant to the situation. IDEA, which primarily deals with public education from elementary through secondary school, applies to students who have been diagnosed with one of 13 particular conditions. A 'child with a disability' as recognized by IDEA has one or more of the following conditions:

  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Hearing impairments (including deafness)
  • Speech or language impairments
  • Visual impairments (including blindness)
  • Serious emotional disturbance
  • Orthopedic impairments
  • Autism
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Other health impairments
  • Specific learning disabilities (dyslexia, developmental aphasia, etc.)

These students are required to be provided with a transition plan to help them move from grade school to post-secondary institutions, and this may impact eligibility for accommodations and services. Once a student enrolls in a post-secondary institution, they are no longer protected by IDEA, and instead will fall under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Section 504 and the ADA both define disabilities in a similar way. Rather than having a list of conditions, an individual with a disability is defined as anyone who has a physical or mental impairment that affects major life activities, has documentation proving such, and would generally be regarded as impaired by others. Both the ADA and Section 504 protect students from discrimination, both during the admissions process and while attending, although students who need accommodations are responsible for identifying themselves to the school's office of disability services.

Learning Disabilities

Learning disabilities are conditions that make it difficult for a student to participate in a normal classroom setting and are the most common type of disability among students at post-secondary institutions. They are not indicative of low intelligence or a lack of drive and are generally diagnosed when a student struggles with particular areas over a long period of time. Disorders such as dyslexia (difficulties reading), dyscalculia (difficulties with math), and dysgraphia (difficulties with writing) are among the most common learning disabilities, and are usually recognized at a young age. Students with learning disabilities might require accommodations in the form of policy changes, such as extra time on tests or help with taking notes. Other learning disabilities include language processing disorders, which make speech difficult to comprehend, and non-verbal learning disorders, which involve issues with visual-spatial tasks, such as drawing or reading clocks.

Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities

Intellectual and developmental disabilities are those that affect a variety of systems in the body in a negative way and are usually present from birth. Intellectual disabilities cause difficulty with reasoning, problem solving, and learning, and/or struggles with social and life skills. Developmental disabilities can be intellectual or physical, or both, and cause issues with the normal course of development in various aspects of the body, such as the nervous system or metabolism. Again, individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities are not always of low intelligence; a person with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), for example, may be of average or even above average intelligence. One of the most common intellectual disabilities is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, which affects about 24% of students with disabilities in college. Individuals with ADHD have difficult focusing on tasks or experience poor impulse control.

Intellectual and developmental disabilities can also affect memory, particularly working memory, that helps a person keep track of new information that will be used shortly, such as in an extensive math problem. Metabolic diseases, such as phenylketonuria or hypothyroidism, can cause intellectual and developmental disabilities as well, if not adequately treated at an early age. Another possible cause of intellectual disabilities is a degenerative disorder, although many of these will not show symptoms until middle age. Psychological and psychiatric disabilities, such as depression, anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and eating disorders are also sometimes considered part of this umbrella. Individuals with psychiatric disabilities may need accommodations in the form of extra time on tests, or special conditions for class participation.

Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities are those conditions which affect the functioning of aspects of the body, such as blindness, deafness, and missing or limited use of limbs, among other conditions. A physical disability can be present alongside an intellectual, developmental, or learning disability, or may exist on its own. Physical disabilities can be congenital, such as spina bifida or cerebral palsy, or acquired later in life from injury or infection. Some conditions can go through periods of activity and remission, as is the case with multiple sclerosis, which impact the severity of impairment. Physical disabilities can have a wide range of impairment, from low severity, such as being quick to exhaustion, to more severe, such as those conditions which restrict an individual's ability to move unaided. Conditions that affect coordination, such as dyspraxia, or executive functioning, which involves planning, organization, and inhibitions, can also fall under the category of physical disabilities if they impact an individual's ability to move and operate in the world.

Services for Students with Disabilities

Students who choose to disclose their disabilities to a post-secondary institution in which they're enrolled may be able to obtain special services that can assist them in their classes. These services may be modifications to existing policies, assistive technologies that can help compensate for disabilities, special housing accommodations, modified testing procedures, and vocational rehabilitation. The exact services available can vary by institution, so consult with your college's office of disability services to find out what your options are.

Accommodations & Modifications for Students with Disabilities

Accommodations and modifications are made in a number of different ways, which can be general or specific. General accommodations and modifications exist to improve accessibility, for example having ramps or elevators alongside stairs, or access windows and desks at a height that can be reached from a seated position. These are independent of any particular student's need and are constructed in accordance with the ADA. Specific accommodations and modifications are done to aid a particular student in a certain way. Students may receive accommodations that allow them to participate in the regular classroom environment, such as note-taking aides or sign language interpreters, receiving or turning in assignments in a different format (i.e. electronic), or assistance in group projects.

Modifications are exceptions and changes to the standard rules to make things more accessible for students with disabilities. Modifications could include allowing a service animal, providing alternative tests or testing environments, adjusted attendance policies, or allowing smaller class loads.

Assistive Technology for Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities may benefit from the use of assistive technology devices, of which there exist a variety of devices suitable for different disabilities. Included within the realm of assistive technology are devices like wheelchairs and canes, which allow for increased mobility. Those who have a visual disability may require a screen enlarging device or software that can read text to them. Students who have learning disabilities may be allowed to use calculators, spellchecking software, or audio recording devices to allow them to listen to the lecture again. Students who are hard of hearing can benefit from assistive listening devices, and deaf students may be able to utilize captioning software. Individuals who experience difficulty speaking can utilize voice synthesizer programs.

Depending on the nature of the assistive technology you need, you may be able to make use of resources at the college or university or be allowed to bring in your own assistive technology. Wheelchairs and canes, for example, are not likely to be provided. To find out what assistive technology you may be able to obtain from your university, contact your school's office of disability services.

Testing Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Testing accommodations for students with disabilities can be made in a number of ways. The most common accommodations are fairly small, such as extra time or extra breaks on tests, or slight modifications to the tests themselves, such as large print versions. Students can also be allowed to take their tests in different locations to minimize distractions. Alternate test forms are sometimes an option as well; a visually impaired student may need a test in braille, or an orally administered exam may be written for a student with a hearing disability. A student with difficulties writing may be allowed to use a computer to type answers. Some students may have disabilities that require smaller, more frequent tests rather than major mid-term or final exams, or otherwise have a completely different type of exam if the standard form of the test would be too difficult. Tests can also be split across multiple days, if possible.

In order to receive testing accommodations, it will be necessary to disclose the nature of your disability, and you may need to explain how the testing accommodations will assist in your education. Students, professors, and the school's office of disability services will work together to determine what the most reasonable accommodations that can be provided on a case-by-case basis.

Housing Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities who reside on campus may also receive more accessible accommodations. A student in a wheelchair, for example, may be allowed to have a room on the first floor or in a building with an elevator. They may also be granted single-occupancy rooms, rather than sharing a dormitory, and have bathrooms equipped with accessibility features, such as grab bars and larger doorways. Students with service animals may also be able to get exceptions that allow their service animal to live on campus as well. Housing accommodations can also go beyond things that are used daily, such as special flashing alarm systems to alert hard-of-hearing students to emergency situations. Students with disabilities may also be granted special exceptions relating to mandatory on-campus residency requirements and be allowed to reside off-campus, if the university is unable to accommodate.

Special accommodations relating to food, such as on-campus dining hall services, may also fall into this category. Students with dietary restrictions or metabolic disabilities may need to contact dining hall services to ensure that food that can meet their needs are available to them. While each school will have its own deadlines that must be met to ensure accommodations, do not be afraid to consult with the office of disability services for help with resolving these issues.

Vocational Rehabilitation Services for Students with Disabilities

Vocational rehabilitation services exist in each state for the purpose of helping individuals with disabilities enter the workforce. For students, vocational rehabilitation services can provide assistance with work-study jobs, on-campus employment, or finding summer jobs while school is out of session. They can also provide services such as job placement assistance, job readiness training, training with the use of assistive technologies, free or loaned assistive technology devices, and more. As part of an evaluation of the employment prospects of an individual with a disability, vocational rehabilitation departments may assist those individuals in obtaining the necessary education to reach a career goal. Vocational rehabilitation services can also assist in the transition from school to the workplace, helping students adapt to the expectations and responsibilities they may face there.

Students who are leaving high school may be able to receive help getting in touch with vocational rehabilitation services through their guidance counselors. The rules for applying for vocational rehabilitation will vary from state to state. The process generally involves determining eligibility, assessing an individual's needs, creating a plan to help the individual with disabilities find employment, implementing that plan and supporting the individual throughout the implementation. Often, for students with disabilities to receive funding from vocational rehabilitation offices, they must be able to go through all standard sources of funding, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Signing up with vocational rehabilitation services is free, and there are protections in place to prevent individuals receiving social security disability benefits from losing their benefits while attempting to find employment.

Online Education for Students with Disabilities

For many students with disabilities, taking courses online can be quite beneficial. Online degrees and courses can be taken from home, which provides students with privacy and minimal distraction. Many students with disabilities find it easier to perform with the flexible scheduling of online courses, since they do not have to rush to keep up with a lecture. They can take breaks as needed and perform coursework when they feel they are at their best rather than at a particular time. Using their own computers at home, students will also have easy access to features, such as screen reading software or the ability to increase font size, which can help them to complete the course without disclosing their disability. Accommodations can still be made available in online classes, if desired; examples of accommodations online might include extended time on tests, longer deadlines, or on-screen or printed copies of notes and transcripts of video lessons. Students with disabilities who wish to receive accommodations in online courses will still need to reach out to their university's office of disability services and contact their professor regarding the specific accommodations.

List of Resources for Students with Disabilities

There are numerous resources available for students with disabilities. Financial aid services are willing to help students with disabilities find funding for college, and there are scholarship and grant opportunities which are specifically designed for students with disabilities. There are also apps and tools that can help students with disabilities keep up with their classes and assist them with getting through school. This list is not exhaustive, but it should provide a good starting point for students with disabilities to begin their own search for resources.

Scholarships & Grants for Students with Disabilities

Scholarships for students with disabilities may be available to any student with a documented disability, or specifically for students with certain conditions. Students may need to be majoring in particular areas in order to qualify for some scholarships. Students with disabilities may also eligible to apply for more general scholarships, based on merit, need, their race or ethnicity, or community service participation. Before applying for any scholarship, make sure that you meet all the requirements and expectations of the awarding organization.

Google Lime Scholarship
The National Center for Learning Disabilities' Anne Ford Scholarship
The Microsoft disAbility Scholarship
The Joseph James Morelli Legacy Foundation Scholarship
The American Council of the Blind Scholarship Program

Financial Aid for Students with Disabilities

All students, including those with disabilities, can utilize the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students with intellectual disabilities may be able to receive funding through programs like the Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and federal work-study programs, provided that they are part of a comprehensive transition and post-secondary program, maintain satisfactory academic progress, and meet the basic federal student aid eligibility requirements.

In order to apply for FAFSA, you'll need the following:

  • Your social security number (and your parents' social security numbers,if you are a dependent)
  • Your driver's license number (if you have one)
  • An alien registration number (if not a U.S. citizen)
  • Federal tax information for you, your spouse (if married) and/or parents (if dependent)
  • Records of any un-taxed income you and your parents gained
  • Details on other assets such as savings and investments.

Once the application is complete, the information you provide will be reviewed. After the review, you'll receive a report detailing what kinds of loans and grants you may be eligible for. The results of a FAFSA application can also be used to demonstrate financial need for need-based scholarships, in most circumstances.

As noted above, financial aid may also be available to students with disabilities through the state's Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. If a student with a disability applies through the vocational rehabilitation office, and the office determines that college would be beneficial to achieving career goals, then funds may be made available to a student towards reaching that goal. Contact the vocational rehabilitation office in your state for help devising a plan for employment that works for you.

Educational Apps for Students with Disabilities

In the age of smartphones, accessing applications that can help students with disabilities has never been easier. Some apps are free, while others require payment to use, either one-time or through subscriptions.

Dyslexia Keyboard
Be My Eyes
Android Accessibility Suite
iPhone Accessibility Features

Career Planning for Students with Disabilities

Individuals with disabilities can enter the workforce directly after high school or choose to earn a college degree as preparation for their career. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that just over 19% of all adults with disabilities participate in the workforce. Although there is no data available to show which of these individuals have a degree and what their earnings are, there is substantial data on the value of a college degree. BLS reported median weekly earnings for individuals as $712 (high school graduate, no degree), $1,173 (bachelor's degree), $1,401 (master's degree) and so on. Individuals who have disabilities can improve their career options and earnings by obtaining a college degree in their chosen field.

Laws & Accommodations for Employees

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed 30 years ago, individuals with disabilities have had equal access to employment and accommodations by law. The specific accommodations available to individuals with disabilities depends on each individual and their needs. The ADA requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities and forbids inequal treatment. Employers cannot give preference in the hiring process to those without disabilities or dismiss applicants with disabilities.

In addition, employers cannot treat employees different because they have a disability or have family members with disabilites. Employees with disabilities are also protected in other areas of employment, including earnings, benefits, training options, job promotions and more. More information about ADA and the rights of individuals, see the Disability Discrimination page provided by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Examples of Accommodations

As noted above, accommodations for individuals with disabilities vary by individual. Employers are required to provide reasonable accommodation, but what does that look like? Some examples of accommodations and why they might be used are listed below.

    • Accessible facilities - Employers will provide more accessible workspaces and worksites/entrances for people who have mobility, attention, and other disabilities.
    • Exceptions for dress code - Employers that have dress codes might make exceptions for employees who have medical conditions which are worsened by the required attire.
    • Mentoring - Employers may provide more mentoring for individuals who have learning, attention and other disabilities affecting their mental capabilities.

    Internship & Job Placement Programs for Students with Disabilities

    Internships help prepare students for careers in various industries and the work that they plan to do. This excellent opportunity gives them more credentials for their resumes. Additionally, an internship can give someone confidence in their work and help them to build a network of professional connections.

    Students with disabilities can find internship opportunities and resources through a variety of sources. The first place that students can look for internships is at their schools or student career offices. Schools may have more local and program-specific internship resources than national programs. However, students can also find countless internship and employment opportunities through national organizations that specifically focus on assisting people with disabilities. Although this list is far from comprehensive, some of the organizations that provide student internship and employment resources for those with disabilities are discussed below.

    disABLEDperson, Inc.
    Workforce Recruitment Program
    American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD)
    Lime Connect
    The National Business & Disability Council (NBDC)

    Career Counseling for Students with Disabilities

    As students prepare for graduation and the careers they are hoping to obtain, services such as career counseling can be invaluable. College can be challenging at times, and students may not think much about preparing for their careers until they have graduated. However, students who begin researching their careers before finishing their college programs will be more prepared for their jobs and might even have increased employment opportunities once the time comes.

    Just about every college provides services and resources for students relating to career preparation. These student career centers can be an essential tool for readying students for work. Career counselors can work with students to identify student interests and strengths and help students determine if their desired careers are suitable for them. For example, a student might pursue business with the intention of becoming a wealthy chief executive officer and find out, 10 years after graduation, that they are miserable in the business industry. Career counselors can help students avoid this type of outcome by assessing individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests as well as providing guidance and preparation for their targeted careers.

    Unions and Agencies for Workers with Disabilities

    Unions and agencies give employees several benefits, including networking, community, and advocacy. Unions are organizations composed of employees that help to ensure employees are receiving fair and proper treatment. This can include making sure appropriate safety measures are taken by employers, organization in the workplace and ensuring fair wages. Some of the unions and agencies that are available to individuals who work in certain industries or careers are discussed below.

    National Education Association (NEA)
    The Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA)
    Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA)
    American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

    Job Interview Advice for New Grads with Disabilities

    Getting ready for job interviews can be intimidating for any college graduate, and individuals with disabilities might experience even more anxiety about the experience. However, individuals with disabilities can help to prepare for interviews and make them more successful by following some of the tips listed below.

    1. Research
    2. Getting ready for the interview
    3. Making a strong first impression
    4. Speaking with an interviewer
    5. Discussing a disability
    6. What to do if asked about a disability in an interview