College 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. in the 2015-16 school year. 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 study of students enrolled for the first time in 2003-4, 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 disabled 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 disabled Americans 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.)

Students afflicted by any of these conditions 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 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 Google Lime Scholarship is offered each year to students with disabilities majoring in computer science or engineering or another computer-related field. The scholarship awards up to $10,000 for students in the U.S. or $5,000 for students in Canada. Students should be able to demonstrate leadership, a passion for technology, and have a record of excellent academic performance. Scholarship applicants will need:

  • Information regarding experience and education
  • A current resume
  • Unofficial transcripts
  • A letter of recommendation from a professor, advisor, or supervisor
  • Four essays showing a passion for computer science and technology

Winners will be invited to attend the annual Google Scholars' Retreat at the Googleplex campus in Mountain View, California, and may be considered for internship opportunities at Google. Applications are typically due in early December of each year.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities' Anne Ford Scholarship

The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) puts out the Anne Ford Scholarship, worth $2,500 per year for four years, for high school seniors with ADHD or specific learning disabilities. The award is intended for students who can demonstrate self-advocacy, are committed to higher education, are active in their school and community, have a record of academic achievement, and are seen as role models. To be eligible, students must be:

  • Graduating seniors attending a bachelor's degree program at a university beginning in the fall
  • Have a GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Provide information indicating financial need
  • Provide documentation of their disability
  • Be a U.S. citizen.

Applications open in the fall of each year, although exact dates may vary; semifinalists will be interviewed in March, and winners announced in the spring.

The Microsoft disAbility Scholarship

Microsoft's disAbility scholarship program is designed to empower students with disabilities and encourage them to achieve their dreams. The scholarship is worth up to $5,000 a year, renewable for four years, and is available to high school seniors. To qualify, students should must meet the following requirements:

  • Be a current high school senior with a documented disability, as recognized by the World Health Organization
  • Plan to attend a 2 or 4-year institution immediately after graduation and major in a field of engineering, business administration, computer science, or pre-law
  • Have a financial need
  • Have a passion for technology
  • Demonstrate leadership at school
  • Have a GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Be enrolled at least half-time

Applicants will need to send in a resume detailing extracurricular activities, work experience, and honors won, an unofficial transcript, three essays (two 500 word, one 250 word), and two letters of recommendation, with at least one being from a member of school faculty. Applications are due by March 1, 2020.

The Joseph James Morelli Legacy Foundation Scholarship

Founded in honor of Joseph James Morelli, a student with learning disabilities who tragically passed away at a young age, the Morelli Legacy Foundation aims to assist students with learning disabilities in achieving careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The value of the scholarship ranges from $500 to $2,500, which can be spent on tuition, books, testing, tutoring, assistive technologies, or other forms of accommodation. In order to be eligible, students must meet the following qualifications:

  • Be a high school student approaching graduation, or an undergraduate student enrolled in the fall
  • Be pursuing a degree in a STEM field
  • Have a demonstrated learning disability, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia

Applicants will need to provide their email address, a recommendation letter from a teacher or counselor, documentation proving their learning disability, and their most recent transcript. Applications open in January and close on March 13, 2020. Winners will be notified by the end of May and receive their funding over the summer.

The American Council of the Blind Scholarship Program

The American Council of the Blind (ACB) and the American Foundation for the Blind offer scholarships for blind students ranging in value from $2,000 to $7,500. To qualify for the scholarship, a student must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a graduating high school student planning to attend a university or technical college, an undergraduate student, or graduate student
  • Be legally blind
  • Have a GPA of 3.0 or higher
  • Be a full-time student, or part-time student working at least 32 hours a week
  • Be involved in their school or local community

Applicants will need to make an account and will be sent a link to the application via email. Applications generally open in November and run through February. Scholarship winners will attend the ACB's national conference in July.

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.


Evernote is an app designed for productivity that can be extremely helpful for individuals with ADHD, concentration issues, and memory issues. It offers note taking and organization features, and allows for a variety of fonts, colors, and highlighting to make those notes very easy to interpret.

It syncs across devices, allowing students to take notes on a laptop, tablet, or phone and access those notes from either. The app features both a free version and enhanced subscription service, and is available on both iOS and Android.

Dyslexia Keyboard

The Dyslexia Keyboard app is able to replace the standard keyboard on iPhones and iPads, and is designed to help those with dyslexia catch spelling errors, homophone mistakes, and grammatical issues. The Dyslexia Keyboard also uses predictive text to speed up the process of typing, and can provide audio feedback with a speech reading option. While the app is quite expensive, the value it can offer is worth considering. View it on the iOS App store.

Be My Eyes

Be My Eyes is an app designed to provide individuals with visual disabilities a way to access sighted volunteers who can assist them with certain tasks. Volunteers could help blind students read instructions or find a necessary tool. Be My Eyes is available for free on the iOS app store and Android.


JABTalk is an app designed to facilitate communication with individuals who have difficulties with speech, allowing phones and tablets to function as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices. It supports text-to-speech, has preloaded words associated with images, and provides physical feedback in the form of vibration on touch. It is only available on Android devices, and can be downloaded from the Play store.


Blindsquare is a GPS-app designed to help the blind and visually impaired navigate the world around them with ease. It uses voice commands and vibration to provide information about your current location and progress. Blindsquare has features for filters, to avoid information overload, and favorites, which can help you to find your way to a location again easily. It can also communicate with battery-powered beacons, which can provide information on rooms in the house or for navigating around campuses. Blindsquare is only available on iOS devices, and can be downloaded from the iOS app store.

Android Accessibility Suite

The Android Accessibility Suite, formerly known as Google Talkback, provides users of Android devices with a host of accessibility options, making smartphones more useful and usable for those with disabilities. It comes equipped with a screenreader, allows for use of switches and physical keyboards, and can identify most objects by pointing the phone's camera at them. While it may come preinstalled on some Android phones, it can also be downloaded from the Play store.

iPhone Accessibility Features

The accessibility features included in iPhones and other iOS devices are the counterpart to Android's Accessibility Suite. It includes voice controls, screenreaders, interfacing with hearing aids, reader settings to minimize on-screen distractions, and more. Accessibility features should be preinstalled as part of iOS.

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