Navigating Your Rights as a Disabled Student in College

Posted October 17, 2014 by
Male college student in wheelchair at library

Male college student in wheelchair at library. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Many, very capable, students happen to have a disability. I have heard reports from students that the services they receive in college are helpful and adequate while others report being turned away or being met with an immense amount of confusion. If a student has a legitimate disability that is documented, they have the right to receive appropriate services in the USA. The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in the early 1990s so the system should be simple to navigate but, quite often, it is not.

If you or your adult child has a disability it is essential to know how to start, and successfully complete, the process of signing up for and documenting services before starting college.

ADA info:

1 – Before applying to college, investigate which colleges and universities are known for being accommodating and which are not. The information you are looking for will depend on your specific disability. If you need extra time to complete an exam or if you need to take your exams in a quiet room then search for the Disabled Students Department on the university website (the terms special services and extended services are also commonly used). Write down the names, numbers and emails of the people who work in these departments. Call them up ahead of time or make an appointment if you live locally. Disabled students don’t need to disclose their disability to any schools that they are applying to but it is a good idea to find out which colleges can provide appropriate services. For example, are students using a wheel chair guaranteed a dorm room on the first floor and are larger restroom stalls and showers available? Students suffering from clinical depression or anxiety may have access to psychological services on campus, but only if they exist.

2 – Document your diagnosis going back as far as you can. Most doctors will have an electronic version of your file so, if you have lost paperwork over time, call up the doctor and ask for a copy of your file. Keep a copy of all necessary documentation with you in a safe place and ask a family member to keep a record as well. Backup copies are a good idea in case pertinent information is needed for a time sensitive manner. For example, if the deadline to apply for extended testing for your final is Monday and today happens to be Friday.

3 – Make your experience in college a positive and supportive one. Many university campuses have a Disability Awareness Club. These clubs are comprised of both disabled students and students without disabilities who want to help out and raise awareness. Students have reported feeling a sense of belonging and support when they are part of these clubs. Disabled students may find that they are the first person with a disability that some of their classmates have ever met and, in some rare cases, the first disabled person their professor has ever met. Students with an ID (Invisible Disability) have reported membership in these clubs to be especially helpful as many people won’t know their fellow students experience a unique circumstance until they are told.

‘Disabled’ is not a four letter word, but if you don’t like the label, just choose another one.

4 – Talking to professors is an essential part of navigating the system at the university level. Students who have a learning disability should speak to their professors on the first day of class if not before. Sending an email will document that a student has attempted to contact the professor but most professors receive hundreds of emails a week and may not get to each one. Speaking to a professor in person is the best way to ensure that they know what your needs are and what you are entitled to.

Students at a small college may be one of thirty students in any given class, in which case the professor should remember who requires accommodation. However, many freshman level courses are held in a hall with over 300 students, in which case students will likely not be remembered from term to term. Make an appointment to chat during office hours. In this case, students will have the opportunity to discuss their situation with their professor as well as have the opportunity to answer any questions that the professor has. Students with a physical disability may need to request a room change to a class on the first floor or ensure that campus elevators are nearby and in good working condition. Students who require extended testing will need to give appropriate paperwork to each professor (which can be obtained from the campus disability office). Some students have a disability that is uncommon or not easily explainable. A 10-15 minute discussion with each professor can help alleviate confusion throughout the entire term.

5 – Keep a documentation file. It is important to keep a documentation file just in case something goes wrong. If you know that you applied for a service by the due date and you have adequate documentation, you have a paper trail of protection. Students who don’t keep an organized and dated documentation file will probably have a harder time obtaining any lost services.

6 – Locate a liaison. Some colleges will assign a liaison to disabled students to help them navigate the process of getting accommodations throughout the four years of undergrad. Other universities will have someone available to assist students and answer questions but it may be a different person each time. It is generally easier to speak to the same person during each visit so that students don’t have to explain their situation over and over again. Students who can’t find an official liaison through the school can look to student organizations, such as a Disability Awareness Club, to help them find adequate support. Some students may find an awesome professor that is willing to help them out. If none of these options work, disabled students can visit the ombudsman’s office and report that their services need to be improved.

Disabled students will very likely have a few extra challenges here and there but the college experience can and should be fun, engaging, and educational for each and every student on campus.

Robyn Scott has a BA from the University of California, Irvine and a MA from the University of Southampton, UK. She is a private tutor with TutorNerds LLC.

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