Searching for Colleges as a Student with Disabilities
Searching for Colleges as a Student with Disabilities
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Finding the perfect college is hard, especially when you have to make sure that your future school will accommodate your disability. Provided you are otherwise qualified to attend a school (based on your test scores, GPA, essays, and letters of recommendation, among other things), a school cannot reject your application on the basis of your disability; you are protected by the law. But is there anything extra to do to prepare for college as a student with disabilities, and where should you start looking?

Disclaimer: The information contained herein is for informational purposes only as a service to the public. It is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. The information contained in this website may or may not reflect the most current legal developments; accordingly, information on this website is not promised or guaranteed to be correct or complete and should not be considered an indication of future results. As legal advice must be tailored to the specific circumstances of each case, nothing provided herein should be used as a substitute for advice of competent counsel. In sum, the materials on this website do not constitute legal advice.

Most colleges require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Can I get accommodations on those tests?

Yes, but you must ask for accommodations well ahead of time.

The College Board runs the PSAT/NMSQT and the PSAT 10, the SAT, and SAT Subject Tests, so all requests for accommodations on any of those tests need to go through the College Board’s Services for Students with Disabilities. Students whose disabilities would limit their ability to take the test as given may be eligible for accommodations from the College Board. Disabilities must be documented and students must also submit proof that they need a particular accommodation. Instead of working directly with Services for Students with Disabilities, it is in your best interest to request College Board accommodations through your school; this will simplify the process. If you wish to submit a paper request yourself, you can submit your eligibility form and supporting documentation by:

  • Fax: 866-360-0114
  • Mail: P.O. Box 7504
    London, KY 40742

Once you’ve already received accommodations on one College Board test, you will not have to resubmit documentation to get accommodations on your next College Board exam. Accommodations can take seven weeks to process and approve or deny after all documentation is received; if the request cannot be approved based on the given documentation, the College Board may request more, after which final approval may take seven more weeks.

The ACT is run by an organization of the same name. Students may request accommodations at the time that they register for their ACT test, but the actual request must come from your school before the registration deadline; simply say that you will need accommodations at the time of registration and specify what type you will need. After registering, you will receive an email with further directions. Be prepared to send documentation of your disability.

What about accommodations for AP tests and IB classes and exams?

Advanced Placement tests are run by the College Board, so you may request accommodations the same way you would for the PSAT/NMSQT, the PSAT 10, the SAT, or SAT Subject Tests. If you’ve already received accommodations on one of the aforementioned tests, you do not need to request them again.

The International Baccalaureate Organization provides accommodations to students in IB classes with disabilities who require “inclusive assessment arrangements.” Their definition of disabilities is broad and includes: medical conditions; mental health disorders; physical disabilities; sensory difficulties; social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties; specific learning disabilities; and speech and/or communication disabilities. While accommodations cannot alter the standards of the programs or provide a student with an unfair advantage, students may request accommodations if they need support in either their IB classes or on their IB exams. Talk to your school’s IB coordinator to make arrangements and be ready to provide documentation of your disability and need for accommodations.

How do I find schools that are disability-friendly?

The school you pick should be one that can meet all of your needs, whether you need wheelchair-accessible housing or extra time on exams; however, if you expect accommodations to be made, you must disclose your disability to the school. The following list of questions is intended to provide you with a place to start your search, but once you’ve created a list of potential schools, you’ll need to do more research to tailor your list to ensure that the schools you choose to apply to are those where you’ll be fully accommodated and happy as a student. If you’re having trouble getting started, this list highlights 50 disability-friendly institutions.

  • Does the school’s website have a page dedicated to students with disabilities?
  • Is there a dedicated disability office?
  • What are the on-campus medical facilities like? Are there local specialists, pharmacies, and urgent care facilities available if the on-campus facilities aren’t enough?
  • Is there accessible housing?
  • Are academic buildings accessible?
  • Does the school offer financial aid specific to students with disabilities?
  • If the campus is large, are there shuttles that will bring students from one side of campus to the other? Are there shuttles that can take students to local businesses to perform errands?
  • Are there clubs and activities tailored to students with disabilities (e.g., wheelchair basketball, assisted swimming, etc.)?
  • Does the school have a program for disabled veterans?
  • Are there statistics about the graduation rate and retention rate of students with disabilities? Can you find statistics about the number of students who go on to find a job shortly after graduating?

Having narrowed down your list of schools to those that seem disability-friendly on paper, you should take some time to call or write to the disability office or dean of student at each school. If you expect accommodations, tell them what you hope to have and ask if they can make those accommodations. If you need to live on the first floor of a building unless it has elevator service, tell them. If you need lectures to be recorded so that you can listen to them again after the fact, ask if that is a possibility. Not all schools will be able to provide the exact accommodation that you need, but they are legally required to provide a reasonable and effective alternative. If you don’t like the response you get from the disability office, you may choose to cross that institution off of your list.

After talking to the disability office or the dean of students, consider reaching out to the office of admissions to learn more about their programs for incoming freshmen and prospective students. If you are able, making a campus visit and seeing for yourself how accessible dorm and academic buildings are will give you a better idea about the disability-friendliness of the structures on campus than just reading the information provided on the website. This will help you get a feel for the campus and other students as well, so you can decide if the school as a whole is a good match.

Once you have a complete list of disability-friendly schools that you are interested in and that match your needs and expectations, you’ll need to narrow it down further by which ones you can afford and where your grades, scores, and extracurricular activities are enough to get you admitted.

Are all buildings on campus accessible to individuals with disabilities?

Unfortunately, no. Many buildings that were constructed before the ADA was passed were not accessible to individuals with disabilities. However, regardless of their age, there are no public buildings that are exempt from the law. When new buildings are constructed or older buildings undergo renovations, the buildings must be brought into compliance with the ADA and made accessible to individuals with disabilities to the extent that it is structurally and financially possible.

Buildings that are privately owned and not open to the public (homes, for example) are not required to be ADA compliant. However, privately owned, publicly used buildings are. These include, but are not limited to, hotels, restaurants, bars, movie theaters, concert venues, sports venues, convention centers, shops, schools, colleges, gyms, museums, parks, zoos, gas stations, and doctor’s offices.

ADA regulations state four accessibility priorities when it comes to buildings:

  1. Parking and entry
  2. Access to goods and services
  3. Public restrooms
  4. Public utilities (phones, water fountains, etc.)

You have the right to be able to enter a building with ease, access what the building is offering (whether it’s a dorm, a cafeteria, or a classroom), and access the bathrooms and water fountains. If you are originally assigned a classroom where you do not get those four things, you can request that the school accommodate your disability. Typically, in such cases, your school will simply move the entire class to an accessible classroom in an accessible building instead of retrofitting the current building to make it accessible; this is completely legal. If you are living on campus, your housing will be treated the same way. While some dorms may not be accessible, if there are newer, accessible dorms, the housing office will assign you to them instead of starting construction on the nonaccessible buildings.

You also have the right to be able to access school activities, such as sporting events, performances, festivals, and job fairs; these events should be held in accessible common spaces. You will not have a problem with this in the overwhelming majority of postsecondary institutions, as the ADA has mandated equal access since 1990 and institutions have complied. The ADA received significant updates in 2010; colleges are required to have accessible recreation facilities, more accessible parking spaces, and more accessible entry points to buildings; plus, dorms are more stringently regulated. If you feel that you do not have equal access to all a college has to offer, reach out to the disability office.

How do I afford college as a student with a disability?

Your first step in receiving financial aid is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application takes in information about your (and your family’s) finances and calculates an expected family contribution, or, how much the government believes that you can pay out of pocket toward college tuition and fees. This information is then passed on to the schools to which you have applied or are planning to apply so that they can calculate your financial aid award. The FAFSA becomes available on October 1 each calendar year, so it is in your best interest to apply early. You must reapply for financial aid each year you are in college to keep receiving funds. You may receive three different types of federal financial aid:

  • Grants are sums of money that do not have to be repaid. Both Federal Pell Grants and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants are offered to students from low-income families who can demonstrate financial need. Other grants are available to students who are interested in pursuing a career in education or medicine, students who have had at least one parent die a combat-related death after September 11, 2001, and students who are currently or were formerly involved with the foster care system.
  • Loans are offered to students both with and without demonstrated financial need, and they must be repaid. Federal loans are always going to be a better deal than private loans, in part, because they are intended for and provide benefits specifically to students. While you are in school at least half-time you will not have to repay your loans; in fact, in most cases you won’t have to repay your loans until six or nine months after you graduate or decrease your enrollment. You are liable for the full sum of the loan, however, plus interest, so don’t accept more loans than are necessary.
  • Work-study offers students the chance to work part-time either for their school or for a nearby organization and earn at least federal minimum wage. Students offered work-study typically can demonstrate financial need, but often there are campus jobs left over for students who want a position. This money does not have to be repaid, since it is earned, and as such, it is not limited to being applied to tuition payments and instead can be used for any purpose.

Note: Students with intellectual disabilities who cannot attend a traditional postsecondary institution may receive federal funding in the form of Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, or Federal Work-Study if they have enrolled or been accepted by a comprehensive transition and postsecondary program (a program of higher education that is offered by an approved institution with the intention of supporting students with intellectual disabilities as they prepare for independent living and employment) and begin or continue to make sufficient academic progress. These students are not required to have a high school diploma or its equivalent to apply for federal financial aid. Clicking on a state on the map below will show schools that provide comprehensive transition and postsecondary programs approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Searching for Colleges as a Student with Disabilities Placeholder
Searching for Colleges as a Student with Disabilities

The federal government isn’t your only possible source of financial aid, however. You can (and should) also apply for private scholarships. This website provides a list of scholarships available to students with particular disabilities, including attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorders, hearing impairments, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, speech disorders, and visual disabilities. An internet search for “scholarships for students with” and your disability may turn up even more results. Keep in mind that no matter how small the award for a private scholarship, every little bit counts. Not to mention that some of the smaller awards don’t have quite as much competition.

Depending on where you live, the type of institution you are attending (public or private), and the program you wish to complete, you may qualify for state-based or regional financial aid. If you’re going to a public school in your home state, you may qualify for a reduced tuition rate automatically, and many states also have grant programs for in-state students. If a program isn’t offered in your home state, it may be offered at a school in the same region; you may be given reduced or in-state tuition despite attending an out-of-state school.

Your school could offer its own institutional scholarships. At some institutions, you will not have to complete a separate application because you will be automatically entered into consideration when you submit your application for federal financial aid. Other institutions will require that you complete and submit the CSS Profile. Unfortunately, the CSS Profile is not free, but it is required by hundreds of postsecondary institutions. Reach out to the admissions office or the financial aid office to find out whether you are required to submit any additional materials to be considered for institutional aid.

Based on where your parent or guardian works, you may be eligible for financial aid through their employer or the U.S. military. Financial aid through your parent’s employer is generally a long shot, but it never hurts to ask. Have your parent talk to an HR representative about possible financial aid opportunities. If you’re the child of a service member, you may be eligible for financial aid based on your status as a dependent.

Finally, if all other sources of financial aid fail to provide you with enough money to afford your tuition, consider turning to private loans. Remember, the interest rates for private loans are going to be higher than those distributed by the federal government and you may not be eligible for the same protections and benefits. Take out as much money as you can in federal loans before you switch over to the private sector.

What on-campus resources are there to support students with disabilities?

The resources available to students change between schools, but there are a few constants that you’ll find at most every college.

  • Disability office or dean of students: Not all schools have a dedicated disability office, but if they do, that office will provide an excellent resource for any questions related to accommodations, your rights, and available resources. If there is no dedicated office, you can reach out to your academic advisor or the dean of students about anything disability related. Even if they cannot personally help, they will know who you should contact. These are also the people you would want to talk to initially if you need to have a car on campus due to your disability.
  • Academic or tutoring center: If you find yourself struggling in any class, or if you want to ensure that you have a proper grasp on the material, reach out to your school’s academic or tutoring center. Other students typically staff these positions (math majors may help introductory math students; English majors may work in the writing center) and are available for appointments, often for free. You do not have to disclose your disability to sign up for tutoring or to have someone review papers that you’ve written, but if you require the use of accommodations during your appointment, you may find that it will go more smoothly if you briefly explain your needs to the person helping you.
  • Career center: The campus career center can help you practice interviewing, help you write your résumé, set you up with interviews, put you in touch with alumni in a particular field, and create a great LinkedIn profile. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to perform a job; you may take legal action if you feel that you were not hired on the basis of your disability. Job hunting may not be easy, but the career center will help you to as great an extent as is possible.
  • Your professors: If you’ve chosen to disclose your disability to the school, your professors will already be in the know; the disability office or dean of students will have reached out to make them aware of the situation. If you find yourself having trouble keeping up in class or struggling to understand the material, talk to your professor. Most will offer office hours once or twice a week when students are free to drop in to talk about anything. Express your concerns and ask for advice. Your professor may be able to offer you a standing meeting each week, or suggest that you sign up for tutoring hours.
  • Fellow students: Your friends are there to support you, but there may also be support groups for specific students, such as those with disabilities, those who are LGBT+, or those recovering from alcoholism. Reach out to the disability office or the campus health center to learn more about your options outside of professionals.
  • Health center: Campus health facilities should be the first stop if you’re feeling ill but know that it isn’t an emergency. Typically, a health center will be staffed by nurses and nurse practitioners, but there may also be staff doctors, depending on the size of your school. These are the people who can help with routine vaccinations, treatment for everyday illnesses like the flu or mono, and prescription refills. They will also be able to refer you out to specialists should the need arise. This is likely to be the cheapest option for your medical needs, especially if you participate in the student health insurance plan.
  • Mental health center: This may be a separate entity from the health center, or one and the same. If you ever find yourself in need of counseling services for any reason, from feeling down to wanting help tackling an eating disorder, the mental health clinic is an excellent resource. You do not have to have any sort of diagnosis to make an appointment and talk to someone. If it is an emergency or after hours, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or chat with an online representative.
  • Campus security: Should you ever feel endangered or find yourself in an emergency, call either 9-1-1 or campus security. Campus police may be armed and have the power to make arrests, like police officers, or they may act as more of a security force. Regardless, campus security officers are trained in first aid and CPR and will know what to do should you experience an emergency on campus. If you feel unsafe walking home alone, campus security may also provide you an escort. If you slip on the ice and break a bone, they can take you to the nearest hospital. They are there to help you.

Page last updated: 05/2019