Special Needs Students in College: How to Succeed With a Disability

Succeeding in College With a Disability Do you know your rights and responsibilities? With the right information, special needs students like you (or someone you care about) can absolutely succeed in college and start building a fulfilling future. In fact, many of today's universities, colleges, and trade schools emphasize the importance of an inclusive and accessible learning environment.

That means students who have disabilities can often find the support and services they need. And by completing a post-secondary program—whether it's for career preparation or personal enrichment—any student can gain the confidence and expertise to keep moving toward the life that he or she really wants. (Plus, don't forget: There are many great jobs for people with disabilities.)

This article describes the laws and resources that protect students with special needs who want to continue their education after high school. You will also find strategies for success that apply to all students, whether or not they have a disability. And you will learn about different types of disabilities and how specific accommodations for those disabilities can help students succeed.

A note about inclusive language and special education: School administrators often say "special needs." However, many college students with disabilities aren't really fans of that term. Language regarding disabilities is evolving as people become more aware of the power of words. So it's often OK to say "special needs" or "disability" as long as the emphasis is on the person first. (After all, people are much more than their abilities or disabilities.) For example, that could mean saying "people with disabilities" instead of "the disabled." In this article, we use "special needs" in some places because many educational services and policies use that term.


What Does It Mean to Be a Special Needs Student?

student meeting with counselorPart of understanding what makes a student "special needs" is remembering that people with disabilities are equal to the rest of us. They are part of our diverse society. And they deserve the same educational opportunities. Plus, most colleges aim to broaden the perspectives of all students, including by exposing them to ways of living or viewing the world that may be new to them. So, by accommodating students of different abilities and addressing their special needs, school administrators are often able to provide inclusive learning environments where all students can grow and learn from each other.

So, what is special needs education? The answer has shifted away from the old concept of special schools (sometimes called SPED schools) that focus exclusively on special education. Now, the idea is that, with appropriate accommodations, many students with disabilities can learn right alongside all other students.

In fact, special needs education is a broad term, with a meaning that changes a bit once a student finishes high school. Until high school graduation (or the age of 21, whichever comes first), the special educational needs of a student who has a disability are protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, the 13 categories of disabilities are:

  • Autism
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional disturbance
  • Hearing impairment
  • Intellectual disability
  • Multiple disabilities
  • Orthopedic impairment
  • Other health-related impairments
  • Specific learning disability (for example, dyslexia)
  • Speech or language impairment
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Visual impairment

However, IDEA doesn't apply once a student finishes high school. Instead, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) forbids excluding people with disabilities from participating equally in all federally funded activities, which includes attending most colleges. In addition, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act mandates that people who have a disability must be able to participate in any activity that receives federal funding (which most colleges do). Under Section 504 and the ADA, a disability is a mental or physical impairment that limits a person from performing major life activities.

That definition of disability is much broader than the IDEA definition, and it allows for more individual interpretation. So administering special education programs at the college level can be challenging, particularly when students don't communicate their individual needs. For example, some disabilities are visible to instructors, but many are not. And some disabilities prevent students from reading written materials, whereas others make it hard for students to attend lectures. In other words, it's difficult for colleges to predict all of the accommodations that may be needed in order to make campuses completely accessible.

That's why, to meet those needs, more emphasis is now being placed on the principles of universal design. Universal design aims to proactively ensure that a product, service, or environment can be used or accessed by anyone. But schools also must address any barriers to learning that individual students have.

Aside from federal laws, post-secondary schools have a lot of incentive to make sure that special education services and support are available. After all, one survey found that 22 percent of incoming first-year students in 2016 identified themselves as having at least one disability.1

Besides, students with disabilities can thrive. In fact, 41 percent of students with disabilities complete two-year college programs. In contrast, only 22 percent of their peers without a disability complete those same kinds of programs. (But at four-year colleges, things are different: 34 percent of students with a disability finish, compared to 51 percent of students without a disability.)2

Getting to graduation isn't always easy. Students with a disability are more likely to report feelings of anxiety and to have sought counseling. For example, more than 75 percent of students on the autism spectrum feel isolated at some time during college.3


Your Rights: What You Need to Know

student working on laptopLet's start by stating the obvious: College is different than high school. You might be rolling your eyes right now, but it's important to remember that your rights regarding any special needs in education change once you're a high school graduate. You have a lot more freedom in college to chart your own course. But that freedom also carries more responsibility.

Throughout the course of your education so far, you may have had an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Under IDEA, each student who meets the IDEA special education criteria (in the bulleted list above) must have an IEP.

An IEP is often very comprehensive and contains modifications and accommodations that can help you reach your educational goals. The IEP also follows you from elementary school through high school. But your IEP does not follow you after high school graduation, so you will not have an IEP in college. Because IDEA doesn't apply to post-secondary education, your college likely won't know what your IEP contained.

Instead, college administrators can work with you to develop a Section 504 plan that ensures you get access to everything you need. But you should be aware of some important differences between an IEP and a Section 504 plan:

  1. The Section 504 plan is your responsibility. You might not feel like an adult yet, but once you turn 18, you're an adult in the eyes of the law. So your school must work with you, not your parents. In fact, the school might not communicate with your parents at all. (Some parents find this hard to deal with. You can help by keeping the lines of communication open. And if you would rather have a parent more involved, most colleges have a waiver you can sign that permits the college to share information.) In addition, high school teachers often work with school counselors to make sure students are on track. But college professors don't typically talk with campus counselors or the office of disability services. So it's up to you to pull it all together. That might sound daunting, but it's also an exciting step toward independence. You're in charge of your own learning now.
  2. You have to make the first move. School administrators can't help you deal with a disability if they don't know it exists. You have to let them know about any help you need. So as early as possible, contact the office in charge of disability services. This office can have several possible names, such as ADA coordinator, Section 504 administrator, or disability services office. The website for your school can help you find out who to contact. If you're not able to find info, contact the registrar's office or main administration office and ask who you should talk to.

    The disability services office will probably require documentation of your disability from a medical professional. (Your high school IEP generally can't be used as documentation.) So be sure to research the particular documentation requirements at your school. Also, be aware that you are responsible for covering the costs of getting this documentation if you need anything like a doctor's certificate. And if you have a syllabus (an outline of what a course covers) from any class, bring it along.

    You and the disability services office can review the documentation together and create a plan for any necessary accommodations. Then, they will give you a letter to provide to your instructors. You're responsible for giving this letter to your teachers so that they know you need specific accommodations.

    It's a good idea to do all of this before you get deep into your courses. (You don't want to start talking about accommodations when you first experience a problem.)
  3. A Section 504 plan has restrictions. Under Section 504, a school must make "reasonable accommodations" for you. That means they can't restrict your participation in classes because of a disability. As a result, you can request accommodations that enable you to attend classes and perform at the same level as other students. But the school can't modify a course's content or change the curriculum for you. That means you can't request modifications.

    What's the difference? Consider this example: If you have dyslexia, you might not be able to finish an exam on time. You can request additional time for the exam. But you can't ask that the language in the exam be modified to make it easier to read. Simply put, accommodations are actions that "level the playing field" but don't change the standards of your courses. In other words, having a Section 504 plan doesn't mean that you're getting any form of special needs education. Rather, you are getting the same education as any other student, and you are held to the same standards.

As you can see, students often need to advocate for themselves in college. This may not feel natural to you at first. But don't feel embarrassed about it or ashamed of asking for help. Colleges aren't allowed to tell anyone that you've requested accommodations. So having accommodations in college shouldn't affect your future employment prospects. But it can help you enjoy college more and achieve better grades, which can both affect your future. So, in the long run, asking for help is worth it.

When you're applying to colleges, talk to the disability services office at each school and pay attention to how helpful they are. Although all colleges that receive federal funds must accommodate any needs related to a disability, some schools are easier to work with (and more responsive) than others. So make sure you have a good relationship with the disability services office.

Also, keep this in mind: You don't have to talk about your disability when you apply to college. In fact, schools are forbidden from asking any questions about disabilities. But you can still explain a bit about yours if you wish. For example, perhaps your high school grades weren't very strong until you found new ways to deal with your disability. You could talk about that in an essay. Remember: Schools can't discriminate against anyone because of a disability.


Tips for Success

It's impossible to provide a catch-all list of tips that apply to every student with a disability. After all, everyone is different. We each have our own strengths and weaknesses. But by following a few time-tested tips that apply to all kinds of students, you can greatly improve your chances of reaping awesome benefits from your college education.

Here's the most important tip: You have a lot to offer. You deserve to be on campus as much as any other student. Plus, many colleges offer a wealth of support services for disabled students in order to help them succeed. So don't be afraid to ask for help—that's their job!

A good starting point is to find out whether, in addition to a disability services center, your campus has any of the following support services:

student working with teacher in class
  • Assistive technology center. From hardware devices to computer software, having the right tools can make all the difference in your college experience. Assistive technology centers can provide training and information on the available technology for students with disabilities.
  • Writing center. If you need writing help or advice (for example, with an essay), staff at a writing center can guide you.
  • Tutoring resources. Often provided by peers or more senior students, tutoring is a good way to review materials and get extra academic support outside of class—at your own pace.
  • Counseling center. Many campus counseling centers offer workshops on skills for academic success as well as assistance with personal issues.

Of course, almost all students sometimes struggle with the increased responsibility and heavier course load of college. But for many students who are dealing with disabilities, the transition can be especially challenging. Staying organized can make a big difference. And the following tips can help make the college transition easier for any student:

1. Stay on top of your deadlines.

In high school, teachers are more likely to remind you to hand stuff in on time. In college, you're usually on your own. So take a proactive approach by reviewing every course syllabus as soon as you receive it. Then, mark all important dates in your planner or on your calendar. And if you are worried about meeting a particular deadline, talk to the instructor as early as possible, not at the last minute.

2. Respect your teachers.

Post-secondary teachers can seem intimidating, but they want you to succeed. Listen in class, ask questions for clarification, and don't be afraid to approach a professor during his or her office hours if you feel lost. College moves faster than high school, so you don't want to get too far behind. (It can be hard to catch up!) Even though your teachers aren't constantly monitoring you like they did in high school, try to always make it to class. You'll learn more. And professors are more likely to help the students they know are trying and showing up to class.

3. Minimize distractions.

You have a lot of freedom in college. That can feel intoxicating at first. But it can also distract you from your focus when you're trying to study. Set up a good routine right at the beginning in order to minimize distractions:

  • Find a quiet place if you can.
  • Consider turning off your phone.
  • Investigate programs like Pomodoro that track your productivity and offer short breaks as rewards.
  • Schedule regular times just to study.

4. Review your notes.

Skim your class notes right after class if you can. This will help your mind retain the material. Also, try writing out questions to yourself about what you're learning (i.e., creating little mini quizzes). That type of active review also helps your memory. Studying can be a bit of an acquired skill, so it might take a little time to find the techniques that work best for you. Again, don't be afraid to ask for help.

5. Don't overextend yourself.

Try not to do too much, and be realistic about how much you can really handle. Take a close look at your course load and make sure you won't be overwhelmed. College isn't a race, so if you start slowly with a reduced course load, that's OK. Talk to your academic advisor or the disability services office about what's right for you. For example, if you find that your coursework is hard to keep up with, it may be possible to take a reduced course load while keeping full-time status.

6. Stay healthy.

Developing good habits may seem like common sense, but it's easy to get away from a healthy lifestyle when you're in college. Try to get a solid eight hours of sleep each night, keep up with a fitness plan if you can, and be aware of the risks of alcohol. And if you take medication to manage your disability, do not make any changes without consulting with a doctor first.

7. Make time for friends and fun.

College is more than lectures and tests. It's also a great time to expand your social network, have some fun, and make new friends. Ask your disability services office about support groups for students with disabilities so that you can meet other students who are making the adjustment to college. But don't be afraid to step out of your comfort zone as well. Join clubs related to your hobbies—or to activities or subjects that you don't have experience in but want to learn more about.


Accommodations: Figuring Out What Works for You

Creating a good plan for college success requires knowing exactly what you need and then planning ahead. But how do you know what to ask for? Here's a good little self-examination to help you find out:

  • If you had an IEP in high school, which strategies really helped you?
  • Would any other steps have made your high school experience more manageable?
  • Can you explain exactly how your disability affects your learning? (Information is power, so you want to know as much as you can. If a parent has always managed this information for you, now is a good time to learn a bit more about yourself.)

Keep in mind that accommodations are designed to lessen the impact of a disability on your education. But the standards of a school or program—and the information you are taught—do not change.

Some disabilities may require specific accommodations and strategies. We've listed a few below. However, these are examples only. You should discuss your personal situation with the staff at your school's disability services office. Ultimately, you want to have a customized plan that fits your own needs, not a general plan that is assigned to you solely on the basis of your disability.

student studying with headphones on1. Autism spectrum disorders

About 17 percent of college-age people with autism enroll in a four-year college.3 And many of them do extremely well since college provides the intellectual stimulation that is often sought by students with autism. College can be frustrating for them, however, because it tests their social and life-management skills. Sometimes, students with autism request permission to leave class early or to work in smaller groups for group assignments in order to accommodate those stresses.

Many college programs for students with autism are available to help with the adjustment to post-secondary life. For example, some students on the autism spectrum enroll in summer camps that aim to prepare them for the transition from high school. And the best colleges for students with autism offer support groups or peer counseling to help them connect with others.

It's also worth checking out some good books on autism and college. Here are a few to start with:

2. Learning disabilities and ADHD

Learning disabilities are neurological problems that make it difficult to process information. A learning disability has a biological basis and is not the result of laziness or neglect. Although a learning disability can't be "cured," students with learning disabilities can still thrive if they adjust how they manage their learning. In fact, many people with learning disabilities are very intelligent. But learning disabilities can take many different forms. In general, some of the most prevalent types of learning disabilities are:

  • Dyslexia. The most common type of learning disability is dyslexia, which can present challenges in college because students are often expected to read very quickly. People with dyslexia have trouble processing the written word. Common accommodations for people with dyslexia include text-to-screen readers and audio recordings of textbooks, when available.
  • Dyscalculia. As with dyslexia, dyscalculia is a processing problem. People with dyscalculia find it difficult to do math or other numeric work. Dealing with dyscalculia in college can be tricky for students who major in engineering or other sciences that involve calculations. However, people with dyscalculia can request tools such as talking calculators or illustrated textbooks.
  • Dysgraphia. People with dysgraphia struggle with the physical act of writing, and they have difficulty with fine motor skills. Because they find it hard to put their thoughts down on paper, written assignments can be very frustrating. Possible accommodations include requesting extra time for exams or taking written exams on a computer or laptop.

On its own, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is not a learning disability. But up to 50 percent of children and teens with ADHD also have a learning disability.4 And sometimes a student's difficulty in school is attributed to ADHD when he or she actually has dyslexia (or vice versa).

People with ADHD often have difficulty focusing and paying attention. Some are hyperactive and impulsive, while others might seem distracted and daydream a lot. But ADHD can lead to a wide range of behaviors.

Managing ADHD in college often requires accommodations and self-advocacy. Some students who have ADHD say they feel self-conscious about approaching a college disability services office because they feel a stigma around their diagnosis or they don't feel that it's a real disability. After all, they may have managed fine in high school without any accommodations. However, college can be more demanding, requiring more organizational skills and greater focus.

Some accommodations that students with ADHD and college disability officers have found helpful include providing the ability to take exams in a quiet room and allowing for extended time on tests.

If you find it difficult to approach administrators for assistance, remember that accommodations aren't giving you an advantage over other students. Instead, they're allowing you to experience college without so many of the additional challenges posed by ADHD. College disability offices offer accommodations as equalizers, and staff are trained to know which types to recommend.

Here are a few books that have more information about navigating post-secondary education with a learning disability or ADHD:

3. Intellectual disabilities

A person with an intellectual disability (ID) has delays or impairments in intellectual or behavioral development or functioning. He or she may learn more slowly than other people but can still learn new skills. Two examples of intellectual disabilities are brain injuries and Down syndrome. Education options were very limited for students with ID in the past, but recent years have seen exciting developments.

People with ID can have a wide range of abilities. Some are able to enroll in traditional post-secondary programs if they get accommodations such as permission to take a reduced course load. Others benefit greatly from post-secondary programs that are specifically designed for people with ID, such as programs that teach life skills to students with Down syndrome. School programs of that nature allow students to experience college while acquiring greater confidence and skills for independent living. In fact, studies show that graduates of these programs have better health, higher employment rates, and more social relationships than people with ID who haven't attended post-secondary school.5

Think College has a good book about the options for students with ID:

4. Hearing impairments

Many technologies are available for students who are hard of hearing or deaf. College students with hearing impairments can ask for interpreters, captioning, or assistive listening devices in order to understand lecture content. They can also request that professors modify their teaching style as needed. (For example, they could ask that a professor always face the class when he or she talks.) In addition, students who live in residence may request things such as emergency alert devices that vibrate or shake and notification systems that let them know when someone knocks on a door.

Because the availability of assistive devices can be key to their success, students with hearing impairments should contact the disability services office at each school they're considering in order to get a sense of how helpful that office will be.

5. Visual impairments

New developments in assistive technology can make classes accessible to visually impaired students. And by the time most students have reached college, they often know which technology works best for them. Many students use a combination of available technologies. Similar to students with hearing impairments, a good relationship with the disability services office is essential.

Sometimes, professors don't want their lectures recorded. However, they're legally required to permit recording if doing so is necessary for you to learn. The disability office at your school can help you and a professor reach an agreement on the uses of recorded material if necessary.

Here's one example of a book geared toward students with visual impairments:

6. Physical disabilities

Physical disabilities can range from heart conditions to spinal cord injuries to multiple sclerosis and much more. This wide range means that physical disabilities that might require accommodations aren't always visible. For example, a student with a severe respiratory disease might tire easily and need adjustments to his or her schedule. He or she could request permission to enroll in classes earlier than other students in order to ensure a viable schedule.

Students with mobility challenges should make sure to visit campuses in person before enrolling in order to confirm that everything they need is accessible. Most schools now follow the principles of universal design, but nothing beats seeing a campus in person. When you plan your courses, make sure you'll have enough time to get from class to class. (This might also require scheduling-related accommodations.)

Here are two books to check out:


Support Animals on Campus

More and more students with disabilities are now bringing support and service animals to campus. But if you're considering having an animal with you in order to help you at school, you should know that these animals fall under two categories:

man with his support dog
  • A service animal (SA) is most often a dog that has been trained to do specific tasks for its owner. For example, a dog that guides an owner who can't see well could be an SA.
  • An emotional support animal (ESA) isn't necessarily trained to help its owner with physical acts. Instead, its presence provides comfort and emotional support. Almost any kind of animal can act as an ESA, and the animal doesn't need specific training. It's all about the emotional connection with the owner.

Under the ADA, campuses must allow SAs in classrooms and in residences. ESAs are a little different. Under the Fair Housing Act, an animal must be permitted in residence if the owner can provide documentation from a medical professional showing that the animal is necessary for its owner's well-being. But professors don't have to allow ESAs into their classrooms. (Legally, the issue of ESAs on campus is still kind of a gray area, so talk to college administrators before you start school if you want to bring an ESA with you.)


Take Control of Your Future

Special needs students no longer have to focus their post-secondary exploration on finding a SPED school. Many types of schools provide the necessary services and support, including career colleges and vocational schools. They can all prepare you for a fulfilling, in-demand career.

With so many options available, why not explore some of the schools near you? Start right now by entering your zip code into the search tool below!



1 Higher Education Research Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2016, website last visited on January 9, 2019.

2 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Special Education Research, The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities up to 8 Years After High School, website last visited on January 9, 2019.

3 Spectrum, "How colleges can prepare for students with autism," website last visited on January 9, 2019.

4 National Resource Center on ADHD, ADHD and Coexisting Disorders, website last visited on January 30, 2019.

5 Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation,"Does participation in higher education make a difference in life outcomes for students with intellectual disability?," website last visited on January 9, 2019.