Finding the best-fit college for a student with disabilities will take some work, but it is absolutely possible. Here are some words of advice if you know a young person with any kind of disability (physical, learning disabilities, mental health issues, etc.) who is considering higher education:
Research is key in finding the best-fit college for a student with disabilities
It is important for families (especially the student!) to do their due diligence to research schools starting in their child’s junior year to find good possible matches. Schools that are accommodating will have policies and procedures in place to assist students and they will have dedicated, knowledgeable staff to support these students. Some basics can be found on the ADA website.
Visit the schools and ask lots of questions of staff, faculty and current students. What kind of resources exist? Where are policies and procedures written? Can my child meet with staff to talk about their needs? What kind of documentation does the school need? Some campuses have great websites so you can do research ahead of time like this one for the University of Michigan.
Get your documents in order
It is always in the student’s best interest to have current and thorough documentation, especially in the case of learning disabilities that require extra time on tests or other similar accommodations. This testing is often expensive and takes a great deal of time. Families must plan accordingly so that the documentation is ready BEFORE the student even starts classes. Copies of all documentation should be sent to school prior to the student’s arrival, if possible, and go with the student on their first day on campus. Some comparable documentation for college may be found on the College Board site.
Advocate for yourself
Students need to be confident and willing to talk about their needs with staff and faculty on campus. It is NOT appropriate for parents to contact the school on their child’s behalf at every point that a situation arises. The student is always much better received if they handle the situations in a mature and thoughtful manner so it is up the parents to support the student without interfering. Students should also find good advocates on campus — this might be a staff member like an academic advisor, a residence staff member, someone in a dean’s office OR a faculty member. The student should keep asking around until they find someone who can listen and support them in a meaningful way. This is often a big life lesson for the student but will help them in the long run.
In my time on college campuses, I have seen many bright and talented students with disabilities feel frustrated and tense at first, until they found out how to advocate for themselves, how to talk about their needs and how to handle the situations in a mature manner. Many higher education institutions struggle with accommodations because of the changing needs and laws but do want to make sure their students thrive.