Can you go to school while on disability?

The question of attending school is an important one, as education is an important aspect of personal development.  

Students with disabilities who are under 21

Children are always expected to receive schooling, including children with disabilities.  Most children with disabilities have an Individualized Education Plan(IEP), which spells out parent and teacher expectations for the student over the course of the school year, taking their particular condition and its effects into account.  It’s vital for children with developmental delays or disabilities to have their individual abilities respected, and for the teacher to make sure that the student is participating to the fullest possible extent. Many children with disabilities are on SSI, and there are many supports out there for the parents of children with disabilities.

Continuing your education if long-term disabled

The first consideration is whether you are newly disabled or if you have been living with a disabling condition all or most of your life.  Those living long-term with disabling conditions can and should receive as much education as they wish, and generally, there is some funding available through your state’s vocational rehabilitation(link) program to assist you in paying for your education.

 If you are already covered by SSI, you are legally considered disabled and should be able to attend school without endangering your benefits.  You most likely will want to attend on a part-time basis in order to manage your condition while attending classes.  

Generally, Vocational Rehabilitation and other programs will provide financial assistance through your bachelor’s degree and/or for professional development or technical training courses – as long as you have a reasonable justification and plan for your attendance and employment afterward.

Continuing(or starting) your education as a recently disabled adult

Going to school with a disability can feel overwhelming

If your disabling condition is relatively new or if you are in the process of applying for disability coverage, your situation gets more tricky.

 Realistically, you need to think about your finances, both for attending school and about how you will survive(both financially and physically) while you are studying.  If you are applying for disability benefits, you may want to wait until you receive benefits to consider attending school.

Being a full-time student is generally seen as being equivalent to full-time employment, and can be used as an argument against eligibility for benefits.  

Studying on a part-time basis is a bit more of a gray area, but it could be used against you, especially considering how draining most new disabilities are, and the physical and emotional toll that being disabled can take on you as a new patient. Also, often people who are newly disabled have not yet recognized our limits or are still in the process of healing from whatever caused the disabling condition.  

My recommendation is that if you are applying for disability benefits, you most likely should not be attending school, as it may endanger your eligibility, and, in all honesty, you may not be ready yet, and might be better served to focus on understanding your new limits and adjusting to life with your condition.

 If you were in the midst of your studies, it may be different, especially if you take a semester or more off due to your condition.

Some programs have deadlines for how long you can spend working on your degree, or you may only be a course or two short. If you do return to school for this reason and are applying for disability benefits in any form, you may want to discuss your options with a lawyer.  

The last thing you want to do is have your studies prevent your long-term options.

Going back to school while on disability benefits

Once you have benefits, things are a little easier, and school may be a reasonable consideration.  If you do want to return to school, finances are a concern, but you most need to consider your health.  Applying for college or grad school is a big time, energy, and financial investment, so you want to do everything in your power to give yourself the best opportunity to succeed.   

If you have a mental health condition, do you have things stabilized? Have you found a medication that works? Do you believe you are enough better to manage four or more years of study and the stress that goes with it?

If your condition is physical, the considerations are similar.  Do you have the stamina to manage your studies? How likely are you to have pain, fatigue, or another form of flare occur while you are studying, and can you manage that flare while in school?  

No matter what your condition is, you are also much better served if your living situation is stable, as well as your health. If your desire is to go or return to school, it’s very important that you feel like your day-to-day existence is low-stress enough that you can handle your studies as well.

Considerations on where to go

On top of all of the usual college considerations, there are a couple of things that people without disabilities just don’t need to think about: consistent access to medical care and the school’s ability to make accommodations.  

On the medical care front, this may be a consideration that leaves you primarily considering places close to home.

If your condition requires regular medical care and frequent visits to specialists, you likely have had to spend a lot of effort creating your medical care network, and that isn’t something you need to go through again while attending school.  

For this reason, you will want to think carefully about a significant move for your education, and may want to either focus on opportunities that are closer to home or if you may want to move to a college or university at or near a hospital that has a very good reputation for managing your condition(especially if you have a rare or poorly understood condition).

The access to consistent and good medical care for your condition may not be on the standard list of college considerations, but as you already know you are living with a condition severe enough to affect your ability to work and study, you do need to make sure that you have a good plan for continuity of care.

Asking for Accommodations

All schools have requirements for accessibility.  This is both for the ability to physically get around campus, and for any accommodations you might need from your instructors, such as incompletes, time extensions on assignments, untimed tests, testing in a quieter space, or an assigned note-taker in class.

 How well the school provides the accommodations can vary tremendously! If you have options about what school you are going to attend, you will be best served by visiting the Disability Support Services office(sometimes also called student support services) of each of the schools you may attend.  

By law, they are required to make the accommodations possible, but in some cases means that you have access to a photocopier, while for other schools it means that at the beginning of the year you are given the large-print version of your textbook!  

Just make sure you know what to ask them for, what proof they need of your disability, and how they manage their accommodations.

Financial aid

There are some financial aid options, some of which are needs-based.  After my symptoms kicked in, I was able to get a lot of training in Geographic Information Systems(GIS – my desired field) effectively for free.  

I did need to go into my vocational rehab program, discuss my situation with them, mention my Ticket To Work, and explain why this would work when I could no longer work in my previous field, but once the wheels were in motion, each step was covered.  DVRS funded me taking a professional development certification program as well as additional courses in GIS. These courses helped me to find work in my chosen field(GIS).

However, they do not cover education beyond a bachelor’s degree, so when I decided to pursue my master’s degree, I used the federal loan program through FAFSA.  I graduated with a fair amount of debt from my studies, but am able to delay my payments until my earnings are higher.

Repayment of student loans

If you already had some college experience and have debts from that, or if you are looking ahead at potential debts, there are some programs that give you temporary relief.

Once you have your loan and have finished school, you typically get a six-month grace period before your loans are due in.  Before the grace period ends, you want to have your paperwork completed and turned in. You may choose to use an income-based repayment plan(IBR)  or if your situation qualifies you can also apply for a deferment or forbearance.  IBRs and related programs are something you can participate in annually for any length of time.  If you spend 25 years in one of these programs, the debt may be forgiven.

Be aware that that forgiven debt is viewed by the social security office as an asset for the year, so if you are on SSI or other need-based programs, that year your debt is forgiven may prevent you from getting any services for the year.  

Deferments and forbearances can only be used for a certain length of time(I believe about 3 years), so while you can use them, you may want to err on the side of IBR plans as those are always an option. You do want to remember though that forbearance is also an option if needed.

I have not gotten very far in paying down my college or graduate school debt.  Some years I have used the forbearance, and most years I have had my IBR calculated.  Some years, my IBR has been about $30/month, other years they tell me $0/month.  

I know that those loans are waiting for me, and I will need to repay them if I hit a certain income level, but I am uncertain if/when I will.  So for now, I just keep getting IBRs and hoping that the situation will eventually resolve.  In my case, the debt being forgiven would not affect my income since I am on SSDI which is not a financial need-based service.

Conclusion: Can I go to school while on disability?

Yes, you can.  There are a lot of things to consider, especially your health and stamina level, and the financial ramifications.  For people under 21 attending high school and below, they should have an Individualized Education Plan, which focuses on them getting the most possible out of their education experience given their own limitations.  

As an adult, Vocational Rehabilitation programs should help you fund your college or vocational education.   If you are in the process of applying for your disability coverage, you likely want to wait until after the support is awarded, and until you have a good handle on your condition and symptoms.  School is very stressful and challenging, so you want to have your day-to-day stresses as low as possible before you pursue your education.

You also will want to visit your college or university’s accommodations department before school starts to be sure that your accommodations will be made for your first days of class.  If you have options on schools, you likely want to research how good each school’s accommodations program is, as they vary hugely and how your accommodations are met can make or break your college or university experience.

If you decide to go beyond a bachelor’s degree, you will need to fund that yourself, but can still apply for funding through FAFSA.  You also can get any loans you do get deferred or set up an income-based repayment program to help manage your monthly expenses.

Going back to school can be a powerful way to build your experiences and your skill set and can lead to you being able to find your purpose, make more money working fewer hours, or eventually becoming financially independent.  If you know your body’s needs, strengths, and weaknesses, and stay within the income and expense rules that affect your benefits, going back to school can be an empowering experience that helps you regain confidence, learn new schools, and be better able to manage your future!  When you are ready and able, furthering your education can be one of the best and most powerful ways you invest in yourself, and can greatly help you improve your quality of life. If your condition and symptoms are relatively stabilized and you feel you have the stamina to manage it, I strongly encourage you to explore your education opportunities!

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