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So you are going to college!  College is an exciting experience for anybody, but when you are managing a disabling condition, it’s vital that you consider your school’s willingness to provide accommodations to you based upon your disability.

Accommodations research to help you decide where to go

Make sure you know your options!

If you are going to need accommodations in your studies, you will want to research that school’s willingness to provide those supports.   It is true that all public colleges and universities are legally required to provide services to students with disabilities, but the degree of thoughtfulness and consideration extended varies hugely. 

If a school has been noted by other students with disabilities as being poor in respecting those needs, you may want to seriously reconsider your options. Sites like this can help you evaluate if the college or university you wish to attend is actively investing in their students with disabilities.  

The more accommodations you need, the more vital it is to make sure that the school you attend will be respectful of you and your needs. The more needs you have due to your condition, the more painful it is each time your college fails to meet your needs. 

I strongly recommend doing your research on this, and focus in on your particular condition or symptoms – some schools are well-known for providing support to one particular disabled population.  As an example, Rochester Institute of Technology has programs designed for people who are deaf

The facility has ensured that on top of the usual supports for their students who can hear well, they also provide signals specifically for their deaf students – such as flashing lights during fire alarms.  You do not need to go to a school that focuses on your disabling condition(s) of course, but you should be aware that those are options.  

Good college does not equal good disability services

It’s a nice idea, but it simply isn’t true.

Many of the most competitive schools out there may not provide any more than the bare minimum where disability accommodations are concerned, and some schools with only halfway decent reputations can provide some of the best services possible for people with disabilities.

There are also a lot of colleges out there that simply don’t conform to most academic standards – and in some cases that nonconformity can really help students with certain disabilities, and other times it can make studying with other disabilities nearly impossible.

So what do you do?  You do your research and find options that will work with your particular limitations and skills.  The most important thing in your college search is that you find the college that is right for you!

The nightmare of poor student services: my sister’s experience

Often you will find indicators between when you apply or are accepted and when you actually start.  My younger sister has a TBI, which occurred at the beginning of her junior year of high school.

After graduating high school, she went to a local community college so she could have some college coursework under her belt before she tried to go out on her own and live on a college campus.  In her case, she had several considerations, including fatigue, dizziness, and needing extra time to process information.

She needed to have all of the textbooks and reading assignments enlarged so that it wouldn’t fatigue her as much, as well as some extra allowances and flexibility on due dates.  Her time at community college went well – she took minimal courses and spent most of her energy keeping up in her classes – she eventually graduated from the community college with a 4.0 GPA.

She has always been a very driven person, and so wanted to continue her studies.  That’s when she learned what can happen if you go to an excellent school with poor disability supports.

Being left alone to do work you can’t do is never a good experience.

The campus itself gave her a very hard time about the fact that she could not do a full-time course load, and her simply being allowed to stay in the dorms was a big fight between her(with my parents backing) and the college.  

Once she got there, it turned out that they had put her in a dorm where construction work was happening all year, which would be annoying for anybody.  One of her needs was to take naps in her dorm room during the day so she could handle attending class by resting in between activities.  

The school refused to allow her to switch dorms, telling her that she needed to stay in the building with her class.  The college organized many things by year, assuming all students would graduate in 4 years – which my sister was by no means certain to do, even with effectively entering as a sophomore due to community college.

Instead of providing her with the large print materials she needed, they gave her permission to use the enlargement copier. 

This meant that she needed to go in herself and spend the time and energy on making those copies.  The process itself, with the lights flashing and all the noises of the machine actually fatigued her more, making the process exhausting and counterproductive for her.  

Although she pointed out those issues, they were never effectively dealt with.  The attitude of the school appeared to be ‘our students are so excellent, they don’t need accommodations!’

What a difference good disability support services can make!

After two years of struggling with the college, she found a different school with a reputation for providing good disability services.  

While a student there, they not only gave her larger print material, but they often would literally rip apart her textbooks and rebind the enlarged material for her, so she could use it like a textbook – and they would often provide her with a second copy of the book so she could read any illustrations or diagrams in full color as intended.  

They talked to her professors and made sure that she had all of her assigned reading in large print well before her class, so she could actively participate in the class discussions.  The department sought to understand what her needs were, rather than making it possible for her needs to be fulfilled. She flourished there, and when she graduated, it was with both a bachelors and a master’s degree in her field of study!

Requesting services

With the right supports, challenges become much easier!

The college you attend will want proof that you need disability supports.  Once you have provided that to your program, and have agreed just what your accommodations are, it is generally your responsibility to confirm that each of your instructors has the requests and understands why.  Each program may do this slightly differently, but I can share my experiences.

When I was an undergraduate student I had a diagnosed fine motor disability, which made writing neatly a severe challenge, and the readability of my writing would quickly wane.

 I was able to get special permission to use a computer in class(this was the late 90’s and early 2000’s), not only for taking notes but also for any in-class exams that required a lot of writing.  

I also was permitted to take extra time on the exams(to give me time to print my typing out and generally to process information), and I would often end up taking my exams in a different room from my classmates.  

In graduate school, I was dealing with my Functional Neurological Disorder symptoms, which were much more challenging. My accommodations included the ability to take tests outside of the classroom and in an untimed environment(stress and anxiety increased my movement symptoms, which would keep me from being able to do any work for minutes at a time) and the ability to negotiate extensions on most assignments on an as-needed basis. 

Communicating with your professor

Before my classes started, I made sure to email my professors the accommodations letter student services wrote for me, and to give them the heads up that I have a movement disorder that may appear distracting. 

I made sure to stress that I would not need medical attention no matter how strange it looked. I also emphasized that I could communicate while symptomatic. 

Just talk to them!

If you have a condition that is only obvious at times(seizure disorders immediately come to mind), you also might want to give your professor a heads up with your accommodations form.  This reduces the risk of them getting an unexpected surprise, and greatly reduces the risk of your condition being treated inappropriately.  

I have learned over the years that people tend to mimic the behaviors of the leader when it comes to responding to unusual occurrences.  If during class I start rocking or shaking, my classmates may wonder a little about what’s happening, but they are highly unlikely to freak out or call 911 or any of the other frustrating responses I have had if the professor doesn’t react.  

I also usually go up after class to introduce myself, so that they can connect my face and voice with my email. 

It is very important to express these needs at the beginning of the semester, even if you think you might not need them.  This can help prevent misunderstandings or a feeling by the professor that you are lying or are abusing the privilege. 

If you end up not needing the supports, that’s great, but what you don’t want is to be at a really stressful point in the semester and have everything fall apart on you and try to get your accommodations then.  

You are proving yourself responsible by making these requests in advance – and you are giving the professor an opportunity to know you better and work with you to help you succeed in your classes.

Also, this lets you know at the start of the semester what the professor’s attitude towards disabilities is.  Forewarned is forearmed.

Conclusion: Going to college with a disability

You deserve to have a good college experience – and one of the best ways to ensure it when you have a disability is to make sure you are properly accommodated.

You want a school with a good reputation for student accommodations – the more accommodations you need, the more vital this is.  Whether your disability is physical, mental, or learning-related, you want a school that recognizes and can meet your needs.

Before you attend classes, you need to be set up with your school’s disabilities services office, and you also want to have your accommodations well-defined and negotiated with the department before classes start.  They can then support you if you have difficulty with an instructor.

With your professor, be sure to communicate your condition and needs as early as possible in the semester, and give them the opportunity to ask appropriate questions.

If you have a good rapport with them, asking for your accommodations if you need them will be much easier and be much more likely to be interpreted as taking responsibility rather than trying to avoid work or flaking out.

By taking care of yourself, finding the right school for you and communicating your needs well, you are much more likely to have a successful college career!

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  1. Legally a college only has to serve the accommodations listed on your 504 or IEP. If you don’t have either of these items they do not have to meet your accommodations.

    Giving you access to a copier for enlarging Isa fair accommodation, unless it was a document to be used immediately.
    **Section 504 mandates the provision of reasonable accommodations, which means that a school does not have to experience undue hardship to accommodate you. The accommodations that you receive in college under Section 504 may be different than those you received in high school under IDEA.

    1. Thank you for that clarification. My primary point, though, was about educational institutions actively choosing to help their students with additional needs vs. institutions that follow the letter of the law. It’s important when attending school to maximize your potential and supports, and so finding schools with reputations for going above and beyond to support their students with disabilities can greatly improve your college experience while managing your condition. It’s important to know the laws and defend your rights, but especially when dealing with processing, mental, or emotional conditions, every fight you don’t need to have substantially improves your experiences dramatically!

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