Resources to Help Students With Disabilities Succeed in College

Students with disabilities can enroll in the best colleges and earn competitive degrees. Explore helpful resources to make college for disabled students easier and more convenient. Use this guide to learn more about these resources, disability rights legislation, available scholarships and grants, and more.

Transitioning From High School to College

According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 14% of students enrolled in public schools identify as having one or more disabilities. Students with a disability may face greater challenges to completing high school, applying for college, and transitioning to college life.

One key factor in this struggle is that students may not be aware of their civil rights, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. For example, standardized testing and entrance exam conditions must include necessary accommodations for each student.

Institutions can’t discriminate against students with disabilities. This includes denying admission, identifying students with disabilities, or asking impermissible preadmission inquiries.

The transition can be stressful, but students with disabilities are fully capable of making the transition successfully. The process is made more convenient through disability rights legislation compliance, accommodations, and convenient student services.

Disability Rights Legislation

Federal, state, and local laws make college for disabled students more practical, safe, and convenient. Some students struggled to succeed without these laws, while others were completely denied from pursuing degree programs. Here is some key federal legislation for disability rights.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Section 504

As the first civil rights law for people with disabilities, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a landmark law with many significant features. It protects students with disabilities from discrimination. It also can deny federal financial assistance to programs that discriminate.

The Rehabilitation Act describes appropriate adjustments that need to be made for students, including housing accommodations and academic adjustments. This protection is for any program, public or private, which receives federal financial assistance.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, doesn’t just apply to schools for students with disabilities but is designed to protect Americans with disabilities in a wide range of areas. This law prohibits discrimination in public services, employment, and accommodations. While not specifically addressing students, the law covers many services that students access.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

Students are protected thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, by the U.S. Department of Education. IDEA is a special education law designed to promote inclusion in education for students until they turn 21 or graduate high school.

While not specifically tailored to higher education, the IDEA goal of implementing the least restrictive environment can be appropriate for college students. Many schools use similar goals and methods to create a successful learning environment for older students in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs.

Fair Housing Act

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968. Under this act, individuals with disabilities are protected from housing-related discrimination. Here are just a few examples of discrimination anyone with a disability be protected from:

  • Refuse to rent housing
  • Rent or sell housing at a different rate
  • Use different application or qualification standards
  • Harass or evict an individual or guest due to disability

This act covers a wide range of housing situations but is applicable to students. Colleges, local apartment complexes, and other housing providers must provide reasonable accommodations and avoid discriminating against anyone with a disability.

The Fair Housing Act also prohibits discrimination based on sex, religion, race, color, familial status, and national origin. It’s important for colleges to not only follow these regulations but also assist students in identifying ways to protect themselves from cases of discrimination.

Accommodations for Students With Disabilities in College

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 19.4% of undergraduate students had one or more disabilities in 2015-16. Disability rights legislation has specific definitions of a person with a disability. In order to qualify for accommodations for college students with disabilities, students may need to show proof that their personal situation applies. 

Wheelchair & Mobility Device Users

ADA requires public spaces to have spatial dimensions, ramps, and other modifications for an individual using a wheelchair or other mobility device to conveniently navigate the building. In higher education, this includes accommodations for classrooms, labs, dormitories, cafeterias, and other areas students need to access.


Individuals who are hard of hearing or have profound hearing loss, particularly if they have a hearing loss of 90 decibels or more, can expect alternative instruction through ASL or other forms of communication. Complete hearing loss affects individuals differently than partial hearing loss, but everyone in the hard of hearing community should receive the necessary support and encouragement to succeed in college.

Hearing Loss

Students with partial or total hearing loss can also qualify. Accommodations can include changing seats, wearing hearing devices, or receiving instruction through ASL or other forms of communication. Even students with partial hearing loss may need some additional assistance, so accommodations shouldn’t be limited to students with complete deafness.

Blindness & Visual Impairment

Accommodations for students who are blind or visually impaired should be tailored to their visual needs. A student must have vision that’s less than 20/200 to be considered legally blind, but individuals with color blindness and other visual impairments may also benefit from audio-based lectures and other accommodations.

Speech Disabilities

Students who are unable to speak or have other speech-related disabilities need additional ways to communicate in a classroom setting. Some accommodations include altering discussing requirements, but colleges can also help students with this particular disability learn how to effectively communicate with professors and classmates.

Speech disabilities include difficulties speaking as well as an inability to speak. Different levels and abilities of speech can require slightly different accommodations, but the same team of professionals and professional resources may be able to be tailored to individual student needs.

Cognitive Disabilities

Common cognitive disabilities include issues with concentration, motor skills, and memory. Students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, may also need assistance. Due to the varied nature of cognitive disabilities, this category of accommodations needs to be tailored to students’ personal needs.


Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, affects an estimated 2.5% of adults and 8.4% of children, according to the American Psychiatric Association. It can manifest itself in impulsive actions, inattentiveness, and hyperactivity, even among college students.

Common Disabled Student Services

Ever since the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and ADA passed in 1990, colleges and other institutions have found many creating and successful ways to help students with disabilities succeed. Here are some ways a college for disabled students can assist students.


Any college with on-campus housing must comply with the Fair Housing Act and provide reasonable accommodations for housing. These include wheelchair access, ability to live with an assistance animal, and other accommodations.

Colleges must provide reasonable housing accommodations, such as moving a student to the first floor. Students need to communicate their housing needs with college staff and work together to find suitable arrangements.


Reasonable accommodations don’t just apply to housing. Students should also be able to expect similar accommodations to access classrooms, cafeterias, event centers, and other campus buildings.

Because accessibility can take many different forms, colleges must be flexible in their accommodations. Wheelchair and mobility assistance are common features, but there are others. Announcements and important signs should be available for anyone with hearing impairment or visual disabilities, for example.

Career Search

Career opportunities and the ability to search for careers can vary depending on the particular disability. A critical part of the college experience is assistance searching for a career in a student’s chosen field, so colleges must provide accommodations to assist every student with career search opportunities.

Accommodations could include audio-based resources, exclusive events, internships, career coaching, and other services. These opportunities can vary depending on specific student needs.

Exam Accommodations

Examination accommodations for college students with disabilities help them demonstrate their abilities and succeed in a college setting. There are a few key strategies that can be chosen depending on the particular student’s needs.

An accommodation for a student with ADHD, for example, may be to take a standardized test or quiz in a separate room. Another common accommodation is to have a test read aloud to a student.

Course Modifications

While schools for students with disabilities don’t have to make major modifications that will change the nature of the course or the essential program requirements, there are some minor modifications that can assist students. Colleges provide options for modifying non-essential aspects, like alternate books, rewording questions, or using alternative texts.

Time Allowances

Some students, particularly with learning disabilities, may require additional time to take a quiz or perform another task. When possible, time allowances may be extended for students with particular needs. Additional time is required, for example, if test questions are being read aloud to a student with visual impairment.

Registration and Books

Another accommodation that may be available for college students is assistance registering for classes and purchasing textbooks. These tasks require time, concentration, and sometimes navigating stressful, busy situations.

A student with a disability may be able to receive priority registration or other assistance. For some students, online registration or book buying may be a more suitable method than performing these tasks in person.

Sign Language

All colleges should be able to provide sign language interpretation for students needing this service. Students who are hard of hearing or have total hearing loss, must be able to receive instruction and communicate with college faculty using sign language. An interpreter makes this possible.

Note Taking / Computer Aids / Recordings

Some students require listening devices, while others are unable to take notes effectively due to a physical or learning disability. These areas of assistance vary with the student. The college and the student should work together to find a reasonable accommodation that doesn’t significantly alter the course expectations.

Tech Assistance

Schools for students with disabilities have used online classes, in-classroom apps, and other accommodations to create accessible learning experiences. Some tech assistance helps students access technological resources, while others use technology to help students participate in discussions, listen to lectures, and perform other required tasks.

Financial Aids, Grants & Scholarships for Students With Disabilities

The cost of college has continued to rise, on average, for all institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The 2018-19 academic year, for example, had an average private nonprofit institution tuition cost of around $47,400, while public institution costs were about $18,400.

Types of Financial Aids

In order for college for disabled students to be affordable and accessible, students must have access to financial aid opportunities. These types of financial aid include grants and scholarships.

Some financial aid is based on the financial needs of the student and family. Others are offered specifically for students with a particular disability.

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is the first step in identifying government financial aid available for students. This application process calculates available government loans and grants. These scholarships generally offer very competitive interest rates compared with alternative loan options.


A grant is similar to a scholarship in that it doesn’t need to be paid back. Unlike loans, grants are aid provided to cover part or all of college costs without worrying about interest rates, minimum payments or other commitments.

The most common grant program is the Federal Pell Grant, given as a need-based grant to students with or without disabilities. Apply for this grant by filing a FAFSA application.

Some grants are only offered to students with disabilities, while others are available to any students with financial needs. Unlike scholarships, grants are awarded based on financial need rather than academic or extracurricular merit.


Scholarships are typically merit-based. They may require an application essay or only require a short application with some personal information.

Consider one of these scholarships for a student with one or more disabilities:

  • AmeriGlide Achiever Scholarship: Scholarship recipients receive $2,500 and a swimming pool lift for their school by filling out the application and answering an essay question.
  • Organization for Autism Research: This scholarship awards $3,000 to students with autism pursuing full-time study in an undergraduate or vocational-technical training program.
  • Sertoma Hard of Hearing or Deaf Scholarship: Students with a minimum hearing loss of 40 decibels and match other qualifications can apply for this scholarship by Sertoma.
  • AG Bell Scholarship: This award is offered to successful applicants who use spoken language and listening as their primary communication mode but have hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other hearing assistance.

These are just a few examples of scholarships available to students with disabilities. Not all are available to all students, but most focus on students with a particular disability or range of disabilities.

Additional College Resources for Students With Disabilities

Online learning platforms and technologies have expanded the support opportunities for students. Depending on the type of disability and the educational need, one or more apps, software, websites, and other resources are available.

Students and colleges should work together to identify programs that help overcome challenges related to disabilities. Some software is designed to create new opportunities for students to take tests, attend courses, and review materials, while others provide study aids and communication methods to interact with professors and fellow students.

Apps, Software, Websites & Other Online Resources

Here are a few examples of online resources available to enhance the college experience for students with disabilities:

  • Association on Higher Education and Disability: Also known as AHEAD, this association maintains a website full of learning opportunities, events, and other services for postsecondary students.
  • The National Inclusion Project: While it doesn’t focus exclusively on higher education, The National Inclusion Project covers strategies for inclusion in all areas of academics.
  • Disability Scoop: This online resource offers news, events, and training opportunities for students and professionals with disabilities.
  • MyTalkTools: This dynamic app offers an AAC, known as augmentative or alternative communication, form that assists students in communicating their ideas, needs, and thoughts.

These examples don’t cover the entire scope of resources available for students and institutions. Apps and software are constantly changing, so continue to review these tools to see how they progress. Innovative software can expand the opportunities for personalized communication and individualized learning.

Best Colleges for Students With Disabilities

Choosing the best college is a personal experience. This is even more true for a student with a disability. Students must identify for themselves which colleges offer the unique blend of support, academic achievement, and on-campus services to help them achieve their academic, professional, and personal goals.

Here are some of the best colleges for students with disabilities to consider:

  1. University of Arizona: The Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center and regular events like Access vs. Inclusion workshops make this university a popular choice for students with a range of abilities.
  2. Beacon College: Identified as a top college for students with disabilities by College Magazine, Beacon College offers small class sizes, personalized approaches, and high levels of student employment.
  3. University of North Carolina Chapel Hill: A highly rated school for any student, this college particularly shines for students with a learning disability, ADHD, or other disability.
  4. Northeastern University: Complete with a Learning Disabilities Program, this college boasts a number of dedicated staff members and dynamic programs to help students of all abilities succeed.
  5. Middlebury College: An extensive Disability Resource Center, along with a commitment to diversity and inclusion, make Middlebury College a strong choice for students with disabilities.

These are some of the highest-rated colleges for students with disabilities, but there are many more programs that offer strong support services. The best learning environment and support network can vary considerably between students, so it’s essential for colleges to find ways to adapt programs and for students to identify the best range of accommodations for their personal situation.

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