Prospective college students with disabilities will find that many campuses are equipped with offices and services that address accessibility, accommodation, and assistive technology for a diverse range of needs. Student services offices and disability coordinators at many colleges work to make campuses inclusive environments through specialized advocacy, support, and academic services.
Of 2,563,000 undergraduate students in the U.S., approximately 11.1% of all undergraduates enrolled, had a disability in the 2011-2012 school year.
The increased visibility of these resources makes college a very compelling option for people with disabilities. In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that roughly 2,563,000 undergraduate students in the U.S., approximately 11.1% of all undergraduates enrolled, had a disability in the 2011-2012 school year. In addition to campus-based resources, students with disabilities are also protected by state, federal, and local laws prohibiting discrimination and requiring equal levels of access to academic services, environments, and resources. This guide explains your legal rights as a student with disabilities, both physical and learning disabilities, and the campus resources that can provide you with assistive services and tools. Additionally, we list a number of sites, apps, and software resources designed to aid students with specific types of disabilities, be they physical impairments or learning disabilities.
Your Legal Rights
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is one of the earliest federal pieces of disability rights legislation, and its roots can be traced backed to civil rights demonstrations by the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD). Through public sit-ins, lobbying, and activist demonstrations, ACCD was able to sway Jimmy Carter’s administration to ensure Section 504 compliance, which, in turn, paved the way for subsequent amendments.
The Office of Civil Rights (OCR), a part of the U.S. Department of Education, oversees the implementation of Section 504. Organizations that receive federal funding, such as academic institutions and employers, are legally obligated to provide disabled students with equal benefits, services, and opportunities. Students attending college must be provided with equal access to classrooms, and they may be deemed eligible for accommodations.
Who Section 504 Covers
At first glance, it can be difficult to tell if you’re covered by the protections granted in Section 504. According to the legal text, the law applies to a “qualified individual with a disability.” So how does the OCR determine whether you apply? The provisions define qualified individuals as those with a physical or mental condition that substantially restricts one or more major life activities. The Department of Education (DOE) provides some examples of these types of impairments. However, please keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list:
- Neurological conditions
- Sense organ impairments
- Musculoskeletal impairments
- Emotional or mental illnesses
- Respiratory conditions
- Digestive ailments
- Learning disabilities
- Organic brain syndromes
Receiving Academic Adjustments
Disclosing your disability status to your college is completely optional, however you will need to disclose this information if you wish to receive academic adjustments. This gives your college administration the information and time they need to arrange for assistive aids and services for your classes. Here are some examples of the academic adjustments colleges provide:
- Sound amplification aids
- Speech to text software
- Accessible testing locations
- Note-taking services
- Priority class registration
- Sign language interpretation
- Course substitutions
If you plan to apply for academic adjustments, it’s important to learn about your college’s disability procedures in advance so you can receive assistive services and tools in time for your courses. In order to receive these adjustments, the DOE suggests you examine disability procedures through admissions advisors, college counselors, college websites, student handbooks and course catalogs.
Section 504 Limitations
Some postsecondary academic institutions do not receive federal funding, making them exempt from complying with Section 504; the most common reasons a school would not receive funding are because it has declined funding or had it revoked. Some private colleges choose to decline federal funding for a variety of political, religious, or ethical reasons. Others may lose funding if they fail to comply with recent federal standards regarding gainful employment and loan amounts. Even if a college is exempt from Section 504 requirements, the students at this academic institution are likely covered by other disability rights legislation, such as Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), described below.
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): Students who attend public colleges are protected against disability discrimination by Title II, which applies to state and local government entities. Title II protections apply to the services, activities, and programs provided by public academic institutions. Private and for-profit colleges must adhere to Title III, which prohibits discrimination by “private entities that offer certain examinations and courses related to educational and occupational certification.” Additionally, these colleges are required by Title III to provide academic services in an accessible environment. Unlike Section 504, Titles II and III are enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Most of the IDEA regulations cover primary and secondary students between the ages of 3 to 21, however, the transition services included in the act are very relevant to future college applicants. Under IDEA, high schools are expected to provide students with certain services to “facilitate the child’s movement from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education.” These might include advising sessions where postsecondary goals are discussed. Such sessions are referred to as Individualized Education Program meetings.
Assistive Technology Act: State-run organizations are eligible to receive grant funding for assistive technology programs in a number of environments, including college campuses. These grants help fund the purchase of assistive technologies (AT), such as voice amplifiers, special software, computing hardware, and wheelchairs. You can learn more about AT-funded institutions in your state by visiting the Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP) database.
If you believe your academic institution is not in compliance with the legislation described above, you have the option of contacting agencies that oversee these laws with your concerns. It is important to thoroughly review the policies and suggestions of each agency before submitting a complaint. These are the federal agencies that oversee the laws listed above, along with links to their complaint processes:
- Section 504: Office for Civil Rights
- ADA: U.S. Department of Justice
- IDEA: U.S. Department of Education
As a student with disabilities, it is important to thoroughly understand your federal, state, and local rights. Exploring the resources available to you on campus can make the transition to college much easier. If you qualify for academic adjustments, speak to an admissions advisor early so you can receive services and/or assistive technology when classes begin. Many colleges employ ADA or disability rights coordinators and disability services staff who can serve as on-campus resources for your needs.
- Profile Colleges
Make sure you are applying to colleges that are a good fit for your personal and academic interests and needs. Consider campus resources, tuition rates, housing options, population sizes, majors, faculty, student retention, graduation rates, and job placement rates before applying.
- Schedule a Visit
See just how accessible classrooms and campus resources are by scheduling tours with prospective colleges. This is typically arranged with an admissions office. Visit student services offices and buildings that correspond with your desired major, since you will likely spend a lot of time in these areas.
- Student Services
Many campuses have student services offices dedicated to serving individuals with disabilities. The staff members at these offices generally work with college administrators to ensure compliance with disability legislation and serve as advocates to create inclusive policies. These offices can serve as a primary point of contact for information on accessible accommodations, documentation requirements, and services found on campus.
- Housing Services
If you plan to live on campus, check with residence hall administrators to learn about accessible dorms, dining halls, and parking.
- Online Courses
Massive online open courses (MOOCs) are courses available for free online by companies like Coursera or Udacity. Many MOOCs have no enrollment requirements whatsoever, and the materials for the courses tend to be available exclusively online. Enrolling in a MOOC can help you gain an understanding of the academic work, group collaboration, and time commitments required at the collegiate level.
Before Class Enrollment
Send in Documentation: In order for colleges to provide accessible accommodations and academic adjustments, you need to provide the administration with medical documentation of your disability. According to the U.S. Department of Education, this documentation can include current disability diagnoses, paperwork that covers your doctor’s credentials, or medical and academic reports on the impact your disability has on your academic life.
Check in with Student Services: It is important to work together with your college’s student services office during the course enrollment process; you might be eligible for adjustments such as priority class registration. Some additional services colleges provide are:
- Testing accommodations
- Sign language interpreters
- Braille transcriptions
- Audio recordings of lectures
- Seating accommodations
While colleges and universities work towards making their campuses and classrooms more accessible for students with disabilities, there may be additional needs to address. We have compiled a list of resources, including apps, websites, and software designed to help those with disabilities in the classroom, with their homework, and in the social situations students find on campus.
- Deaf and Hard of Hearing
- Dragon Dictation: This automated transcription app can be used to record speech during class and convert it into written text. It is available across multiple mobile platforms.
- ASL Dictionary: Communicate effectively with other ASL speakers by consulting this catalogue of over 5,200 signs. Each sign is demonstrated with a short video clip.
- Skype: Sign with friends and family via Skype’s free video chat service. It is supported across PC, Mac, Android, and iOS platforms.
- Z5 Mobile: This app allows those who use ASL as their primary language to make phone calls via their video phones and video relay services.
- Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP): The U.S. Department of Education funds the DCMP, which has created a media library of over 4,000 free captioned titles for educational use.
- Pepnet 2: Post-secondary students who are deaf or hard of hearing can use this educational network to access a range of professional coaching, note taking, and study strategy guides.
- Purple: This software company offers a wide range of communication and interpretation services, including desktop video relay systems, text relays, and video remote interpretation.
- Dragon Naturally Speaking: Nuance is one of the leading companies in consumer and professional grade dictation software, which can quickly and accurately transcribe speech into text.
- Visual Impairment
- LookTel Money Reader: This app scans currency in real-time using your device’s camera, and then speaks the value aloud so that a visually impaired user can quickly identify and exchange funds. LookTel supports over 20 different currencies.
- Ariadne GPS: This comprehensive navigation and mobility app helps users identify distances, locations, and customizable landmarks by creating an auditory map of the world. Users can find out what is in their immediate vicinity or plot out their course to a destination using public transportation or walking routes.
- BrailleTouch: This app imitates the Perkins Brailler display, so that users can quickly type across mobile text input fields. Large, on-screen buttons with audio guidance can significantly increase typing speeds for Braille users.
- Perkins Teaching Resources: Perkins is one of the oldest education and supply resources for the visually impaired, sharing accessible webinars, library materials, and webcasts. Perkins is well-known for founding the first school for the blind in 1829 and for creating several different Braille devices.
- National Association of Blind Students (NABS): This organization, founded in 1967, is dedicated to rights advocacy and raising public awareness regarding equality for blind students. You can find local resources using the NABS state division directory.
- National Federation of the Blind (NFB): Students can find a wealth of scholarships, activities, publications, and academic resources through this organization that is dedicated to serving visually impaired and blind populations. NFB hosts a number of programs, like the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, Braille is Beautiful, and the Possibilities Fair for Seniors Losing Vision.
- ZoomText: Ai Squared creates assistive software for computer users to selectively magnify content and hear text read aloud. Specialty ZoomText products also magnify mobile apps, videos, and image text.
- NVDA Screen Reader: This free and open-source screen reading software enables users to navigate Windows computing systems with a speech synthesizer and braille display support. Both NVDA co-founders are blind, and are dedicated to developing more accessible software titles for themselves and the visually impaired community.
- VoiceOver: This Mac screen reader and auditory interface system is actually native to the OS X environment. VoiceOver offers many customizable voice and keyboard navigation settings, along with extensive support for third-party apps, text in over 30 different languages, and Braille displays.
- Physical Disabilities
- Say Hi! AAC: This app displays images or plays sounds so that people with mobility and speech limitations can communicate with those around them.
- Dexteria: People of all ages can practice fine motor movements with this app, which can be used to improve coordination. It was developed with occupational therapy in mind.
- TalkBoard: This communications app displays sentence fragments and words as selectable, visual tiles that can be assembled and played aloud from a mobile device.
- National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials: While this site is aimed toward school administrators and educators, it lists a variety of learning resources and tools for students with physical disabilities.
- New Mobility: This online magazine features articles, event listings, and advocacy information for wheelchair users.
- Mobility International USA: This organization is dedicated to disability rights advocacy around the world.
- Co:Writer: This word prediction software for Mac and PC automatically suggests words once you begin typing them, allowing you to use quick shortcuts to select the correct word.
- Lilly Walters’ One Hand Typing: This tutorial software trains users to touch type on a QWERTY computer keyboard using a single hand.
- Dragon Speech Recognition Software: Direct your computer with voice commands and dictate text inputs with this sophisticated communications software.
- YesNo HD: This communications app was developed with autistic needs in mind, allowing users to non-verbally indicate a yes or no decision by pressing a button on the screen. Other binary choices can be added to the YesNo library.
- Visual Steps: Abilities Software has created an instructional app that provides users with step-by-step instructions on how to complete a task. The apps’ videos and images can be used as visual reminders to accompany each step.
- Picture Planner: This is a visual-based calendar and scheduler that uses icons instead of text for event reminders.
- Autism Speaks: This biomedical funding organization promotes continual public advocacy and research for individuals with autism spectrum disorders.
- AHEAD: This college support program, founded by the Autism Education and Research Institute, is dedicated to the academic success of students with autism, dyslexia, learning disabilities, and ADHD. It provides students with coaching, networking opportunities, and mentorships.
- Navigating College: Current and former college students with autism contribute blog articles about their experiences to this online publication, which is dedicated to providing advice and insight on campus life and academia.
- US Autism & Asperger Association USCAP: The USAAA’s College Autism Project (CAP) strives to educate colleges and universities on how to work with students on the autism spectrum.
- Activity Trainer: Create detailed video guides on the steps required to complete tasks with this teaching software.
- Job Interview Training: This video simulator prepares users for the social experience of interviewing for a new job.
- Mind Reading: This software helps those on the autism spectrum learn and recognize emotions in faces and voices; this is crucial when working with other students.
- Learning Disabilities
- Flashcards Deluxe: This unique app allows students to add their own images and customize the text on each card, making it easier to retain information.
- Sound Note: This note taking app allows students to record lectures while adding their own thoughts.
- National Center for Learning Disabilities: This organization hosts a number of advocacy programs and events for adults with learning disabilities.
- Learning Disabilities Association of America: This group was founded in 1963 by parents interested in finding more resources for children with disabilities. The organization has since grown into an advocacy and educational resource for adults, parents, and educators.
- LDOnline: This digital resource, run by PBS, publishes newsletters, personal stories, multimedia, and news regarding learning disabilities.
- MyStudyLife: This PC and Web-based software helps students keep track of upcoming exams, courses, and daily events with clear visualizations of tasks.
- Merit Software Solutions: Merit’s software covers reading comprehension, writing, vocabulary and mathematics, all at varying levels of difficulty, meaning some will be applicable to disabled college students. The different software offered can be bundled together so each student receives exactly the support they need.
- Howjsay Pronunciation Dictionary: Get a clear grasp of how a word is pronounced by listening to words in this auditory dictionary.
- Learning Ally: This is the official app for the Learning Ally organization, a nonprofit that provides access to thousands of audiobooks in Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) format.
- Letter Reflex: Those who experience difficulty with letter reversals can practice identification techniques through a variety of puzzles and exercises.
- The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity: This digital resource collects assistive technology suggestions and higher education tips from dyslexic students.
- Landmark College: This Vermont-based college was founded in 1985 to serve students with dyslexia, ASD, and ADHD.
- International Dyslexia Association: This professional and academic organization is dedicated to promoting dyslexia awareness through global advocacy, research, and education.
- Livescribe: Livescribe lets users quickly convert handwritten notes into computer files with its digital pen and software.
- Ghotit Real Writer and Reader: This advanced word-processing software comes with multiple assistive accessibility features, such as word prediction, proofreading, and text-to-speech tools.
- WYNN: Convert paper documents into digital files with this scanning and optical character recognition software specifically designed with dyslexic students in mind.
- HomeRoutines: Keep track of recurring events and daily routines with this detailed scheduling and alerts app.
- Epic Win: Infuse a task list with a little extra positive motivation with this to-do app that doubles as an achievement game, granting users levels and epic equipment as they complete their duties.
- ADDITUDE ADHD College Survival Guide: This digital publication walks students through the process of selecting a college, applying, and navigating campus life with ADHD.
- Attention Deficit Disorder Association College Resources: This professional networking society provides college students with links to study strategies and campus life tips.
- ADDvance: This resource database helps students ease into college life with links to stress management tips, ADHD academic success stories, and medication advice.
- Read and Write Gold: This software provides extensive literacy support by speaking screenshots and text selections aloud, recording voice notes, storing research sources, and translating text all from a single toolbar.
- MindNode: Create flexible and visually stimulating outlines that break out of the traditional linear format to organize notes.
- Stay Focused: This customizable Chrome add-on allows users to block time-wasting websites when they should be focused on their studies and work.