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Most people understand that disability does not constitute a barrier to higher education. However, many fail to realize how significantly a lack of institutional support services and programs can detrimentally affect the educational experience of students with disabilities. Although we have some safeguards in place – like the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – to ensure these students are not subject to discrimination and receive the accommodations they need, our schools still aren't doing enough to see them through to graduation.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, individuals with disabilities make up roughly 11 percent of our country's undergraduate population — that's more than 2.5 million students. But federal data shows that only 41 percent of these students graduate from two-year colleges within eight years; that rate drops to roughly one-third for those attending four-year schools. These numbers are significantly lower than graduation rates for the general student population — why?

There are several factors that contribute to these troubling statistics. For one, federal safeguards like the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act are limited in that they cover only certain institutions — e.g., those that receive federal aid — and generally do not apply to schools that are religiously affiliated. In addition, many high school programs for students with disabilities do not stress certain "soft skills," such as studying and time management, that they need to succeed in college.

Interpersonal challenges are another concern. Many students with disabilities struggle to acclimate to the social demands of college life without the support system they had in elementary and secondary school. Commonly held stereotypes about disabilities, such as low intelligence or lack of mobility, can make students with "hidden disabilities" wary of opening up to classmates and faculty members. As a result, they do not receive the assistance they need to succeed.

So what can our schools to do help more students with disabilities graduate from college? In the interviews below, we spoke with educational professionals and former students who shared valuable insights about supporting learners with disabilities and helping them overcome barriers they encounter in college. I encourage you to read what they have to say and add your voice to the conversation.

Expert Interviews

Scroll through the interviews below to learn more about how we can support students with disabilities on their educational journey. Each panelist also provides tips for applying to and evaluating colleges as a disabled student.

Back Table of Contents 1 Jimmie Smith, Director of Learning Effectiveness Program, University of Denver Next

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1 Jimmie Smith, Director of Learning Effectiveness Program, University of Denver

I encourage students to take the opportunity in their essays to tell their stories, to explain their challenges and also their strengths, to share what they have been able to accomplish in their lives and how they have gone about doing so.

By Jimmie Smith Director, Learning Effectiveness Program, University of Denver
Learn more about Jimmie Smith

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with learning disabilities on their path towards college at University of Denver?

I have worked with students with learning disabilities at all levels of education. Before coming to the University of Denver I was a learning disabilities specialist at a college. When I saw the job opening here it was like a dream come true. The position was exactly what I was looking for. I applied and was offered the job of Director of the LEP, which is a program for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, on the spectrum, or a history of learning differences. We provide academic support to students at the University of Denver. I am personally called on several times a year to provide presentations on the transition from high school to college for both students and parents. Transition can be a scary time for both students and parents. As part of our assistance with transition, we have four cornerstones in LEP that we believe are important to students as they go through the college experience: self-awareness, self-advocacy, self- determination, and accountability.

What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college with a learning disability?

I tell them that the most important thing is to find a college that is a good fit for them. They need to choose a college with a supportive and welcoming disability services office and they need to find a college that also offers a support program to help them reach their goals and be successful. They also need to choose a major that speaks to their strengths. I am honest with them and let them know that learning material may take them longer and that they may have to use strategies and techniques that are different than other students. But if they are willing to put forth the effort and use the resources available to them then they can be successful.

What are some common misconceptions about learning disabilities and education?

I always have a hard time helping people understand what I do. They think I work with students with low IQs who are not smart enough to go to college so we have a “special” program for them. People do not understand that students we work with are extremely intelligent and they are admitted to college on their own merit just the same as every other student. They also take the same classes, complete the same requirements and major in the same areas as other students. They just need information presented in different ways so they can understand it, or they need strategies to help with working memory, the time it takes to process the information, etc.

Should students be up-front with universities about their learning disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? What are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?

I believe they should be up front from the beginning. I encourage students to take the opportunity in their essays to tell their stories, to explain their challenges and also their strengths, to share what they have been able to accomplish in their lives and how they have gone about doing so. They should talk about the self discipline, time management, etc. that has helped them become successful.

If you could give one piece of advice to students with a learning disability applying to college, what would it be?

Visit the college. Talk to people in the disability services office and people in other support services programs. Find out how welcoming they are and whether or not they are willing to spend time talking with you. Ask questions about accommodations. Be sure that both the support programs and university as a whole are good fits for you.

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with learning disabilities should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

They should consider how open the university is to diversity and that learning differences are part of their definition of diversity. Students should pay attention to the accessibility of a school's disability services office location and the availability of staff. Students should also consider if a support program addresses and supports their specific needs. Will they have access to the resources they will need to succeed? The size of the college or university is also important. Will the student thrive best on a large university or do they need a small university with smaller classes? Does the university offer the student's area of interest? Are there activities on campus that the student would like to be a part of? Will the student thrive better close to home and away from home?

If a student does a campus tour, what are features they should be looking for? What are some questions they should consider asking the university?

I addressed some of this above. They should pay attention to the layout of the college. Are there any accessibility concerns for the student? The tour guide is usually a student, so you can ask them about their experience. Set up appointments beforehand to talk with someone in the disability services office, the support services program, the area of their major, and any other resources the student may need to use during their studies. You can also ask about study spaces on campus.

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

The ability to manage time is very difficult for most of our first year students. In high school, they have a schedule with one class after another and then homework with a parent to usually oversee that process. In college, a student may have only 2 classes on one day and they see all that other time as free time, when actually it is not free. There is homework to do, projects to work on, etc. We do a weekly calendar with our students and block off class time, other events or activities, and at least 20 hours a week for study time.

The pace of the 10-week quarter can also be a challenge. We do a 10-week calendar with our students where we put down test dates, due dates, activities, etc. so that we can help them chunk out big assignments so they are completed on time. Students will come in the first week or so and be totally overwhelmed because they have gotten all their books and the syllabi from all their classes and they are wondering how they are supposed to read all those books and do all that work. We remind them that they have 10 weeks and we will use their calendars to guide them through the process.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with learning disabilities on a college campus?

Fortunately, this does not seem to be a big problem on our campus. However, occasionally it does come up. It is usually due to a lack of education and understanding. We coach students on how to talk to other students about their disability. They do not need to disclose their diagnosis, but can explain the impact on their lives and on their learning. We also hold workshops for faculty and staff to give them a better understanding of disabilities and how we work with students.

Overall, we do not experience a stigma as a campus. Our campus is very welcoming to students with disabilities. Our disability services office serves nearly 1,000 students and our Service Learning Effectiveness Program reached a record enrollment of 340 students this year.

About Jimmie Smith

Director, Learning Effectiveness Program, University of Denver Education is my career of choice and working with students with learning differences is my passion. I have worked in the field for over 40 years in the K-12 system as well as at colleges and universities. I have a bachelor of science in psychology, a master of education with post graduate work in educational leadership and a specialization in learning disabilities. Currently, I am the Director of the nationally-recognized Learning Effectiveness Program (LEP) at the University of Denver. This is a fee for service program that provides academic support for University of Denver students with ADD/ADHD, learning disabilities, on the spectrum, and with a history of learning differences. We reached an all-time high enrollment this year with 340 students. I have had the honor of speaking at conferences, symposiums, and college fairs across the country and in British Columbia. I have been published in the “K and W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences” and I had a chapter published in a book, “On Line College.” My chapter was entitled “ Universal Course Design and the Construction of an Online Curriculum.” I was interviewed and quoted by U.S. News & World Report and I have written articles for the Learning Disabilities Association. While in Washington State I was chosen as one of sixteen educators from across the state to participate in the first cohort of a Leadership Academy program to train future leaders. I am now in my dream job. I totally believe in the LEP and what we do to assist students and families. I am originally from Fort Walton Beach, Florida. My husband is retired military so we had the opportunity to travel a great deal and lived in Europe for 11 years. In my spare time, I like to spend time with my family, especially my 4-year-old grandson, and I love to travel.

2 Marcus Soutra, President, Eye to Eye

First off, college is not for everyone. However, anyone who wants to attend post-secondary education most definitely can do it. There are incredible resources available for students with learning differences. Every college in America is required to have a disabilities service office, which is designed to support students by providing them with accommodations, mentorship, and opportunities to receive tutoring.

By Marcus Soutra President, Eye to Eye
Learn more about Marcus Soutra

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with disabilities on their path towards college with your organization Eye To Eye?

I was identified with a learning difference in third grade with dyslexia and ADHD. I grew up believing my learning difference was a negative and not something I should embrace. Thanks to a series of moments with incredible mentors, I learned that my learning difference could be an asset as an educator and leader. This experience has given me the resiliency required of any good leader.

Eye to Eye is creating an open and empowered community of college and high school students who learn differently. We use this community to serve and give back to a younger generation who may otherwise not have role models that can understand them in a way our mentors can. Over the years, we have begun to see former Eye to Eye Mentees graduate high school and go on to serve as Mentors and leaders in their communities.

What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college with a learning disability?

First off, college is not for everyone. However, anyone who wants to attend post-secondary education most definitely can do it. There are incredible resources available for students with learning differences. Every college in America is required to have a disabilities service office, which is designed to support students by providing them with accommodations, mentorship, and opportunities to receive tutoring. Eye to Eye is a prime example of this, with over 4,000 alums who have attended ivy league universities, state schools, and community colleges. These alums go on to have incredible success as advocates for the 20% who learn differently.

What are some common misconceptions about learning disabilities and education?

I would say the most common misconception is the idea that a learning disability goes away, that you can overcome it, or that you can be cured of it. Having learning and attention issues doesn't mean a child isn't intelligent. In fact, kids with learning and attention issues often have above-average intelligence. Remember, learning disabilities are not an intellectual disability. Learning and attention issues are very common — 20% in our community have a learning and attention issue, like dyslexia and ADHD. It's a myth that kids with learning differences are just being lazy — while these issues may not be visible, they're just as real as any other disability.

Should students be up-front with universities about their disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? What are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?

I would be upfront about it. It is against the law for a university to discriminate against a student with a learning disability. Understand how your learning difference affects you and know what your strengths and weaknesses are for succeeding in college.

If your college process allows, ask for an interview so your school can get to know you on a personal level and not just define you by your grades or SAT/ACT scores. I've known many students who have written college essays about the resiliency and unique strengths that their learning difference has given them.

Everyone has challenges, and the ability to showcase your challenges and how they've influenced you as a person is valuable for anyone who is going to be able to succeed in something as challenging as college.

If you could give one piece of advice to students with a learning disability applying to college, what would it be?

When touring colleges, make sure to visit the disability services office. Connect with the people there to evaluate if you feel like it's a place you could go for support, advice, and to receive a community. This may be the most valuable office in your entire college experience!

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with learning disabilities should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

Identify whether the college or university is a good fit for you. Many students go to a specific college for the wrong reason — their family went there, it's local, near the beach, has great athletics, etc. When in actuality, students need to be looking for a place that's going to have the right community to embrace them, support them, and have a learning environment that will help them succeed.

Many colleges have systems in place within their institutions that are not necessarily created with students who have learning disabilities in mind. How can students and faculty and administrators work to create more supportive spaces and systems for these students?

Professors need to be willing to embrace the accommodations that students need — whether that's a different room for a test, extended time on a project, or receiving an audio textbook. It's often the stigma that comes with these accommodations that is the greatest preventer of a student having success in school. A student who uses a wheelchair would need a ramp to enter a classroom in the same way a student with dyslexia may need an audiobook to read a novel.

I would also say for students it's important to embrace technology as a way to support your learning environment. Some of our favorite apps include:

- Wunderlist (to keep you organized)

- Speech-to-text software (to keep you up on all the required reading)

- BookShare (allowing you to get audiobooks for free)

- Grammarly (to support you in all the writing required)

- Microsoft OneNote (offering immersive reading tools)

Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

The disability services office should be your fist stop to receiving support. I also recommend that you work to create a community of peers so you have your LD brothers and sisters to lean on and work with when times get tough.

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

Often, students think that when they enter college they no longer need the supports and accommodations they may have utilized in high school. Statistically, 90% of students with LDs will utilize accommodations during their K-12 education, while only 17% will utilize these accommodations in college. This major drop can lead to students struggling, working harder than needed, or even failing out of school. When you start college, you must be your own best advocate for what you need to be successful.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with learning disabilities on a college campus?

Often professors misunderstand learning disabilities and how they affect their students. Therefore, you should make sure early on in the semester to develop a relationship with your professor(s) so they get to know you, understand how your LD affects you, and how they can best support you in class.

Another great thing students involved with Eye to Eye do is host awareness events on campus. Whether it's bringing an Eye to Eye Diplomat to share their story or hosting a film screening of a documentary, students actively work to educate people of what learning differences really are.

What are ways students can start to build a long-distance support system if they attend college away from friends or family?

Next year, over 200,000 students with learning differences will be attending college campuses across the country. Know that you aren't alone on your campus. Although there's great value connecting with friends and family over social media, there's also value in seeking out others who learn differently so that you have community both near and far away.

Any final thoughts for us?

Eye to Eye works in over 160 schools in over 22 states and with outreach efforts active in all 50. Know that you're part of a national community of brilliant, intelligent, young people who learn differently and are not succeeding despite of their LD, but because of their LD. I encourage you to either get involved or share your story. By having an open and empowered community, we can all succeed.

About Marcus Soutra

President, Eye to Eye Marcus Soutra was discovered to have dyslexia and ADHD at a young age. He struggled in grade school and felt frustrated and misunderstood. After successfully graduating college at Keene State with a degree in social science and secondary education, he chose to devote his life to creating a world where all youth with learning and attention issues, like dyslexia and ADHD, can achieve their fullest potential. As President of Eye to Eye, Marcus steers its continued evolution as a driving force for change for people with learning and attention issues in education, government, the workplace, and pop culture. He serves on the Understood Advisory Board, is a contributing member to Reimagine Learning, was named a New Leaders Council Fellow in 2008 and received the 2017 Keene State Alumni Inspiration Award.

3 Joseph Santini, Ed.S., Program Manager, CSD Learns

While keeping access in mind, don't forget about your bucket list. College is a time when your mind and heart broaden and you'll want to choose a place which has all the options you could dream of. Go abroad. Perform in a play. Join a team. Learn about ancient skeletons. College is more than just a place to sit while you get a degree so you can get a job. A great college should be a place full of excitement and opportunity!

By Joseph Santini, Ed.S. Program Manager for CSD Learns
Learn more about Joseph Santini, Ed.S.

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with disabilities on their path towards college with your organization Communication service for the Deaf (CSD)?

In my work as a K-12 classroom teacher, I worked extremely closely with students in transition. I felt closely connected with those who were disabled or deaf, like myself, and working through a challenging system. As an English teacher, I worked hard to give students the language tools they needed in life, read student college application essays, and wrote recommendations annually. Later as an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University, I worked equally hard at giving students the support they needed not just to get into college, but also to stay there and succeed.

Now with CSD Learns I am fulfilling a lifelong dream of creating resources in American Sign Language for teachers in the classroom who, like me, open their hearts to the students they teach and want to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed.

What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college because they are deaf or hard of hearing?

In my experience as a teacher in public schools, deaf students dream of attending college but often have no idea where to begin. My advice here is what I shared with them: the best strategy is to begin planning early for the financial, social, and academic aspects of college. Don't wait until your senior year.

Start talking to your school guidance counselor early and visit colleges to experience the culture and see what is the norm on campus. Empower yourself to comparison shop. When I applied for college 16 years ago, some colleges refused to provide ASL interpreters, and some did not even have to be asked. And once you've planned and looked around, choose a college which showed that it's willing to invest in all students.

What are some common misconceptions about students who are deaf or hard of hearing and education?

I think one huge assumption I'd love to see change is the idea that interpreters are there 'for' the deaf person. This can result in professors talking to the interpreter -- and never really engage with the student who is deaf. Interpreters interpret both ways, and are there for all parties present. When you have an interpreter in your class, it's an opportunity to broaden the scope of discussion and create a diverse learning network in the classroom -- and all students can leave the classroom enriched from the sharing.

Should students be up-front with universities about their hearing disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? What are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address being deaf or hard of hearing with universities during the application process?

I had no choice but to disclose my status as a deaf person since I attended a school for the deaf, which was on my records, and since I needed an ASL interpreter for the interviews. I later realized this was the best thing that happened to me. Out of six colleges, three didn't want to provide any interpreters during the interview or tour, so right away, I knew which colleges wouldn't have the environment I wanted.

I not only asked about classroom interpreting, but also university events and activities like sports and theatre. Out of the three remaining schools, only one was willing to invest in me so I could have a complete college experience. I wasn't willing to settle for anything less -- and neither should deaf youth today.

If you could give one piece of advice to students who are deaf or hard of hearing applying to college, what would it be?

While keeping access in mind, don't forget about your bucket list. College is a time when your mind and heart broaden and you'll want to choose a place which has all the options you could dream of. Go abroad. Perform in a play. Join a team. Learn about ancient skeletons. College is more than just a place to sit while you get a degree so you can get a job. A great college should be a place full of excitement and opportunity!

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student who is deaf or hard of hearing should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

Think about your community and support network. When I went to college, I was so focused on getting in that I never worried about staying in. Initially, I found myself incredibly lonely as there were no other deaf students in the university. Luckily, I developed strong connections with deaf students in other universities and had great family and friends who visited.

Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

The internet. There are so many online resources we can turn to now when we experience challenges. One notable online resource is DREAM - Disability Rights Education, Activism and Mentoring, which offers national conferences and allows deaf people to meet others also working within the college system.

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for?

My students often found themselves surprised at the struggle to obtain qualified interpreters. Not every interpreter is qualified to work with every high-level academic subject. I know students who have transferred to big-city schools because they're more likely to find an interpreter experienced in a specific field.

What are ways students can start to build a long-distance support system if they attend college away from friends or family?

I recommend thinking about who in your world now, such as friends or family members, might struggle to communicate with you once you go to college and let them know how important it is to you that you stay connected -- then make a plan.

As a deaf person in a hearing family, I had to think about communication avenues. How did I talk to my family members? What tools did they use, a phone or a computer? I actually taught a couple of relatives to use email -- and made it clear they'd be expected to -- so I could stay in touch.

Any final thoughts for us?

Don't be afraid to challenge yourself and see how much further you can fly. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to try activities and go places I'd never thought I would before. Deaf students today graduate at the top of legal and medical programs, play sports at Olympic levels, and go on to become actors, politicians, and more. College is where you begin to shape your future. Enjoy every minute.

About Joseph Santini, Ed.S.

Program Manager for CSD Learns Joseph Santini, Ed.S., is program manager for CSD Learns, the online education system of CSD, and a former K-12 instructor. As program manager, Santini supervises the development of course curricula and oversees the production and quality assurance of online learning content and assessment materials. A Ph.D. student at Gallaudet University, Santini's research focuses on training for teachers in bilingual environments. Previous publications include “Supporting Deaf Students -- And All Students” in Educational Leadership, “How a Deaf Educator Teaches Critical Literacy With Media and Technology” on Noodle.com, and “The Language of Respect” in the New York Times Lesson Plans site.

4 Annie Tulkin, Director/Founder, Accessible College, LLC

Learn to talk about your disability in a way that makes you comfortable. This takes practice! Start by figuring out what you need to be successful and happy. Learning to be an effective self advocate takes time. Also, find “your people” on campus. Put yourself out there and find friends that respect and support you.

By Annie Tulkin Director/Founder, Accessible College, LLC
Learn more about Annie Tulkin

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with disabilities on their path towards college?

I'm the Director/Founder of a business called Accessible College. The focus of Accessible College is to provide transition support for students with physical disabilities and health conditions. I provide one-on-one consultations for students and parents, and I work with disability organizations, schools, and other groups to teach them about college transition for student with disabilities. For nearly 6 years, I worked as the assistant director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown University. At Georgetown, I worked with undergraduate and graduate students with physical disabilities and health conditions to ensure that they were receiving reasonable accommodations in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It was at Georgetown where I noticed that many students were unprepared and did not have the tools to make their transition smooth. Students lacked the knowledge of the differences between accommodations in high school and college, and their role in the process. When you move from high school to college, your disability-related accommodations are no longer covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA requires that students take a more active role in requesting accommodations. Additionally, not all students were equipped with the self advocacy skills that are necessary when transitioning to college. That's why I started Accessible College.

What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college with a disability?

I tell them it's not true! Colleges and universities have programs to meet everyone's needs, including programs for students with intellectual disabilities. You may need to do a bit of research to find the right place for you.

What are some common misconceptions about disabilities and education?

A common misconception is that students with disabilities “can't make it” or “don't deserve to be” in college. These are total fallacies. Students with disabilities may need accommodations to access education, however, those accommodations are meant to level the playing field, not provide an advantage.

Should students be up-front with universities about their disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university?

This is a question that can only be answered by the applicant. There is no legal requirement to disclose a disability. That being said, some students choose to discuss their disabilities in application essays. It should be noted that the disability support office is separate from the admissions office. Information that applicants disclose to the disability office is not shared with the admissions office.

If so, what are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?

Some students, especially those with visible disabilities, choose to talk openly about their experience as a person with a disability as a part of their identity. Additionally, as people become more aware of learning disabilities and mental health disabilities, more students are choosing to discuss their personal journeys.

If you could give one piece of advice to students with a disability applying to college, what would it be?

Connect with your school's disability support office with all of your disability related questions. If possible, try to connect with current students who have a disability similar to yours to hear about their perspectives.

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with disabilities should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

It depends on the students needs. For some students, the physical accessibility of the campus and it's buildings might be a huge factor, and for other students class size and access to supports might be important. My biggest recommendation is that students go and visit the school that they are seriously considering. It's important to see the campus first hand and meet the people who would be providing you with support.

If a student does a campus tour, what are features they should be looking for? What are some questions they should consider asking the university?

Students with physical disabilities should really focus on how they feel navigating the campus independently. They should also ask about accessible residence halls and about class locations and what happens if it snows. Students with learning disabilities and mental health disabilities should ask about what resources are available and how to put them in place. All students should consider class sizes, academic expectations, and look into campus groups and activities that they may be interested in.

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

Managing everything. Students with disabilities may have to dedicate more time to preparing for classes, getting to classes, and completing tasks. College is a chance for all students to learn to live independently. For many students, this is their first time away from home. Managing classes, social life, laundry, food, etc. can be a real challenge. Most colleges offer workshops or resources on time management. I highly recommend that all students make a schedule and try to stick to it.

Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

The disability support office. It may have a different name at the college you choose, such as disability support services, academic resource center, or office of equity and diversity. If you want to receive accommodations, such as extra time, an accessible room, preferential seating, etc., then you must register with the disability support office. You will want to start this process immediately after being accepted.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with disabilities on a college campus?

Learn to talk about your disability in a way that makes you comfortable. This takes practice! Start by figuring out what you need to be successful and happy. Learning to be an effective self advocate takes time. Also, find “your people” on campus. Put yourself out there and find friends that respect and support you.

What rights do students with disabilities have on college campuses?

Disability accommodations fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In order to receive accommodations, you have to register with the disability support office at your school and request accommodations. If you need specific housing accommodations, you will need to inquire about that with the disability support office as well.

Where can they turn if they feel their rights have been violated?

Most colleges have a process for filing complaints internally. This is usually through the dean's office, equity office, or university counsel. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education has an Office of Civil Rights where discrimination complaints can be made.

About Annie Tulkin

Director/Founder, Accessible College, LLC Annie is a regional disability coordinator at Humanitas, Inc. working on the Job Corps disability support contract. In this role, she provides a variety of technical assistance and program monitoring activities related to the applicant file review process and disability program requirements to help ensure effective and quality delivery of disability-related services to students enrolled in the Job Corps program. She also conducts on-site assessments of Job Corps disability programs as well as develops and presents disability-related webinars and training. Prior to this position, Annie was the associate director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown University. For over 5 years, she assisted students with physical disabilities and health conditions; provided one-on-one consultations to students experiencing academic challenges; coordinated tutoring services for undergraduate students; scheduled and taught study skills workshops; and worked collaboratively with residential living services to assist students seeking housing to meet their needs. When Annie is not doing arts and crafts with her daughter and husband, she enjoys gardening, cooking, and hiking.

5 Kayla Brown, Program Coordinator at DO-IT

Remember, people with disabilities can and do attend college. The most important thing is to understand what academic accommodations you will need to be successful in your classes. That is what they are there for. College also has different support services available to you that may not have been available in high school. If you practice your self advocacy skills, then you'll be just fine.

By Kayla Brown Program Coordinator at DO-IT
Learn more about Kayla Brown

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with disabilities on their path towards college with your organization DO-IT?

My name is Kayla Brown and I am a program coordinator for the DO-IT Program at the University of Washington. I first got involved with DO-IT when I was in high school and I participated in the Scholars program. I was born with muscular dystrophy, and as I prepared to move from high school to college I looked for resources in my community that could help me navigate that transition. The DO-IT Scholars program prepares Washington State high school students with disabilities for success in college and careers. Scholars attend Summer Study sessions, held during three consecutive summers at the University of Washington campus. This allows students to experience college life and work on their self advocacy skills. My role as program coordinator allows me to work one-on-one with high school and college students with disabilities. We work on college preparation, finding internships, applying for jobs, and coordinating academic conference experiences. I also reach out to faculty on how to make their classes and curricula more accessible to students with disabilities.

What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college with a learning or physical disability?

It's normal to feel nervous about attending college, but for students with disabilities there are even more things to consider. Remember, people with disabilities can and do attend college. The most important thing is to understand what academic accommodations you will need to be successful in your classes. That is what they are there for. College also has different support services available to you that may not have been available in high school. If you practice your self advocacy skills, then you'll be just fine.

What are some common misconceptions about disabilities and education?

As a person with a disability myself, one misconception I believed was that my accommodations were extra perks that I got because I was disabled. That is simply not true. Accommodations exist to level the playing field for students with disabilities. Never feel guilty. It is your right, and you deserve them.

Should students be up-front with universities about their disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? If so, what are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?

It is entirely up to you whether or not you disclose your disability during the application process.
There are multiple places that disclosing your disability might come up in the application process. The first is within the application itself where you answer basic demographic questions such as race, gender, and disability status. Generally, you do not have to disclose any of this information, but it helps colleges and universities better understand who is applying to their school.

Another place your disability could come up is in your personal statement essay. Essay prompts can vary, but generally you will be asked about adversity you have overcome. Talking about your disability could be a great example. You can talk about how it has challenged you, but also how it has made you into who you are today. When sending an application to a postsecondary institution, you are essentially sending a portrait of yourself -- your grades, coursework, recommendations, personal goals, and abilities. It is worth it to take time to present a full, positive picture of yourself.

As a person with a disability myself, I disclose based on whether I feel it is an important part of my story and in what context. For example, on a job application I might not disclose to an employer until I get an interview. If the job is specifically about working with people with disabilities, I will disclose because I think it is important to show my personal connection to the job. For school applications I almost always disclosed in my personal statement because my disability is a large part of my journey and I want the admissions team to get to know me. For other people with disabilities, there may be different challenges they've had to overcome that were more important to their journey than their disability. It's a personal decision, and there is no right or wrong answer!

If you could give one piece of advice to students with a disability applying to college, what would it be?

My advice to students with a disability who are applying to college is to research the resources each school has to offer to help them decide where to apply. There are many elements to the college experience you may not anticipate, so being able to assess the environment that each college offers is essential. You should also consider the physical location. There are community colleges, which tend to be smaller, and universities which are usually on the bigger side. There are colleges in major metropolitan areas as well as colleges in small towns. There are also environmental factors such as weather, physical accessibility, and local public transportation options to consider. I'd recommend visiting campuses if you can, as this will allow you to experience some of these factors first-hand.

Are there ramps and accessible routes around campus? Visit the disability services for students office and ask any questions you have about accommodations and get to know the staff there. If you can't visit campuses in person, give disability services a call and ask them whatever questions you have about accessibility of the campus and other services and resources they know of for students with disabilities. You want to be on a campus that is welcoming and inclusive.

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with disabilities should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

My previous answer addresses this, but also explore the resources on campus that will meet your other interests. Look at the academic opportunities as well as things like student clubs. Remember that college should be fun, too.

Many colleges have systems in place within their institutions that are not necessarily created with students who have disabilities in mind. How can students and faculty and administrators work to create more supportive spaces and systems for these students?

The reality is that campuses and curricula are often not accessible to people with disabilities. There are many layers to this, and different stakeholders have their own processes and procedures to address accessibility problems. For example, facilities can come perform repairs if there are broken ramps or elevators, or an ADA coordinator can assess compliance and advocate for changing structural barriers. Academic accommodations are through the disability services office. On campus events should always be welcoming to people with disabilities. For more information on how to make events and services accessible, visit the DO-IT website.

Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

You'll get to know the disability services office pretty well. You can go to them with any accomodation issues you face. You can also communicate with your instructors if you are struggling. Having open communication is key.

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

The most common issue my students face is advocating for their accommodations. You don't just ask for your accommodations, you have to negotiate and sometimes fight for them. Each accommodation must be justified and discussed with the staff at the disability resources office. Another issue that comes up is instructors not complying with your approved accommodations. Most of the time, these are just miscommunications that can be fixed by sending an email or setting up a meeting to discuss it. But of course, you can also contact the disability services office about these issues, but having conversations with your instructor is a good practice.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with physical or learning disabilities on a college campus?

If you are dealing with discrimination on campus, you should talk to an advisor or someone in your department. As I said before, you can talk to someone at disability services as well. In terms of dealing with the general stigma you may feel relating to your disability, I would seek out a community that you could join. Are there any disability clubs or groups on campus? Talking to others who have similar experiences have helped me build confidence and make friends.

What are ways students can start to build a long-distance support system if they attend college away from friends or family?

Utilize technology to maintain long-distance support systems. Schedule regular calls with your family and friends, or even a mentor from high school. As you build your new college support system, staying engaged with your loved ones will make your transition from high school to college much smoother.

About Kayla Brown

Program Coordinator at DO-IT Kayla Brown is a program coordinator at DO-IT. She graduated from the University of Washington with a master's in social work. Her passions include community outreach, research, and disability activism. She works one-on-one with students on goal setting, academic planning, and building a support system.

6 Lee Burdette Williams, College Autism Network

There are still stigmas associated with many disabilities. The only way that changes is if people who have disabilities show that they are proud and capable and have a lot to contribute to campus. Neurodiversity belongs on campus!

By Lee Burdette Williams College Autism Network
Learn more about Lee Burdette Williams

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with autism on their path towards and during college with College Autism Network?

There are more and more students with autism attending college each year, and colleges and universities need to provide more training and support for the staff and faculty working with these students to help improve their chances of success. The College Autism Network brings together people doing this work to share resources with one another, offers campus trainings and consultations to improve their internal support infrastructure, and provides information and resources to families and students with autism to help them make more informed choices about college. We began our work informally in 2014 and became a nonprofit organization about a year later.

What do you tell students with autism who don't believe they can attend college?

If you are willing to work hard, and have been successful in high school, then you have a good chance of succeeding in college. There are many ways to go to college, and it might take some effort to find the right path and the right institution. However, many people with autism graduate each year and go on to successful careers or further education in graduate school.

What are some common misconceptions about disabilities and education?

One common misconception is that because support for people with disabilities is federally mandated, every college and university does it well. That is not the case. Some are much more adept at supporting students with disabilities. Unfortunately, this is not true at every school.

Another common misconception is that people with disabilities will experience discrimination if they are honest about their challenges. Most colleges and universities are very invested in student success and will do a lot to help students who have learning differences. However, they have to learn about these differences from a student before they can address them.

Should students be up-front with universities about their autism during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university?

Students should always be up front with an institution they are applying to when it comes to disabilities. The institution needs some lead time to have meaningful and productive conversations with students and their families about possible accommodations. If an institution discriminates, even quietly, against a person with a disability, then it is likely not a good institution to attend. Yes, they are required by law to make certain accommodations, but students with disabilities should not settle for a school doing only what they are required to do by law. Instead, they should seek institutions that are committed to getting better at serving students and that want them to succeed as much as other student. In other words, schools that take pride in serving students with autism.

If so, what are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their autism with universities during the application process?

Many people involved in the admissions process do not know very much about autism. We encourage students who are interested in a particular college or university to ask the admissions office to refer them to the appropriate person on campus to discuss the environment for students with autism. This might be the disability services office or the counseling center.

Don't wait until after an offer of admission has been made to begin having these conversations. Be honest and say, “I have autism and some of this impacts my [fill in the blank]. I want to come to XYZ University, and wonder if there is someone I can talk to who can help me figure out if this is the right fit for me.”

If you could give one piece of advice to students with autism applying to college, what would it be?

Be honest with peers and faculty. Just saying “I have autism and this means I sometimes have challenges with [fill in the blank]” will likely cause people to adjust their expectations in a good way and grow in their understanding of unexpected behavior.

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with autism should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

Some schools are very supportive of students on the spectrum. They have dedicated programs or services for students with autism. Some schools do okay at this, while others don't do well at all. Research the institution and look for a dedicated program or at least someone in the disability services office who is familiar with autism. Many disability professionals have a lot of knowledge about other disabilities, like mobility impairments or learning disabilities, but know very little about autism. This is a problem!

This office should be your go-to advocate when something is not working. Don't just assume they will help you, because they might not know enough themselves. Ask hard questions and look for specialized programs. Don't be so determined to go to a particular school that you ignore warning signs about how they treat students with disabilities or autism.

If a student does a campus tour, what features should they be looking for? What are some questions they should consider asking the university?

You might ask about the general campus climate for disabilities, and then ask more specific questions. But a tour guide is not going to know that much, so just take the tour and then ask for directions to the disabilities services office. Even better -- make an appointment to meet with someone in that office the same day you are taking a tour.

What responsibilities do high schools and universities have to help and prepare students with autism through the transition from high school to college?

This depends on the school. They are all supposed to help with transition planning, but it has only been in recent years that transition planning for students with disabilities has included college. It usually means work, or independent living. If your high school has a college counselor, that person should help students with autism find a good college, assuming the student has the potential to succeed in college. But the college counselor might not know anything about schools with specialized programs, so a student and family should do their own research. You can start with the list of institutional initiatives on the College Autism Network website.

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

The biggest challenge is the complicated social environment of a college campus. Without the daily supports that some students have had throughout high school, college life can be overwhelming. It is a chaotic, unsupervised environment full of students who are experiencing freedom and opportunity for the first time. A student with autism needs to figure out how to find the right space within the environment -- the right support system -- in order to thrive.

Where can students seek advice if an issue does arise?

Hopefully, the disability services office will be the first place to seek help. But it's important to develop that relationship before there is a crisis. Also, on a residential campus, it helps to have a professional staff member, like a resident director, who knows you and will intervene if there's a problem with another student. But again, that relationship should start before there is a problem to solve.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with disabilities on a college campus?

When you disclose that you have autism, some of your peers may not understand what that means. Sometimes saying things like, “it's like Sheldon on the Big Bang Theory” helps them understand some of the quirkiness that goes along with having autism. There are still stigmas associated with many disabilities. The only way that changes is if people who have disabilities show that they are proud and capable and have a lot to contribute to campus. Neurodiversity belongs on campus!

Any final thoughts for us?

Find a support network online, like Wrong Planet or Autism Self-Advocacy Network. When things are hard on campus, and you feel like you're all alone, it's really helpful to reach out to people around the world who understand your challenges and will accept you for yourself.

About Lee Burdette Williams

College Autism Network Lee Burdette Williams has worked in higher education and student affairs for almost three decades. Most recently, she served as the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Wheaton College, and prior to that was Dean of Students at the University of Connecticut. Lee's professional interests include mental health services, academic partnerships, learning communities and student culture. She has written extensively on these and other topics and is a frequent speaker and presenter on contemporary issues in higher education. Lee's current work is with the College Autism Network where she works with colleges and universities to improve their services to students with learning differences. Lee received her Ph.D. in college student personnel administration from the University of Maryland, her M.Ed. in counseling from Salem State University, and her B.A. from Gordon College.

7 Rachel Brown, Graduate Student

Research colleges early, take time with the applications, ask as many questions as you want, and find out what accommodations can be offered. Most importantly, do not be afraid of not being accepted.

By Rachel Brown Graduate Student
Learn more about Rachel Brown

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience attending college with a learning disability?

Attending a traditional four-year college was not an initial goal of mine. I had so much difficulty graduating from high school that I did not see a college degree as something attainable. I did apply to Landmark College, which is a college that specializes in teaching students who learn differently. Landmark College ended up being the only college I was accepted to in the fall of 2011. Even though the college I ended up attending was made for students with learning disabilities, the course work was by no means easy. I still had to complete 20+ page papers, internships, and capstone projects. I received my AA in general studies from Landmark in 2014, then my bachelor's degree in the liberal arts with a minor in communications.

What do you tell other students who don't believe they can attend college with a disability?

Each individual with a learning disability not only learns differently, but perceives their actual abilities differently based on how others treat them. I have found that most students with learning disabilities think they are stupid, when that is far from the truth. I have a lot of difficulty with reading, writing, and decoding. Through attending college, I found a system of active reading that makes my learning disability feel like less of a burden. Through my own experiences, I truly believe that any individual, regardless of their past academic abilities, can graduate from college when given the proper tools.

What are some common misconceptions about disabilities and education?

I find that most often that professors in higher level education or high school teachers see accommodations given to students with learning disabilities as 'cheating' or 'unfair' to neurotypical students. The accommodations that LD students are given allow them to be taught how to learn in a way that I best for them, not change the difficulty of what they learn -- I think most people forget that.

Should students be up-front with universities about their disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university?

It is different for each student based on what their preference is. A university or college cannot deny acceptance to a student based on a disability, but they can deny acceptance based on grades. Since I cannot be denied acceptance based on my disability, I choose to wait until I have been accepted to then ask for accommodations with the proper documentation available.

If so, what are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?

I do urge students to look into what accommodations can be offered by the college's disability service center prior to applying. This will give them a better understanding of what types of accommodations the college offers and if they offer the types of support that the student needs.

If you could give one piece of advice to students with a disability applying to college, what would it be?

Research colleges early, take time with the applications, ask as many questions as you want, and find out what accommodations can be offered. Most importantly, do not be afraid of not being accepted. Many people, including those without LDs, are not accepted to all the colleges they apply to. You will find a college or university that is the right fit for you.

As a student with a learning disability, how do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with learning disabilities on a college campus?

My favorite is when people say, “Well you don't look disabled, so why do you get accommodations?” I think people forget that a learning disability makes learning new material much more challenging, which is why accommodations are needed. However, those accommodations do not mean that an individual with a learning disability is unteachable or dumb; it just takes some extra effort to get to the same point as our neurotypical peers.

What did you find the most important attributes or characteristics a student with disabilities should consider when selecting a university and why?

The college's disability service center accommodations, advisors' availability, and professors' willingness to work with each student's needs.

If a student does a campus tour, what are features they should be looking for? What are some questions they should consider asking?

In terms of their academics, they should be looking for quiet study areas and work spaces, whether they are designated work spaces or possibly the library. They should also pay attention to dorm quiet hours if they complete homework in their room, assistive technology availability, average class size, student-to-teacher ratio, tutoring availability, and whether or not there is a writing support center.

Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

In terms of academics, ask your professor for assistance and look into tutoring or other support services. For overall disability services, go straight to the disability resource center on campus, they are there to help you. You can also reach out to your advisor with questions.

What are ways students can start to build a long-distance support system if they attend college away from friends or family?

I regularly scheduled Skype sessions with friends and family. I also looked to my advisor for help finding on campus support through clubs and student services. Students have to be willing to look outside their comfort zone for support and be their own advocate for their needs.

About Rachel Brown

Graduate Student My name is Rachel Brown and I grew up in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. At 10 years old I was diagnosed with ADHD and an unspecified learning disorder which affects my reading, writing, and decoding. Since my learning disability affects my ability to use, learn, and understand written language, any process that involves those skills takes me longer to complete than my neurotypical peers. Even through all of the struggles, I did manage to graduate from college. I graduated from Landmark College in the spring of 2016 with my bachelor's degree in the liberal arts with a minor in communications. I am currently working at a small public high school in New England as an admissions specialist and I am working towards my master's degree in communications from Southern New Hampshire University.

8 Jenna Beacom, M.Ed., Writer, Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc.

Know your rights, know the laws, and be willing to challenge the status quo if needed. Keep it polite and professional, but be persistent. Don't let perceived limitations get in your way; if there is something that makes you think a college would be a good fit -- whether it's the city, the campus, the majors offered, or anything else -- go for it!

By Jenna Beacom, M.Ed. Writer at Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc.
Learn more about Jenna Beacom, M.Ed.

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with disabilities on their path towards college with your organization Communication service for the Deaf (CSD)?

I began my advocacy in this field when I was a student myself, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I successfully argued that ASL should fulfill a foreign language requirement, and UW-Madison became one of the first postsecondary institutions in the country to offer this option.

Since then I have worked extensively with college students and those who provide services to them in a variety of contexts. At CSD, we work with students at National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) and Southwest Collegiate Institute for the Deaf (SWCID). We also provide direct education via CSDLearns, as well as a wealth of resources throughout our various departments.

What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college because they are deaf or hard of hearing?

I definitely encourage them to go for it! My specific advice depends on why they experience that hesitation. If they are worried about isolation, I remind that there are deaf universities like Gallaudet and also colleges and universities that have a sizable deaf population like California State University - Northridge. If they are worried about accommodations, I let them know about what the law requires and ways that they can expect to get assistance once they begin studying at an institution. For example, most colleges and universities have some variation of a disabled student services department, which is there to advocate for the student and coordinate accommodations as needed.

What are some common misconceptions about students who are deaf or hard of hearing and education?

I've had a lot of interactions with educators who think accommodations will be distracting or burdensome -- they're really not! Hearing students get used to ASL interpreters, real-time captioning, FM loops, and everything else very quickly. Some accommodations are not only neutral but actually positive for hearing students in the classroom. For example, captions on videos shown in class have been shown to have benefits for all students.

Should students be up-front with universities about their hearing disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? What are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address being deaf or hard of hearing with universities during the application process?

Students should expect that disclosing that they are deaf or hard of hearing will not negatively impact the likelihood that they'll be accepted into a given university -- anything else would be illegal! Disclosure is a little different in this situation than in an employment context, where there are sometimes reasons to hold off on disclosure until a job offer is made.

It's important to find a good fit between a student and a university. If a university is less likely to accept a student because they are deaf or hard of hearing, that can indicate that there would be ongoing problems for the deaf or hard of hearing student at that school, and therefore the student might prefer to study elsewhere.

For many students, knowing that their university has systems in place to provide accommodations is an important part of the decision-making process. This may differ if a student does not plan to make use of any accommodations. However, it is very common for deaf and hard of hearing students to use ASL interpreters, note taking, real-time captioning, and other services.

That said, I encourage prospective students to not give up if a specific college or university they want to attend is displaying a lack of knowledge about accommodations or other requirements. Often these schools end up being a great fit once they learn more about their responsibilities, and how to best provide the necessary accommodations.

If you could give one piece of advice to students who are deaf or hard of hearing applying to college, what would it be?

Know your rights, know the laws, and be willing to challenge the status quo if needed. Keep it polite and professional, but be persistent. Don't let perceived limitations get in your way; if there is something that makes you think a college would be a good fit -- whether it's the city, the campus, the majors offered, or anything else -- go for it!

What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student who is deaf or hard of hearing should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

Like hearing students, deaf and hard of hearing students have a wide variety of experiences and preferences. So this is a little hard to answer - everyone is different! While accommodations are an important part of the picture, each given student may prioritize other attributes or characteristics. And again, the law is clear when it comes to accommodations, so any college or university can and should get to the point where they are providing an equitable experience for all students.

Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

As mentioned above, disabled student services are usually the first place to go. There may be deaf or hard of hearing organizations on campus with help and advice. And CSD is always there for them if needed!

Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for?

Often students are not prepared for the social isolation, especially if they have not had a lot of experience with mainstreaming. Even with excellent classroom accommodations, deaf or hard of hearing students do not always have full access to campus social life. Again, this is something that depends so much on the individual student and the individual campus.

What are ways students can start to build a long-distance support system if they attend college away from friends or family?

At a deaf university like Gallaudet, sometimes the opposite happens: deaf students who had felt isolated at home feel like they've finally found their community and a support system. For deaf students in more mainstream situations, deaf students can seek out local deaf organizations and maybe even start a campus group if there isn't one already.

Any final thoughts for us?

Going off to college is such a fraught and exciting time, and deaf and hard of hearing students sometimes have extra considerations added to all of the standard elements. We want to reassure those students -- you can do it! You have what it takes.

About Jenna Beacom, M.Ed.

Writer at Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc. Jenna Beacom, M.Ed., is the content marketing writer at Communication Service for the Deaf, Inc (CSD). CSD is the largest nonprofit organization in the world that focuses on deaf people. Jenna has a master's degree in deaf education and over two decades of experience as an educator and advocate in the field.

9 Jim Rein, Founding Expert at Understood

Be positive. Don't blame the professor but ask for input and strategies they might suggest so that you can remember and retrieve the important information they are presenting. Try to set up a private time to speak with your professors when no other students are around. Always go to the disability office for advice and support.

By Jim Rein Founding Expert at Understood
Learn more about Jim Rein

Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with learning disabilities at the National Center for Learning Disabilities?

I have lectured around the country on postsecondary options and summer programs for children and young adults with learning and attention issues. I have co-founded and served for 20 years as dean of the Vocational Independence Program at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). I have also co-founded Introduction to Independence, a summer work-study program at NYIT, and Vista, a vocational and life skills center in Westbrook, Connecticut.

I am a former principal of the Riverside School, have served as executive director of the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, and was the head of guidance at the Churchill School and Center. My wife and I run B&R Resources, an educational consulting company.

What are some common misconceptions about learning disabilities and higher education?

Some of the most common misconceptions about learning disabilities and higher education are that colleges are not open to accepting applicants with learning disabilities. There is a fear that support personnel are not interested in providing assistance to students with learning disabilities. Due to the stigma of having a learning disability, many students are afraid that if they apply for accommodations, everyone on campus will know they have a disability. That is simply not true.

What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college because of a learning disability?

First, I tell them that their learning and attention issues will not keep them from attending college. I continue by telling them about colleges that have special programs for students with LD and quote statistics for the number of LD students in colleges. As someone with significant LD and attention challenges, who was told in high school that I would never go to college, I share my experiences in college, graduate school, and as a college dean. I share the strategies I used to make Dean's List and graduate. I also share with them the names of famous and successful people with LD that have made it through college and remind the students of success that they have already had in school settings, work experiences, and summer programs. I remind them not to let ego get in the way of selecting a college that is right for them.

What are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with learning disabilities should consider when selecting a university experience and why?

They should start by looking into the level of support available at the university. Students should also consider whether they think they are really ready to be away from home. If not, look at schools where you can be a commuter student. Are there specific people at home who provide you with resources that you must have access to? Other important characteristics to consider are the size of classes and the level of comfort with head of disability services.

If you could give one piece of advice to students with a learning disability applying to college, what would it be?

Before applying, consider whether you can get accepted, complete the full curriculum, and have something of value when you do.

Many colleges have systems in place within their institutions that are not necessarily created with students who have disabilities in mind. How can students and faculty and administrators work to create more supportive spaces and systems for these students?

Students should evaluate the position of the administration to welcome and support these types of students. Faculty and administrators can start by listening to the students and evaluating their success and failures. Ask them what they feel they need to succeed. Tracking LD students throughout their years at the college can also be a great way to measure success and where changes need to be made.

Do you have advice for students on how to discuss their learning disability with academic advisers and faculty?

Be positive. Don't blame the professor but ask for input and strategies they might suggest so that you can remember and retrieve the important information they are presenting. Try to set up a private time to speak with your professors when no other students are around. Always go to the disability office for advice and support. Come prepared to talk about strategies and supports that have worked for you in the past. It is important that you are comfortable with your challenges if you want others to be.

Are there any issues that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?

Many students who are away from home for the first time are homesick and don't realize that it happens to everyone. Students often feel the need to make friends and have dates immediately. Anxiety also takes over when students look at the the total amount of work they have to do in their classes, instead of just doing one assignment at a time.

How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with learning disabilities on a college campus? Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?

Talk to the appropriate resources, such as disability resources. Create a chart of who you can talk to about your different concerns. Take pride in your accomplishments in spite of your challenges and associate with students who share your interests and talents.

Where do you recommend students with learning disabilities, and their support systems, turn for resources and guidance as they begin to plan for their education?

I recommend that they turn to high school guidance counselors, outside professional consultants, college advisors, and disability office personnel.

About Jim Rein

Founding Expert at Understood Jim Rein is a founding expert at Understood, an organization that helps millions of parents whose children are struggling with learning and attention issues. He is also Dean of the Vocational Independence Program at New York Institute of Technology, a residential, college-based postsecondary transition program located in Old Westbury, New York, for young adults with learning differences and autism spectrum diagnoses.

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If you have questions or feedback about this collection, or would like to be a participant in a future panel, please contact us using the link below.

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Getting to class on time, meeting assignment due dates, completing heavy reading and writing requirements, and choosing a major are just a few of the issues many students struggle with when they make the transition from high school to college. For students with learning and physical disabilities, facing and overcoming these challenges can be more complicated.

The Center for Disease Control reports that 22% of American adults have some type of disability. And according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11% of all undergraduate college students reported having a disability. With approximately 1 in 10 students facing the challenges related to being disabled while in college, if you are a disabled student you should know that you are not alone. You should also know that there are regulations and resources in place to support you along the way - making your college decision, applying to your schools of interest, and reaching graduation.

Choosing a College Education

As several of our expert panelists emphasize, college isn't for everyone, but not because of the existence of a learning or physical disability. In general, colleges and universities are invested in making sure that students who are accepted reach graduation successfully. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outlines the rights and responsibilities of disabled students. You can't be denied admission because of a disability, but you must disclose your disability to receive services and support.

"I truly believe that any individual, regardless of their past academic abilities, can graduate from college when given the proper tools. … The accommodations that disabled students are given allow them to be taught how to learn in a way that is best for them, not change the difficulty of what they learn - I think most people forget that."

- Rachel Brown, Landmark College Graduate, High School Admissions Specialist

Connect with the colleges you are interested in attending before making a decision. The Office of Disability Services, or similarly named program (e.g., Academic Resource Center, Office of Equity) is a good place to start. There may be summer programs, and other opportunities, to learn more about what it will be like to be a college student and what kinds of assistance and accommodations you can expect, before you get there.

Completing College Applications

There is no legal requirement to disclose a disability during the application process, however, there may be some benefit in doing so. This is a choice that is up to each individual applicant to make, so carefully weigh the pros and cons. Consider how you might use application components, such as the essay, to share your story and how you've overcome challenges and achieved success in the past. In doing so, you likely developed a strong set of skills and strengths, such as determination and resilience. You may also want to consider requesting an interview as part of the application process, if this option is available.

"As a person with a disability myself, I disclose based on whether I feel it is an important part of my story and in what context. … It's a personal decision, and there is no right or wrong answer!"

- Kayla Brown, DO-IT Program Coordinator, University of Washington

Becoming a Successful Student

Once you are enrolled, it's critical to stay connected with the disability services office on your campus. Participate in workshops, tutoring, writing centers, and other programs to continue to improve your skills, and work one-on-one with advisors to request any accommodations in your courses. You can also explore the technology available to help you stay organized, productive, and on schedule. Connect with the school's ADA Coordinator for more details about campus facilities and accessibility needs.

"Four cornerstones we believe are important to students as they go through the college experience are: self-awareness, self-advocacy, self-determination, and accountability."

- Jimmie Smith, Learning Effectiveness Program (LEP) Director, University of Denver

It is also important to build a support network of peers and mentors with whom you can share experiences and questions. Seek out communities of students with similar needs and challenges through clubs and organizations. The school's alumni association may be able to help you reach graduates who can provide helpful guidance. Likewise, faculty members can better assist you if they know what you need. Take the initiative to reach out to them, along with your academic advisor and disability office personnel, to make the most of the resources that are available.

Campus Visits

Visit the schools you are interested in if it is possible to do so, and meet with disability services advisors in person - this is the top recommendation from our expert panelists. Locating their offices and learning about the services available (from tutoring and lecture transcripts to transportation and accessibility ramps), and how it all works will help you compare the options available. Explore where you'll be living, eating, doing laundry, and taking courses. You may even be able to sit in on a few classes.

Overall, finding a school that is a good fit for your education and career goals, as well as your learning and physical needs, is the priority. Other components of “fit” that are applicable to all students, such as class sizes, academic majors, and student activities, should also be part of your college decision making. Don't assume you won't be able to get accepted or do the work once you are enrolled. If college is the path to your goals, you can get there.

Resources for Further Reading


Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities

Do you have to inform a school that you have a disability? If you want an academic adjustment what do you do? Find the answers to these and other frequently asked questions in this publication from the U.S. Department of Education and Office of Civil Rights.


Campus Climate and Students with Disabilities

This 2017 research report from the National Center for College Students with Disabilities provides recommendations for institutions to reduce ableism and foster a more positive culture among students, staff, and faculty.


Improving College and Career Readiness for Students with Disabilities

From the American Institutes for Research, this resource presents a list of critical issues facing higher education institutions today, and actions they can take to improve services and support to disabled students.


Parents' Guide to Transition

The HEALTH Resource Center at the National Youth Transitions Center, George Washington University, provides this resource for those preparing for a “new role and responsibilities as a parent of an adult with disabilities.”

BestColleges Disability Guides


College Guide for Students with Physical Disabilities

Learn more about some of the accommodations available, such as having additional time to complete assignments, and other considerations, such as student housing.


College Guide for Students with Visual Impairments

Find out how visually-impaired students are using assistive technology (e.g., screen readers, braille translation software) in their college courses, and getting other needed support in classrooms and campus facilities.


College Guide for Students with Learning Disabilities

Common learning disabilities are described, along with a list of common accommodations, like alternative testing formats and adaptive software, as well as strategies for connecting with campus resource centers.


College Guide for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students

Find out how hearing-impaired students use assistive listening devices (e.g., FM and infrared systems), real-time translation tools, and other forms of support (e.g., note takers, extended exam time) to succeed in college.