Barriers to Education – Disabilities

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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.

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.

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