College Guide for Students with Disabilities

Thanks to advocacy and legislation, students with disabilities can successfully navigate higher education. Read this guide to learn more.

portrait of Bernard Grant, Ph.D.
by Bernard Grant, Ph.D.

Published on July 30, 2021 · Updated on May 12, 2022

Reviewed by Michelle N. Wolf

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College Guide for Students with Disabilities
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Recent statistics from Yale University show that approximately 11% of U.S. undergraduates "register a disability with their school."

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as "physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment."

The social model of disability, created by disability rights advocates, identifies disability as a result from the way a person interacts with their environment. This diverges from the medical model of disability, which relies strictly upon a person's medical condition to define disability.

Thanks to the many resources now available, college can be an option for students with disabilities.

Oscar Gonzalez, interim accessibility resources senior director at Minnesota State University, Mankato, says all students with disabilities have equal access to higher education.

"Own your disability, and understand how it shapes your experience. Know that you aren't alone, and be willing to ask for what you need," Gonzalez said.

This guide covers legal rights, things to consider, and how to pay for college when you're a student with a disability.

How do you suggest a student address stigmas that may be associated with disabilities on a college campus? question-mark-circle
Portrait of Oscar Gonzalez, MS

Oscar Gonzalez, MS

“It's important to recognize that students with disabilities are part of a diverse community and deserve the same respect as any other group. We want to ensure everyone has equal access to education. Focusing on that common ground of diversity, equity, and inclusion can create a more welcoming environment for all students.

For a start, acknowledge that disabilities are not always visible. Educate yourself on what accommodations students may need and refer to disability services and cultural centers on campus for more information. People should be aware of what they can do to help those with disabilities and spread awareness about disabilities and access to resources on campus. Lastly, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach to understanding or working with someone who has a disability. Acceptance of disabilities comes with education. Have an open mind, and be willing to learn and grow yourself.”

Knowing Your Student Rights

Students with disabilities are protected by federal law, which enables them to have full participation in American society.

Legislation such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADA protect students with disabilities against discrimination by creating responsibilities for colleges, universities, and other public organizations.

Section 504

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 protects individuals with disabilities from discrimination under federal programs. It was created to remove barriers, making public education accessible for all.

This legislation states that: "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

In contrast to an Individualized Education Plan — which is reserved for students in pre-K-12 public school programs with specific diagnoses who need a special education plan and a team who helps enact it — a 504 plan is a legal document that may include a specific accommodation. These include accommodations such as a note taker or more time on in-class assignments and tests.

A 504 plan is a form of equity. The goal is to provide services and an environment that enables students with disabilities to perform and learn with other students around them.

Under Section 504, an individual with a disability is defined as "persons with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities." These activities include learning in traditional educational environments.

Those who qualify for Section 504 often experience long-term disability, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Eligibility for a 504 plan is broad, allowing each school to decide who qualifies and how on a case-by-case, individual basis. Section 504 works to ensure college students have access to accomodations.

Americans With Disabilities Act

Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, the ADA prohibits discrimination against students with disabilities by public entities, improving access.

Title II of the ADA says that state and local government entities "that provide employment and vocational services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities must provide those services in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of persons with disabilities."

This means colleges and universities must provide students access to accommodations and other campus resources to make education accessible to them.

Students who experience discrimination from a university or other public entities, including their employers, can file complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Individuals With Disabilities Education Act

Originally known as the Education of Handicapped Children Act, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that makes free public education available to young people with disabilities. In part, it provides financial assistance to state and federal and educational service agencies.

Congress originally enacted IDEA in 1985 to ensure children with disabilities had access to the free public education that their peers received.

IDEA provides services such as special education to address students' needs, and it works to help get students with disabilities prepared to enter the workforce and live independent lives. State and public agencies must abide by IDEA when providing early intervention and special education services to eligible students.

Assistive Technology Act

The Assistive Technology Act, first approved by Congress in 1988, promotes awareness and accessibility to assistive services and devices to help in education, employment, and other activities. Under this law, each state gets grants to help provide services to people with disabilities.

Wheelchair ramps, accessible parking permits, and large-print books are examples of low-tech assistive devices and services. Medium tech refers to enlarged computer keyboards, voice recognition software, and communication devices, such as voice amplifiers.

High-tech devices include those that amplify sound, as well as modified keyboards and wheelchair accessible computers.

Things to Consider When Choosing a College

Because students with disabilities tend to have specific needs, selecting the appropriate college may present a challenge.

Before applying to a school, it's important to learn as much as possible about the school. Learn whether the school is inclusive, accessible, and accepting of those with disabilities.

The size of a school's disability services office can provide insight on its ability to accommodate students. The bigger the staff in that office, the more resources and accommodations they're likely to offer.

Visit the school's website and social media accounts, and search for its disability resource center and clubs or networks for students with disabilities and neurodivergent students.

Students who choose to visit campuses in person can make the most out of their time on campus by learning about the school and the disability services office. Also, visit the financial aid, dining services, and health services departments. If an in-person visit isn't possible, the school may offer virtual tours.

Email or call to schedule an appointment to speak with particular offices and ask them specific questions.

Gonzalez says you should ask yourself the following:

Once you have an idea of what accommodations you'll need, Gonzalez says to then consider the quality of support services the institution offers. These include:

What are some of the ways family and friends can support students with disabilities during their transition to college? question-mark-circle
Portrait of Oscar Gonzalez, MS

Oscar Gonzalez, MS

“Encourage independence and self-advocacy. Help students prepare to manage their time, keep track of assignments, communicate with teachers, and ask for help when needed. Practice talking openly about what it's like to have a disability, its impact on students' lives, and what students need to succeed. Make others feel safe to share ways that they are different. Encouraging open conversations helps other students feel comfortable sharing their own experiences. Offer to join a student in their first appointment with disability services.

Empower the student in finding jobs on or off campus. Job experience helps students develop skills that benefit them later in life. Work with students to set up internships, work-study programs, or other kinds of on-campus jobs that match their skill sets. Also, work with current employers who are willing to hire college students with disabilities part time or on weekends while they are still in school.”

Paying for College

Students with disabilities are eligible for an array of financial aid and scholarship opportunities.

Federal and state assistance is available. For example, this includes the federal Pell Grant, which does not require repayment. Students with disabilities also may be eligible for government assistance programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Many scholarships are offered by nonprofits, schools, and other businesses. They can supplement their federal and state financial aid, drastically reducing college expenses.

Students can apply to scholarships specific to their disability. The Sertoma Hard of Hearing or Deaf Scholarship and the National Federation of the Blind Scholarship Program are two examples.

Frequently Asked Questions About Students With Disabilities

true How do you refer to students with disabilities?

The disability community is split on language. Many people prefer person-first language — "person with a disability." Others prefer identity-first language — "disabled person."

The best option is to use the language that the individual prefers. Don't assume all people prefer the same language.

true What is a disability resource center?

Colleges and universities typically have a disability services office, where students can find help with services and accommodations like assistive technology, note takers, and extra time on tests.

These centers and offices can coordinate with instructors and other campus departments to provide reduced class loads, priority class registration, and housing and parking accommodations, among many other services.

Some colleges also offer tutors and workshops where students can learn study skills.

Can students with disabilities attend college?

Of course! Disability doesn't mean inability. It just may mean a student has to find unique ways to navigate barriers. People with disabilities commonly attend and successfully complete college. They then enter the workforce.

This is why disability legislation exists. It allows students with disabilities to learn alongside their peers. Learn about the various types of support different colleges offer. With the right support, students with disabilities can perform just as well as their peers.

What challenges do students with disabilities face?

Disabilities are wide-ranging and include learning, physical, and psychological disabilities, health difficulties, and challenges with vision, hearing, and speech.

Some students with disabilities may face challenges in traditional learning environments due to a variety of factors — sensory sensitivities, mobility challenges, health difficulties, or challenges with subject-specific work.

Students with disabilities may face financial challenges, transportation needs, and disability discrimination. So it can be important to get support from the school's disability offices, campus groups and organizations, and others.

With Advice From:

Portrait of Oscar Gonzalez, MS

Oscar Gonzalez, MS

Oscar Gonzalez, MS, has served in higher education leadership roles for the past 10 years and is completing his Ed.D. in higher education administration at St. Cloud State University. He currently serves as the interim accessibility resources senior director at Minnesota State University, Mankato and is part of the President's Commission of Diversity. In addition, he is the chair of the university's ADA Advisory Committee, which serves in an advisory capacity to the ADA coordinator regarding persons with disabilities, and ensures input from various students, faculty, and administrative organizations. Gonzalez is a member of the Minnesota AHEAD and National AHEAD.

Learn more about available resources to help students with disabilities attend college and pay for their education. Discover the strategies college students with disabilities can use to determine a career path, search for a job, and navigate barriers to employment. Society often marginalizes students with disabilities. Read this guide to learn inclusive practices for working with disabled college students.