As students near the end of their high school careers, it is completely normal and acceptable to feel a mixture of excitement and apprehension. This difficult time can be even more nerve wracking for students who struggle academically, due to learning, physical, or cognitive disabilities. If you or your child has a disability, you may find yourself asking, “what comes next?”
By law, high school teachers must make an effort to prepare students who are transitioning from high school special education classes to college and vocational programs. In fact, 2004 revisions to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require that all students turning 16 while enrolled in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) must have a detailed transition plan that covers education, living skills, and vocational skills. Though the application of this federal law varies by state, your school district should help you prepare for life after high school by working with you to develop a transition plan. Hopefully, your plan or your child’s plan is multi-faceted and takes into consideration everyone’s goals.
Still, many parents and students feel lost and worried that they won’t be able to find a good college or university program that will support their needs. If you are feeling this way, then rest assured! There are still many resources available at most schools. You may even find yourself pleasantly surprised by the breadth and scope of support available.
College and University Life for Students with Learning Disabilities
Simply because you have a learning disability does not preclude you from attending college or university. In fact, the writer of this article has been diagnosed with ADD, and I made it all the way through a master’s program!
While it may be difficult or overwhelming at first, it is important to look for institutions that make a serious effort to accommodate various learners. As a college student, the responsibility to advocate for accommodations remains solely in your hands. Though some universities are more progressive than others, almost all will have a center for students with disabilities, or a disability coordinator who works within the counseling and advising offices.
How Universities Typically Offer Support
Many colleges and universities make an effort to provide accommodations and modifications that have benefitted you in the past. Before beginning classes, you will need to make an appointment with a disability coordinator or with the center for students with disabilities, and provide a copy of cognitive testing or your most recent IEP. The coordinator or counselor can help you to select classes and professors that are more likely to support your educational needs.
In recent years, many universities have even gone so far as to provide written instructions and training to university professors that will enable them to better serve students with learning disabilities.
The University of Washington, for example, has adopted a Universal Design learning model, which includes specific, actionable ways professors can make their curricula more accessible.
Some suggestions include:
- Read aloud any written instructions
- Provide printed materials ahead of time
- Repeat instructions
- “Keep accessibility in mind” when designing courses
- Other accommodations, within reason
Overcoming Obstacles Through Proactive Communication
There are two very common challenges facing college students with learning disabilities, and you should be aware of them so that you can make a plan for how you will manage them. First, many students find it very difficult to advocate for their own needs. Unlike high schools and elementary schools, universities and colleges will generally not assign you a case manager who will monitor your progress and write goals. Instead, you must take it upon yourself to make an appointment with a counselor or disability coordinator, and to speak with individual professors about your needs. If you already struggle with time management and confidence issues, this can be extremely difficult.
Also, university students with disabilities often struggle to keep up with the rigorous and accelerated academic environment. That’s why it is paramount that you communicate with professors about your needs and difficulties. It is also highly advisable that you take classes at a pace that supports your needs. It is not uncommon for students with disabilities to need longer than four years to finish their bachelor’s degrees. By preparing yourself for this, it may help you to come up with a realistic and achievable timeline.
Colleges Specifically Designed for Students with Learning Disabilities
While some students with learning disabilities thrive in mainstream colleges and universities, others may be more successful in schools designed specifically for their needs. If you or your child are uncertain that the self-management and accelerated pace required of students at typical universities will not be a good fit, you may want to consider a college designed exclusively for students with learning disabilities.
One such university is Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. Beacon is a private, non-profit university that caters specifically to students with learning disabilities and ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Its student population remains under 200, and students can choose to pursue a four-year degree in one of eight majors, including:
- Business Management
- Business Management (Hospitality)
- Computer Information Systems (Web & Digital Media)
- Computer Information Systems (Information Systems)
- Human Services
- Interdisciplinary Studies
- Studio Arts
Though it is a non-profit school, tuition at Beacon College is approximately $34,000 per academic year, not including additional costs such as room, board, and books. To gain admission, students must provide transcripts and also a recent psychological evaluation proving the existence of a disability.
Another college designed specifically for students with learning disabilities is Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. This college offers programs in:
- Certificate in Universal Design: Technology Integration
- Associate’s Degrees in: Life Science, Computer Science (Gaming), Liberal Science, Business Studies
- Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies
Tuition at Landmark, inclusive of room, board, and technology fees is very high at $60,530 per academic year. Like Beacon, Landmark requires applicants to furnish cognitive test results and also reading scores, in addition to standard application requirements such as transcripts and letters of recommendation.
Mainstream Colleges and Universities with Built-in Support for Students with Learning Disabilities
While many colleges and universities are making strides to support students with learning disabilities, there are a few that stand out as particularly innovative and inclusive. These institutions have specific programs and support networks designed to empower you and provide you with all the tools you will need to be successful.
One of the most highly regarded of these programs is the Program for Advancement of Learning (PAL) program at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. The PAL program offers unique features, such as:
- An academic advisor assigned to every first-year student who will provide support and collaboration, similar to the services provided by an IEP case manager in K-12 schools.
- Support for students whose foreign language test scores may not accurately represent their abilities, due to a learning disability.
- Small student-to-teacher ratios.
- Supportive learning environment.
Tuition at Curry is approximately $48,000 per academic year for students who live on campus, and the additional tuition for the PAL program is approximately $18,000. To be admitted to the PAL program, you will need to provide cognitive test results and copies of a current IEP, or equivalent document.
Another exceptional program for post-secondary students with disabilities can be found at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Since the 1970s, Arizona has provided exceptional services to students through its Disability Resource Center. In 2004, the DRC received its own brand-new building that houses its staff and various support resources.
California State University, Chico also offers exceptional resources to students with disabilities through its Accessibility Resource Center. The center offers support through Web tutorials, a newsletter, and by providing students and professors with guidelines for success. It allows students to register through a Web portal, which will notify professors that a student is eligible to receive accommodations.
Students with disabilities at University and Arizona and CSU, Chico follow the same admissions process as their non-disabled peers. If you plan to attend one of these universities and receive services, you would simply furnish the resource centers with copies of psychological testing and IEPs in order to receive support.
Finding the Best Supportive College or University that Suits Your Needs
Just like every other high school student who plans to go on to college, it is extremely important that students with learning disabilities start looking at schools before graduating from high school. While you may be tempted to select a school based on sports or social clubs, it is necessary to consider factors that will help you to be successful.
A good place to start is to conduct a web search of universities that offer programs and support for students with disabilities. When selecting schools and taking tours, make an appointment to speak with the disability coordinator. It can also be assumed that a school that dedicates an entire building or area on campus to accessibility will be likelier to provide you with a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Next, it is important to think about the accommodations that are absolutely necessary for your success. If you thrive in small class sizes, large universities with seminar classes probably won’t be the right choice. If you regularly need extra time to finish assignments, colleges with accelerated, month-long programs will not be a good fit. Success will be determined by how honest you can be about your needs, and how closely you can find a school to match them.
College and University Life for Students with Physical Disabilities
You and your child haven’t let a physical disability get in the way of accessing quality education in the past, so why start now? Students with physical disabilities absolutely can thrive in college environments, if they choose the right university and seek out the necessary support. New freedom and responsibilities in a university environment can be extremely positive and liberating.
How Universities Typically Offer Support to Students with Physical Disabilities
Students with physical disabilities are eligible to all the rights designated within the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that classrooms, buildings, offices, facilities, and dormitories must be accessible to you, whether you use a wheelchair, or other supportive devices. Beyond that, curriculum must also be accessible you. This means that professors must allow you to use assistive technology, and that the university must offer any additional accommodations that you need in order to see, hear, or interpret lessons.
Typical accommodations that you can reasonably expect and request include:
- Relocating classes to buildings or rooms that are larger
- A recording of lessons for students who cannot take notes
- Additional time or alternative testing
- A scribe for in-class assignments
- Typically abled partner to help with self-care during school hours
Navigating Life at a University When You Have a Physical Disability
The challenges that face students with physical disabilities are likely not uncommon to you. For example, many students with physical disabilities struggle with navigating large campuses with big populations. Universities built on hills, or with bridges and other geographical obstacles can also prove difficult. Students with physical disabilities also often struggle with their peers’ and instructors’ assumptions that they cannot complete tasks. This stigma can be very frustrating, especially to students who are cognitively unimpaired.
Another challenge that students with physical disabilities face on college campuses is the need for assistance with self-care. Many students, though cognitively unimpaired, require assistance with hygiene issues and other actions that require mobility and dexterity. If you are one of these students, it is absolutely necessary to find a partner, roommate, or assistant to support you with day-to-day needs at home and on campus.
Universities with Exceptional Accessibility and Support for Students with Physical Disabilities
As previously mentioned, all universities are required to provide access to students with physical disabilities. There are some institutions, however, that are setting the standard for accessibility, and that are truly creating inclusive environments.
One of the best is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which offers an array of mobility and community support resources to students and staff with disabilities, such as:
- Campus-wide bus system that is wheelchair accessible
- Daily living assistance in some residences, through the Beckwith Residential Support Services (BRSS).
- Wheelchair basketball league for women and men
- Physical education courses for students with physical impairments.
To apply for admission to UI Urbana-Champaign, students with physical disabilities use the same standard application as their peers. You will be held to the same rigorous standards as other applicants, but also have the opportunity to discuss your needs within the application process. Tuition, inclusive of room and board is approximately $35,000 for residents of Illinois, and $50,000 for out-of-state students.
Other universities to consider include:
- The University of California, Berkeley also offers independent living support in its on-campus housing, and the city itself is designed to be accessible and easy to navigate.
- Wright State University in Ohio has designed a series of underground tunnels so students with disabilities can move throughout the campus, and not be subjected to bad weather.
- Temple University offers assistive technology integrated into all classes, and within campus computer labs.
- Edinboro University in Pennsylvania leads universities in its efforts to provide universal access to all students. It offers automatic doors, accessible classrooms and laboratories, and covered, elevated bridges. Tuition and admission processes vary by university.
Finding the Best Supportive College or University that Suits Your Needs
There are a variety of resources available to help students with physical disabilities select the appropriate college. An excellent place to begin is to read the book College Success for Students with Physical Disabilities by Chris Wise Tiedermann. This book offers reviews of American colleges and universities, and provides you with all the information you and your parents will need in order to advocate for yourself at the college level.
It goes without saying that accessibility will be a key factor in determining where you will attend college. Still, it shouldn’t be the only factor. Under education law, every school must make reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities. So, you should also consider factors such as degree options, majors, school ranking, sports leagues, and the ways the schools embrace members of the disability community.
College and University Options for Students with Intellectual Disabilities
Though it is true that they are significantly more limited in their choices than their non-cognitively impaired peers, students with intellectual disabilities can also benefit from the college and university experience. If your child does not have significant behavioral problems, he or she may benefit from the social and independent living skills obtained in specialized university programs. It is important to be clear that the objective of these programs is not to earn a degree. Instead, they offer certificates and focus on teaching independent living skills and social skills. Though some programs may be more academically rigorous, the overall focus is to help your child live a productive, rewarding life, and to do this as independently as possible.
Top-Rated College and University Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities
Some students with intellectual disabilities want the independence and stimulus of college and university life. If you believe your child can benefit from the social atmosphere and independence that accompanies a supported college lifestyle, you may want to consider applying for an alternative certificate program through a university that offers such a program. Though your child will not be able to attend or audit university classes, he or she can attend specific, program-driven classes on a university campus that increase social awareness, safety, and other independent living skills (ILS).
The LIFE programs at several American universities are models of this type of college-based, ILS education for students with intellectual disabilities. LIFE programs are designed for students with intellectual disabilities who can benefit from the social and exploratory nature of a college environment. Currently, LIFE is available at:
- Clemson University (ClemsonLIFE)
- University of South Carolina (CarolinaLIFE)
- George Mason University (MasonLIFE)
The programs last two years, and while enrolled in one of the LIFE programs, your child will live on campus in supported apartments. LIFE students take classes that prepare them to be independent and to self-advocate. They also give more social students the opportunity to experience college life. They attend sporting events, can join clubs, obtain employment, and attend LIFE program courses on campus. Courses include:
- Vocational training
- Social development
- Other independent skills, as needed
For admission into a university LIFE program, you and your child must complete and lengthy application process. You will need to provide proof of your child’s disability with copies of cognitive testing that diagnose a cognitive delay. Your child will also have to exhibit basic academic skills by taking an on-site writing test, and completing an interview with LIFE program faculty. Tuition, inclusive of room and board, is approximately $12,000 per academic semester.
Winthrop University, also in South Carolina, offers a university based independent living skills program called Winthrop Think College. Admission requirements are similar to those in the LIFE programs, and tuition with room and board is approximately $6,700 per semester. The program aims to assist students in finding employment, and to be able to manage their own care.
The University of California, Los Angeles also offers classes for independence and self-determination through its Pathway program. The UCLA Pathway program is a two-year certificate program that provides educational, social, and vocational instruction to students with intellectual disabilities. Tuition for the Pathway program at UCLA is $33,400 per academic year, and housing is $1,100 per month.
Local District Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities, Ages 18-22
Not all students with intellectual disabilities are ready for a college experience. Some feel more comfortable transitioning into a program after high school that will allow them to continue to live at home. If you feel your child would be more successful in a local program, you may want to look into the options within your local school district.
Under IDEA, students with disabilities qualify for Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) through age 22, or upon earning a high school diploma — whichever comes first. So, students who do not earn a high school diploma, but who earn a certificate of completion, are eligible to continue receiving special education services through their local school district until their 22nd birthdays. If your child will be earning a certificate, he or she can transition into a support program for students ages 18-22.
These programs continue and build on the Independent Living Skills (ILS) education that your child received in high school. The classes generally focus primarily on educational, vocational, and social skills, although they are usually more community-based than programs in the high schools. They tend to involve more hands-on, real-world learning scenarios, so your child can practice and apply new social and independent living skills. Some programs even offer vocational training and work experience by helping students obtain employment with partnering businesses. District programs vary greatly by state and region. If you think a local program would be the best fit for your child, you should start discussing placement in an 18-22 year old program with your child’s IEP case manager before your child’s senior year. These programs can be impacted, so it is best to secure placement as soon as possible.
Think College!: A website about college options for people with intellectual disabilities, including a searchable database of over 200 college programs.