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Preparing Students with Disabilities for College

Making the transition from high school to college requires careful planning. The following list of suggestions includes many of the necessary skills and steps that a student with a disability will want to consider during this important preparation period. Students need to be prepared for the independence and challenges of college life. An excellent handbook, Opening Doors to Postsecondary Education and Training, provided by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction regarding transition from high school to college also provides a guide for students, parents and special education teachers.

Develop an understanding of the disability:

  1. Consult with the high school to get a good understanding of what support services or special help the student is receiving. It is important to determine realistically whether minimal support services or an extensive program at the college level will be needed. Programs exist in colleges across the country with widely varying levels of support. Making a good match of student needs with available services is more important than looking for a "good program" -- the program is only good if it is right for the student.

  2. Make sure students have a good understanding of their particular disability. They should know and be able to articulate their strengths and weaknesses as well as what compensatory techniques and accommodations work best for them.

  3. Help students understand how their disability is connected to social expectations with peers, families, and employers. A visual or auditory discrimination deficit, attention deficit disorder, and/or psychological disability frequently lead to missed cues and inappropriate timing in conversation.

  4. Encourage students to be their own advocate. A good first step is to encourage them to discuss their disability and needed accommodations, if any, with their regular high school instructors.

  5. Make sure it is the student's choice to attend college. The most successful college students are those who have high motivation and a good understanding of their particular strengths and weaknesses. They understand that it may be harder and take more time to manage college-level work. They are committed to spend that extra time studying and to request and use appropriate accommodations when needed.
Understand the law:

  1. Learn about Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA.) These laws indicate what types of accommodations must be provided and/or allowed at postsecondary institutions if a student provides appropriate documentation and requests them. At the postsecondary level, it is the responsibility of the individual student to initiate the provision of services and accommodations (unlike the requirements of IDEA which puts the responsibility on elementary and secondary schools and on parents.)

  2. More information about preparing students with disabilities for postsecondary education is provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights at the following link:
Update Evaluation and Testing Information:

  1. Make sure all testing is up-to-date. Testing may be done periodically during high school to update students' service needs. Although formal re-assessment processes are not required as part of a special education re-evaluation, we recommended that you request a complete re-assessment during your junior or senior year of high school. At the postsecondary level, it is the student's responsibility to provide documentation of their disability and a need for accommodations at the college level. Most colleges do not have the facilities or the personnel to conduct such testing. If testing information is current, the college may be able to use test results obtained while the student was in high school for decisions regarding programming and accommodations, thus saving the cost of a private evaluation. Current documentation of the student's disability, resulting functional limitations, and appropriate accommodations will be needed by the college before accommodations can be provided.

  2. Obtain all special education evaluation reports and copies of your most recent IEP before high school graduation. School districts are only required to keep records for one year following a student's graduation from high school UNLESS you request your records be kept longer. Submit a written request to your special education teacher, school psychologist or guidance counselor that your records be maintained within the district for at least five years beyond your graduation date. Colleges, as well as vocational rehabilitation offices, request these records to assist in providing special services to students.

  3. Make contact with the appropriate Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) Office before graduation. DVR offers a variety of services to eligible students who have a disability. These services may include vocational assessment, job placement, etc. (Note: This office operates on a state-by-state basis and may be known by a different name in your state.)

  4. Consider a vocational assessment as a way to amplify present and future goals. This is one of the services provided by DVR.

  5. Get information on special exam arrangements for SAT and/or ACT. Options include extended time on tests, readers, a quiet/separate testing area or taped testing materials.
Become Involved:

  1. Encourage students to have their own membership in disability related organizations. Newsletters can help them keep informed about new resources and special programs.

  2. Make sure the student's knowledge of study skills is adequate. In addition to high school assistance, consider special study skills classes/programs offered at community colleges and private agencies, or individual tutoring.

  3. Help students increase their independent living skills. Help them learn to manage their own checking accounts, do their own laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc.

  4. Encourage part-time jobs or volunteer positions. These are helpful to improve socialization skills as well as give a better understanding of work situations and expectations.
Visit and Ask Questions:

  1. Contact the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities at colleges when applying. Gather information on what kinds of services and support are available and the number of students with disabilities attending the college. Inquire as to what documentation is required before services can be provided. Make sure you ask your questions of the direct service provider at the college; do not make decisions on the basis of what someone has told you someone else will or will not do for you!

  2. Contact the Admissions Office at colleges you are considering. If there are modified admission requirements for students with disabilities, there may be special pre-admission requirements when making applications (such as a reference letter or specific documentation.)

  3. Visit colleges before making a definite choice. Consider the communities in which they are located.

  4. Obtain two copies of all college applications (or duplicate the one received.) Use the first copy to collect needed information. Type that information onto the second copy to be sent.

This information was developed from a listing originally compiled and published by the HEATH Resource Center, One Dupont Circle, NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20036.