Coping Tools

College Student’s Guide to Disability Accommodations

accom.pinterestIt’s that time of year again!  Summer is winding down and school is just around the corner! Going to College can be one of the most exciting and exhilarating times of your life! You are about to embark on a journey towards a career and becoming the person you have dreamt about since you were a small child. College can also be downright terrifying, leaving you with intense anxiety and endless questions about how you are going to make this work. In truth, this is how most of the students that I work with feel when they come in to see me. I am a Disability Counselor at a college and my primary role is to work with students who have disabilities and develop accommodations for them so they can be successful.  Every semester I meet new people who are determined to achieve their goals. These students are resilient, brave and smart but it can be very overwhelming trying to find the support that they need.

I hope that this post can be a guide for those of you who are just starting out as freshman, parents of a college student or maybe you are like me and are just finding out later in your college career that you may learn a different way. Whatever the situation may be, I hope this helps you navigate Disability Services at your home college & helps you become an awesome advocate for yourself.

Who is Eligible for Accommodations?

Many people think that accommodations are only for people with visible disabilities but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  About 95% of the students I serve have an invisible illness, a learning disability or mental illness such as anxiety or depression.

What are Accommodations & How Can They Help Me?

Accommodations are adjustments that make material or a process more accessible to a person.  Accessible means that the person with the disability has the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions and the enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective manner ( Department of Justice).

Think about cut-outs in the sidewalk or captions for a movie.  These are all accommodations to make the environment accessible!  In fact they help more than just people with disabilities. Those sidewalks are helpful for mom’s with strollers, movers and people with rolling suitcase.  Captions are helpful for people who have a hearing impairment but they also help those who may not know the language well or for people who learn better by reading and hearing the information at the same time.

Accommodations are helpful to students who have disabilities to help them with barriers to their learning.  It can help in endless reading textbook sessions with dyslexia, reducing distractions for ADHD, providing preferential seating for ASD and excused absences for flares of a chronic illness may take them away from their class (just to name a few!)

Examples of Academic Accommodations in College

Every college will have their own way of writing accommodations but this is just a list of general accommodations.

  • Extended test taking time
  • Having a note taker
  • Recording a lecture class
  • Having preferred seating
  • Being able to take short breaks during lecture to alleviate symptoms
  • Testing in a reduced distraction site (testing center)
  • Having a Reader or utilizing screen reading software for tests
  • Allowing extra time to get to class (for mobility)
  • Having an accommodation for absences due to documented disability (such as chronic illness)
  • Extensions on assignments
  • Having handouts in electronic format, or enlarged text size
  • Eligibility for subscriptions for Audio text books
  • ASL interpreter for classes & tutoring
  • No penalty for in class spelling errors
  • Extended time on assignments when student communicates need to instructor
  • Using adaptive technology (screen readers, smart pens, braille printer)
  • Testing in smaller sections (ex. Part I in the morning, Part II in the afternoon)
picture of a Stack of old books
Are you feeling overwhelmed by college work? Do you have a documented disability? Disability Services may be able to help!

What the Law Says

The American’s with Disabilities Act was established so no person with a disability would be discriminated against. Section 504 (this is key!) is the section that states that reasonable accommodations must be made for any individual with a disability. You can read the law here (warning: it’s rather lengthy) but here are key tips that you need to know!

  • The Law (The ADA) protects anyone who has a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities” This covers physical, sensory and health related disabilities, psychological disorders or attention disorders and learning disabilities.
  • Reasonable accommodations must be made but cannot fundamentally alter programs or reduce academic standards for any student
  • The appropriate accommodations will be determined based on your disability and individual needs
  • It is the Student’s responsibility to inform the college of disability

How to get started:

  1. The first thing that you will need to do is visit your college’s website and search for the Disability Office. You can also search ADA, Accommodations or Student Support and this will lead you to the right place.
  2. Once you find the correct office, they will have their process on their webpage. They may have an application that you fill out or an individual that you will call to make an intake appointment. (These appointments are generally done after you have made your class schedule with an advisor).
  3. You will need documentation for your Disability and it should not be more than 3 years old. Colleges will generally not accept IEPs from High School and would like to see updated psychological testing with adult norms. This allows them (and you!) to have a better idea of what your strengths and weaknesses are and the best way for you to learn. If you don’t have documentation or updated testing, contact the disability office to see if they have recommendations for your area.Documentation will be accepted from Medical Providers such as Doctors, Counselors and Psychologists.   This documentation must highlight the following:
    1. What is the disability or Disabilities?
    2. How does the disability affect the impact life? (ex. Having flares in chronic illness may cause you to miss class sometimes. Where as having ADHD may affect time needed to take a test.)
    3. What recommendations do the medical professional have for accommodations? (This may not always be reasonable depending on the class but it will give the counselor an idea of what may help)
  4. Before your intake appointment, think about which accommodations have helped you in the past. Also revisit what your academic strengths are and how you believe you learn the best (ex. hands on/auditory learning/Visual). This will be helpful information to the Counselor & will be crucial information to know as you begin to advocate for yourself.
  5. Make an appointment with the Disability Counselor and bring a copy of your most recent documentation. The Counselor will review the documentation and ask your questions about how the disability impacts you and learning. The information that you provide is confidential and will stay in the Disability Counselor’s Office. Your accommodation letter WILL NOT have your diagnosis or medical condition listed.  It will only state the accommodations that you are eligible for.
  6. After speaking with the Disability Counselor, you will most likely receive your accommodation within 2 weeks. You are then responsible to notify your professors.
  7. Make an appointment with your professor(s) to talk about the accommodations that you will need. Make sure to bring a copy of the accommodation letter for your professor to keep.
    1. This can be intimidating but it will be helpful for your professor to understand the best way that you learn and how they can support you. You do not have to disclose the specific disability diagnosis. You can speak generally about support you will need but keep in mind if you choose to disclose more details; it may help the professor to provide extra help.
    2. Schedule to meet with your professor as soon as possible as any accommodations cannot be retroactive, meaning that you cannot go back on a test you didn’t do well on without accommodations. They can only help you from this point forward.
    3. The accommodations are between you and the professor. Other student in the class should not know that you have accommodations. Many of the students I work with are anxious about feeling different from their peers and being called out because of their disability. College is A LOT different than High School. You won’t be asked to line up at the door to go to the testing center and can even be anonymous with having a note taker.
  8. Keeping up with Responsibilities. Remember you are your own advocate now
    1. In College,your parents are not able to contact professors or other personnel with questions about you or to check in.  Because of FERPA ( Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act) your information will not be shared. (Think HIPPA used in health care but this is for school.)
    2. If you have testing accommodations, you may want to remind the professor 2 days prior to the test. They won’t intentionally forget but sometimes they have many students who are receiving accommodations and a reminder will help guarantee that the test will be ready with your accommodations.
    3. If your accommodations are not working, contact your Disability Counselor to revise your accommodations.  These are not set in stone and they may be able to help you identify helpful resources around the college.
  9. If at any time you feel that your accommodations are not being met, let your Disability Counselor know. They may need to meet with the professor to ensure that you are receiving the appropriate accommodations that you are entitled to. One of the most important roles of the Disability Counselor is to make sure the college is in compliance of ADA.  If you still do not feel that you have been treated fairly, you can contact The Office of Civil Rights and file a complaint (because this is against the law!).
the words "help me" written on a chalkboard
do you need help?

Accommodations are just a way of leveling the playing field.  Students with disabilities have more barriers to learning than those without disabilities.  It is not a personal or character flaw.  There is nothing wrong with you, you just learn differently!  I hate when students wait to come see me until they start failing because they feel embarrassed or that there is a stigma of Disability Services. The process in college is very private & it is done so to help you succeed.  If you think that you may have a learning disability but have not been diagnosed, contact your Disability Counselor to see how you can get help.  Personally, I did not discover my own diagnosis until I was in Graduate School! (I always wondered why I couldn’t remember what I read or had trouble studying!)  After finding out, I was able to find ways that I could retain information &  other strategies which helped me pull a very low GPA to a very high GPA.  It was the best decision I ever made! The knowledge can only help you, not hinder you so what are you waiting for?

It’s time to be the best you that you can be!

Have you had experience with academic accommodations? Please comment how they have helped you along the way! I would love to hear from you!

Much Metta! (loving kindness),


Guide to Disability Rights & Rules






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