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Finding the Right College Fit for Students with Physical Disabilities

Physical Disabilities and College

by Jane Klemmer, Klemmer Educational Consulting LLC

If you are a student about to enter your senior year of high school, summer is probably a well-deserved breather following a year that may have felt like a marathon of finals, extra-curricular commitments and standardized testing.  However, the respite will be short-lived.  As summer winds down and the school year approaches, most students entering their final year of high school are beginning to think about college in earnest and put the quest for admission to the right college into a higher gear.

Compiling a list of schools from the myriad of options is generally the first step on this journey.   Students seeking colleges that meet their “right fit” criteria will consider several factors such as academics, location, size of the student body, and student life.  Most importantly, they seek an answer, often based on a gut feel, to the burning question: ‘Will I fit in here?’

When a young person has a physical disability, the college search means focusing on an additional set of ‘right fit’ criteria that are far from the thoughts of the typical college applicant.   Imagine for a moment that you live with a physical disability that influences each life decision you make and impacts nearly every aspect of your daily activities.  Having a physical disability adds a whole other dimension to the quest for the right college fit, as students search for campus environments equipped to address physical requirements, yet which are also able to satisfy their academic and social wish lists.

Like most high school students approaching graduation, those with disabilities look forward to college as the first opportunity to live independently.  Yet for some that does not imply managing without assistance.  In order to identify appropriate schools, the student must first understand his or her particular needs in order to assess whether the services provided by the college will enable full participation in virtually all aspects of campus life.  The majority of higher education institutions manage services for disabled individuals through a separate disability services office which typically supports students with learning disabilities as well.  However, the range of services will vary widely from school to school, though each college might rightfully claim compliance with federal disability legislation.

Legal requirements for meeting the needs of college students with disabilities are covered under two pieces of legislation:  Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, more commonly known as ADA.  Section 504, a civil rights law prohibiting discrimination, states that colleges, universities and other educational institutions that receive government funding must provide “reasonable” accommodations to all qualified individuals regardless of a disability.  ADA goes beyond Section 504 and requires that both private and public institutions make reasonable accommodations available to students with disabilities, regardless of whether the schools receive federal aid.  The reasonability test means that colleges must make the necessary accommodations as long as doing so does not impose an undue financial and administrative burden on the institution.  In other words, colleges have considerable discretion and leeway to decide the extent of the services they will offer while still maintaining compliance with the legislation.   There are some schools, however, that choose to go beyond the legally mandated requirements.

Finding the right college for a student with a physical disability today is less about access and more about accommodation.  Ramps and full accessibility to all facilities and classrooms is no longer the yardstick for determining how a school rates on a ‘disability-friendly’ scale.  Rather, breadth of services, flexibility to accommodate the needs of the individual student, and effectiveness in helping the student fully participate in every aspect of campus life are what truly set schools apart.  Some more commonly offered services at colleges that are typically considered disability-friendly include providing note-takers for classes and scribes for test taking, altering classroom locations for easy accessibility, making housing accommodations, providing tape recorded textbooks, transporting students on campus, and modifying testing sites and time allotment.  Schools that get the highest marks emphasize flexibility and a willingness to work with students in order to explore and provide the most efficient assistance possible.

In addition to understanding the extent of the services offered, it is important to clarify what support is considered standard and therefore, offered at no additional cost or covered by the basic fee charged for disability services.  Any services that are not part of the standard offerings may require the student and family to make their own arrangements and cover the expenses separately.    It is fairly common for colleges to charge a fee for the assistance offered by the disability services office.  Familiarizing oneself with the compensation scale for all services is essential in order to understand what the true cost of support will be.  Is it a fixed charge per semester, an hourly fee based upon a rate schedule, or some combination of the two? 

Services and flexibility are critical starting points for finding colleges that will meet the needs of physically disabled students.  Yet this is only part of the equation for identifying schools that are likely to lead to a positive and productive college experience.  Students with disabilities have the same overriding question as many other teenagers seeking the right college fit.  Even for those who desire campus diversity, most want to know that there are other students who look and think like them.  While students with learning disabilities may choose not to disclose, a physical disability often cannot be concealed.  Blending in is not always easy. The college search is very much about finding an academic and social setting where a student will feel comfortable and accepted for who he or she is, despite a disability.    Making this assessment is no easy task since disabled students are likely to comprise a very small minority on any college campus.

So how does a student with a disability successfully identify schools that meet all criteria for an enriching and fulfilling college experience?  Start with a visit to the school and take note of things such as the terrain, ease of navigating the campus and accessibility of the school’s major facilities (dorms, classrooms, dining hall, student union, library, etc.).  When scheduling a college visit, a student with a disability should also make an appointment with someone in the disability office to learn about the services offered, the cost, staffing, the number of students registered with the office, and documentation required in order for the student to receive assistance.  Inquire whether there are other students with similar physical conditions on campus.  If so, the prospective student should try to meet with someone who can speak directly to the experiences and challenges of college life with a physical disability.  One should seek candid responses with respect to fit, social acceptance, support and ease in navigating the college campus.

Students that are able to derive the most benefit from disability services have come to terms with their disability and have a realistic perspective on their limitations as well as physical, social, academic and psychological needs.  Self awareness and serving as one’s own advocate will better enable the student to ultimately achieve the maximum level of independence and feel fully engaged in all aspects of the college experience.

Before embarking on the college search process, students with disabilities should do some research online in order to identify schools that are disability-friendly.  Some helpful resources to assist in finding appropriate colleges are: www.disabledonline.com and www.dmoz.org.

College guides may be useful, though tend to target students with learning disabilities. One exception worth investigating is The College Finder by Steven Antonoff, which specifically notes schools that are geared towards students with physical handicaps.  The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities by Marybeth Kravets and Imy F. Wax, while not specifically addressing physical disabilities, provides descriptions of the disability services provided by several hundred schools nationwide and might be a useful starting point. 

To understand your legal rights, go to www.wrightslaw.com 

It is also a good idea to register with the local Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID) office.  In addition to ensuring that disabled students receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled, VESID will provide training and resources to assist students in achieving independence in school and work.  Students registered with VESID are eligible to receive text books and other required course materials free of charge (up to a pre-determined limit).  In some cases, other support services may be covered, including transportation to and from college and personal aides.


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