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Students Ask, College Counselors Answer

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This week's question from Eric Bees, Chicago, IL asks:

What are the best ways for students with disabilities to find the right college?

"Know Thyself"

Mark Montgomery | Founder
Students with learning disabilities--like all students--must begin the college hunt with some introspection. What do you, as a learner, need to be successful? What particular difficulties do you face, and what sorts of services will help ensure that you learn efficiently and effectively, make solid academic progress, and graduate on time? When you are fully able to articulate your needs and advocate for their fulfillment, then you can begin to identify the universities that will offer you the level of services necessary to get your diploma. Don't start by getting to know universities: get to know yourself first!

“With empathy and respect, I can move the world.”

Rachel Winston | President
One student with a disability commented, "I always felt I was being mocked." Students must sense they are entering a compassionate environment. Many disabled students have learned to compensate for their condition, never asking for accommodations or disclosing their disability because they do not want to be singled out or considered a liability. Programs like SALT at the University of Arizona and LEP the University of Denver offer special consideration, untimed tests, distraction-free rooms, tutoring, scribes, reading machines, and other equipment/facilities. Students should contact colleges. Accommodations can make the difference between success and failure.

Ask questions! Talk to the people who know!

Elinor Adler | Founder
After researching schools using the criteria important to the individual student and developing a list of schools that meet that criteria, the student should contact the schools' Offices for Disabilities Services. Ask to speak with the director and explain what his/her disability is and what services, programs or facilities are offered through that office. A visit is the best way to see the effectiveness of what's offered. However, speaking with students at that school who receive services is also valuable.

Be Proactive, Be Your Own Advocate!

Marilyn Emerson | Founder
The student with a disability, like any other student preparing for college, needs to determine what they require to succeed, both academically and socially. One of the best ways to do this is to visit colleges and speak with people. For students with special requirements, this should include people in the office of disability services and/or the health center. Authoritative, first-hand information will enable students and parents to make best and the most well informed decisions. Students with learning differences, physical challenges and chronic illnesses can have successful and rewarding college years, but they need to be proactive.

Clarify your needs in order to find the right fit

Craig Meister | President
Colleges are nicely broken down into two categories depending on how they approach students with disabilities. The first type of college has what can be referred to as “Aggressive/Structured Programs.” These colleges go beyond what is mandated by law to support students with disabilities. The second type of college has what can be referred to as “Passive/Self-Directed Programs.” These colleges rarely monitor the student's progress or performance. To narrow your list, you should figure out what type of support you desire in college. Keep in mind you will be in a new environment, so you may want to err on the side of more support.

Considering college can be exciting, having a disability can make it unnerving

Candy Cushing | Associate Director of College Counseling
What did you think of when you read disability? A learning difference? Visual impairment? Wheelchair confinement? Food allergies? "Disability" covers a broad range of conditions. As a potential applicant, you first need to do a personal inventory: what are my must-haves to ensure I can be successful? As you develop your list of colleges, contact the school's Office of Disability Services. Review with them your “must haves”. While Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA require academic accommodations to ensure that students with disabilities have access to higher education, there will be those colleges that provide just the minimum and those that provide an extensive and deep array. Seek what will work for you.

Find the College That Supports Your Abilities and Disabilities

Joan Bress | Director & Certified Educational Planner
Shopping for the right college is an exciting and challenging task for all students. Once they have identified colleges that offer the academic areas that interest them in an environment that meets their social, political, cultural and extracurricular needs, students with disabilities have an additional job. They must ensure that their college has the resources to both support their disability and enhance their abilities. After identifying their specific needs and determining that the school’s services are appropriate and accessible, students should walk the campus, sit in on classes, and observe interactions among students and between students and professors. Faculty support, ease of access to buildings and activities, and community acceptance of different types of students can turn a good college experience into a great one.

Finding the right fit is like buying shoes

Susan Sykes | President
You need to try them on and walk around for awhile. Resources like the K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD and Steve Antonoff’s The College Finder provide names of colleges known to have good resources for students with disabilities. Visit each school and make an appointment with the academic support office. Ask specific questions about accommodations you need and observe carefully what you see in the office. All schools must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act but do so differently. Become a self-advocate.

Get Firsthand Experience

James Nondorf | Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid
There are many resources to help students with disabilities find the best colleges and undergraduate programs to meet their specific needs. Preliminarily, students and parents should consult with guidance counselors and professionals specializing in the disability in order to come up with a list of potential programs. Families may research online materials and communicate with departments of disability services on campuses of interest; but often visiting campuses is of the utmost importance so that students and their parents can experience firsthand how that college fits their needs and expectations.

How to Begin the College Search when Special Services May Be Needed

Jill Greenbaum | Founder
If you are a teen with special needs you need to: 1.) Start the search early-toward the end of sophomore year. 2.) Articulate special needs and challenges. 3.) Describe services currently used or compensatory strategies. 3.) Learn about differences in the laws regarding services available for high school and college students. 4.) Research college requirements for documentation of learning difficulties. 5.) Discover and use resources for support-parents, guidance counselor, teachers, tutor, coach. 6.) Consider a range of options-community college, certificate program, four year college. 7.) Work with school guidance counselor and dss/disability services staff personnel on campuses to get questions answered. 8.) Ask about scholarships for students with special needs. 9.) Develop a path and milestones.

Leave no stone unturned

Suzanne Shaffer | Founder
Students should do a search online for colleges who cater to disabled students, even searching for specific disabilities. You can also check with your state and local disability agencies for some suggestions. If you are affiliated with any local disability organizations, ask for recommendations as well. Students with disabilities should make it a priority to connect with the disabilities departments at colleges they are considering. Most colleges have departments designed to help special needs students. When you visit colleges make an appointment to meet with the disabilities department and ask questions about the services they offer for your specific disability.

Needing Help is Not a Disability

Marilyn Watson | Former School College Counselor
It seems to me that there are a number of ways to receive the help one needs, and needing help is not a disability. Colleges and Universities have become quite adept at serving a wide spectra of students. My niece was one of these 'disabled' students and found the right campus by visiting and being direct about her needs. She learns is a different manner than many others and a large classroom, taught by technological professors, wasn't going to do it for her. Instead she received small group and even individual instruction over a period of two years, and was able to then move on to a University they recommended and were associated with. Knowing as much as you can about your abilities, your needs and your differences will help you in the process of 'meeting your match' in the campus world. Going on line to narrow the search field, then asking direct questions about your needs will help you discover what kinds of solutions are available, and where they are most adaptable to you. Then a visit to perhaps 3 or 4 campuses personally will put you in direct contact not only with the facilities, but with the personnel who will be serving you.

No “one shoe its” when it comes to learning differences

Patricia Tamborello | College Counselor
If you are a student with a learning difference, you have an extra step to take as you explore college options. It is so important to make sure that the college can accommodate your particular need. Not all colleges provide the same opportunities. Some colleges have programs in place for students, while others have services. Checking the college website is a good place to start but it is important to call or visit the individuals in the disabilities office. It is important to know what is available and to understand how to access it.

Students with disabilities have more "match factors" to consider

Shelley Krause | Co-Director of College Counseling
Students with disabilities should approach their college search just as anyone would… by reflecting on the times in which they’ve felt like they were at their best as a learner, and by considering what factors are “must-haves” as they imagine their college experience. Strength of academic program(s) in a student’s chosen field(s), extracurricular offerings, size of the student body, distance from home, and expected cost are some of the most commonly cited “match factors.” Depending on the nature of a student’s disability, there may be factors which are specific to that. Reach out to colleges to find out what kinds of resources they have to offer, take notes, and consider checking to see if there are books that specifically address the kinds of resources you’re hoping to find.

The Regular College Search with a Twist

Dave Hamilton | Director of College Advising
The criteria used for students with learning differences are the same as a regular student with one important addition: the breadth and depth of academic support services offered by a college or university. Whether the school has a comprehensive approach or on a case by case basis, students need to ask specific questions to see if that institution can support their learning style. Students who can self-advocate for themselves will generally find a great fit in terms of college attendance.

The Right College for the Disabled Student

Jeannie Borin | Founder & President
An independent educational consultant (IECA) is your best resource for finding the right match. There are specialists who are qualified in placing students with special needs. It is imperative that you understand your specific disability to find the best accommodations. A developmental disability is significantly different than a learning disability and the needs vary. Regardless, disabled students need to identify variables in college selection that are important to them. Colleges should be contacted to learn exactly what they provide. If possible, a visit should be made to potential campuses to evaluate the counseling and accommodations.

There is no “one size fits all” in terms of disabilities, as there are varied disabilities to service

Sue Enis | Director of College Counseling
One has to make the obvious distinction from physical to learning disabilities, and even within the realm of learning disabilities, there are gradations of “learning differences” that must be addressed. With a valid report stating the specific disability, and the accommodations necessitated, one starts the search. Each school that has a “disability” or student services office will offer differing support services from books on tape, to students who will assist with note taking, to testing accommodations. There are schools that cater to students with disabilities, and offer the most comprehensive programs within their structure. One has to be able to articulate his/her disability, and manage it together with the office on campus that offers assistance.

Three Great Resources for Applicants with Disabilities

Kris Hintz | Founder
Here are three sources of information to help students with disabilities find an accessible college where they will thrive: 1. The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorder, 6th Edition, by Princeton Review. 2. The College Finder: Choose the School That's Right for You by Steven R. Antonoff (or his website, 3. SAT/ACT Optional 4-Year Universities, list compiled by

Understanding Your Disability and Self-Advocating

Linda Turner | President
Conducting a traditional college search with variables such as degree programs, curriculum, financial aid, clubs and organizations, athletics, social activities and housing is where you start. This is no different for students with learning disabilities. There are, however, additional considerations including legal issues, documentation, curriculum and support services, self-advocacy and the choice to disclose or not. When you have identified colleges, investigate the nature of their support services and determine if they fit your needs. Clearly understanding your disability and being able to advocate for yourself are critical. In college, you are in charge of all educational decisions.

Use College Visits to Narrow Down the List

Michele Hernandez | President & Founder
For students with learning issues, the college visit is especially important. Almost every college has a full time department dedicated to assisting kids with a wide range of disabilities. But what they offer on paper may not be as impressive in person. If they say they provide note taking for example, are there limits to how many classes you can get a note taker for? How many members are on the staff? Can they accommodate those with serious hearing/sight loss? In other words, it’s worth speaking directly to both professors and the office staff in the learning office to ensure that whatever help YOU need is guaranteed. You might even want to ask for a reference from a current student to see if the college delivers what they promise. Naturally do research online first, but visit and make sure you feel comfortable on the campus as well and that your needs can be met.

Use Your Difference To Separate You From the Crowd

David Miller | Director of College Counseling
It seems like those students who are "angular" have a distinct advantage in the college application process, especially amongst highly selective and elite institutions. Athletes, males, females, musicians, leaders, minorities, International students - each seem to obtain a little advantage depending upon the current needs of the specific college or university. Students with physical differences should regard themselves in this category, because they, too will bring a slightly different perspective to the academic table as well as to the formation of a community. Indeed, you have much to teach your peers about character, perseverance, flexibility, and patience. So the first piece of advice is to evaluate yourself and see the glass half full. Secondly, don't forget that you have the regular work to do in find the right college fit, but that will include the extra category of accommodations. Not every campus will address your needs as well as others, despite the legislative mandate to do so. I suggest you do the research to find which campuses excel in addressing the needs of students with physical differences, visit the campuses, try to arrange an overnight stay (preferably with a student who shares your differences), and then shadow that student in a "typical day." Good luck with this adventure.

Visit Colleges and Talk with Support Service Providers

Bill Yarwood | Director of Guidance
Where possible, the most important step is to visit the colleges in which you are interested. While on campus, go to the support services center and talk with the specialists who work with students. Ask whether the college simply has a selection of separate services or whether they have a well organized program for delivering assistance in a coordinated fashion. While there, ask to speak briefly with a student or two who are currently benefiting from the services offered. Regardless of your ability to visit, purchase and use a good college planning reference for students with disabilities, such as the K&W Guide.

Yes you can: Finding the right college for all students

Rebecca Joseph | Executive Director & Founder
Finding the match college is challenging for most students but can be especially challenging for students with disabilities. There are different kinds of supports, and every college has an office for students with disabilities but all programs are not equal. So do your research. There are also some colleges that have outstanding complementary programs like the SALT program at the University of Arizona. You apply to the program and pay for additional supports and go to the regular university. For other students there are two and four year schools designed for students with disabilities. All families need to research what the colleges require to qualify as some want recent testing. The K & W Guide is great at describing the full range of supports for students. Getting services is your legal right.

You Need to Be Your Own Advocate

Janet Rosier | Independent College Admissions Consultant
All students need to try and find a college that is a good fit. Students who have a disability or attentional issue need to consider the services the college offers as part of that fit. I strongly suggest to students who have a disability to make an appointment to meet with the Office of Disability Services when they tour the college. Meet with the director and find out how that office runs and what services they offer. Try and get a sense of how user friendly they are. Not all colleges will have the same level of services--find the college that best meets your needs--that can mean adaptive technology, tutors or other services. Also, and this is crucial, make sure you know how things will be different from the way you have received services in high school. The law that governs disability in K-12 is not the same law that covers adults. Once you are in college you are under the ADA--Americans with Disabilities Act. Become familiar with how they differ and what your rights and responsibilities are. You will need to learn how to be your own advocate so be proactive when you are choosing your college.



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