A Guide to Requesting Disability Accommodations in College

As the early fall approaches, millions of high school graduates are one step closer to their career and to becoming the person they have dreamed about growing into since they were children. Going off to college for the first time is one of the most profound experiences in a young adult’s life. Moving out of your childhood home and stepping into the real world is a majorly exhilarating life event.

It is also terrifying and nerve-wracking, especially if you choose a school that’s far from home. For students with disabilities, it adds another layer to all of this. Incoming college students often have intense anxiety and endless questions about how they will approach the next two or four years. 

For me, and as it was the case for many other students with disabilities, school administrators had always ensured that I had all the accommodations readily available for my academic success from elementary to high school. But when I got to college, I had to seek help by myself and become my own biggest advocate. Luckily, most college campuses are equipped with a designated office of disability services with a team of staff members whose job is to be a liaison between students and professors/teaching assistants. Their job is to ensure the most suitable accommodations are provided to all students who register with their office. The office also works with residential life to place students into accommodating dorm rooms.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was established so no person with a disability would be discriminated against. It states that the higher education institution must make reasonable accommodations for any individual with a disability. Below are the key points that relate to college students:

The Law 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 colleges don’t have to 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 his/her disability. No student should feel embarrassed about having to request accommodations. During undergrad, I was on the board of a committee that advocated for students with disabilities, and too often I heard cases in which the student waited until they were on the verge of failing a class before registering with the office of disabilities. While it is understandable to feel nervous or ashamed about asking for help, it shows maturity and resilience when you advocate for yourself and exhaust all the ways to be the best student you can be. Academic accommodations play a crucial part in leveling the playing field so students are not disadvantaged just because they learn differently or have different abilities.

How to start the accommodation request process:

When you register with the office of disability service is totally up to you, but it is recommended to start the process soon after you commit to a school. Visit your college’s website and search for the Disability Office’s page. You might also want to search for ADA, accommodations, or students with disabilities to ensure you get to the right place. Since it might take you some time to collect the required set of documentation, you definitely don’t want to wait until the last minute to start the process.

Most colleges require you to submit supporting documents that explain the nature of your disability or diagnosis. The documents must outline how the disability affects the academic process, and if applicable, the dormitory life. The documentation should not be over three years old and must be from medical providers. So, submitting your IEP will not be sufficient. The medical professional must also provide a list of accommodations that you might need, such as extended time for in-class assessments, note-taking, flexible attendance policies, or large-print textbooks. Not everyone will receive the same accommodations, even if they have the same disability since each individual has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.

Shortly after you submit the accommodation request, you’ll receive a notification from the disability services office to schedule an intake appointment with a disability counselor. The counselor will guide you step by step to come up with a list of accommodations you’ll need for the upcoming academic year. Before going into the appointment, think of what’ll best equip you to be successful in this new stage of life. Since you’ll be new to the counselor, it is important to be confident in advocating for yourself and your needs.

After the appointment, you’ll receive an accommodation letter to bring to each of your professors. The letter will not disclose your disability or diagnosis, and that information will remain confidential, in compliance with HIPAA. However, it is up to your discretion whether to share information about your disability with your professors.

What to do once you’re on campus:

Within the first few weeks of the semester, make an appointment to talk with your professors about the accommodations you’ll need. As an anxious freshman, I remember I emailed all my professors before classes started to introduce myself and to explain the accommodations I’d need. Since I have a speech impediment, I thought this would be a good way to break the ice. However, I soon learned that the first two weeks of the semester are known as the “shopping period,” where you sit in a few classes to decide which ones you will definitely take that semester. So, it might be smart to wait until your class schedule is set in stone before approaching your professors.

Meeting with professors can be intimidating, especially as a freshman. However, keep in mind that your professors want you to succeed and they want to know how to best support you. If a particular professor is being difficult about your accommodations, reach out to your disability counselor and they’ll help you resolve any conflict. Professors cannot deny you the accommodations listed on the letter, so take steps to address any miscommunication that arise.

Unlike in high school, your parents or guardian cannot contact your professors or deans on your behalf. Higher education institutions, like college and graduate school, falls under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and all academic responsibility is on you. Therefore, it is imperative that you keep track of deadlines and tasks. Each college has different policies, so make sure you familiarize yourself with them. For example, if you need extended time on tests, you may need to schedule each exam with the disability office days, if not weeks, before the exam date.

In college, it is normal to need different accommodations than you had in high school. If your accommodations are not working, then contact your disability counselor to revise them. You really cannot compare college to high school, and as you go through the first semester, you’ll get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.

College can provide some of the best years of your life and prepare you to enter the rest of your adulthood. You will make some mistakes along the way, but you will have a sound support network to get you back on track. From now until the start of college, enjoy the rest of your high school experience and take pride in the fact that you’re embarking on a very important phase of your life!