How Should Students With Disabilities Find the Right College?

Experts suggest more research and campus visits to help students with special needs pick their schools.


More and more each year, colleges are adjusting to accommodate students with a diverse array of needs. However, students with learning or physical disabilities may have to do a little bit more research and browsing before finding the college that best suits their individual needs. Eric Bees of Chicago asks:

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

A: Use your difference to separate you from the crowd.

David Miller, director of college counseling, Stevenson School

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 seems 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.

See all of David's expert advice.

[Read how learning disabilities can offer an edge in admissions.]

A: You need to be your own advocate.

Janet Rosier, independent college admissions consultant, Janet Rosier's Educational Resources

All students need to try to 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 to 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 Americans with Disabilities Act. Become familiar with how the laws differ and know your rights and responsibilities. You will need to learn how to be your own advocate, so be proactive when you are choosing your college.

See all of Janet's expert advice.

[Learn more about finding the right school for you.]

A: Get firsthand experience.

James Nondorf, dean of admissions and financial aid, University of Chicago

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 students and their parents can experience firsthand how that college fits their needs and expectations.

See all of James's expert advice.

[Get a head start on college visits.]

A: Students with disabilities have more "match factors" to consider.

Shelley Krause, co-director of college counseling, Rutgers Preparatory School

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.

Participate in a video chat with Shelley.

A: Ask questions! Talk to the people who know.

Suzanne Shaffer, founder, Parents Countdown to College Coach

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.

Participate in a video chat with Suzanne.

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