Negotiate Graduate School as a Student With Disabilities

Notify the disability services office ahead of time to arrange for any necessary accommodations.

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You may want to disclose a disability to your graduate school to take advantage of the tools and resources available.
You may want to disclose a disability to your graduate school to take advantage of the tools and resources available.

This week we address the seventh in a series of questions that admitted graduate school students often ask with information regarding services for students with disabilities.

According to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, a disability is defined as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially impairs or restricts one or more major life activities such as: caring for one's self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, learning and working."

If you have a disability and are planning to start graduate school soon, you are most definitely not alone. According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, students with disabilities were almost 11 percent of postsecondary students in 2008.

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The most recent National Postsecondary Student Aid Study cites statistics that state that about 8 percent of master's students and 7 percent of doctoral students in the 2007-2008 academic year had some type of disability, and women were slightly more likely – 8 percent versus 7 percent at the master's level and 7 percent versus 6 percent at the doctoral level – to report having a disability.

In addition, recent legislative changes, such as those in the Higher Education Opportunity Act and Post-9/11 GI Bill, have opened the doors for even more individuals with disabilities, as both mandate institutions provide accommodation for students with disabilities.

In my years as a dean of students, I witnessed the strength, determination and courage of students who were earning a master's or doctoral degree while coping with a disability, whether a physical disability, a learning disability or another kind.

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In many instances they out-performed their fellow classmates, like one woman who could not hear and relied on her lip reading skills – along with the help of technology – to engage both inside and outside the classroom.

If you do not have a disability, you need to assume that several of your classmates will. Thanks to our legal system and to advances in technology, individuals who might once have faced challenges enrolling in graduate school are now better able to do so.

If you have a disability, congratulations on taking a very exciting next step in your educational and professional journey. There are tools and resources available on campus to help maximize your student experience.

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Every institution has a disability services office. During your grad school research process, make sure to ask for information on this office at each of the graduate schools you are considering.

Notify the office ahead of time to arrange for any necessary accommodations. That help could include someone to sign for a hearing impaired student, someone to read out loud to a visually impaired student, tutoring for a student with learning disabilities and special arrangements for writing papers and taking exams.

During my years as a dean, I knew several visually impaired students who, unless you were aware of their disability, did not exhibit any signs of being sight impaired. They actively participated in academic and student life.

You are not required to disclose any disability information during the application process or while enrolled. However, keep in mind that if your academic performance is less than satisfactory, and your disability is an extenuating circumstance, you may wish to self-disclose.

If you do decide to self-disclose, make sure to register with the disability services office at your institution. The staff there will be able to offer you a wide range of resources, as well as support and encouragement along the way.