Going to college is a stressful situation on its own, even without additional factors added in. For students with disabilities, the transition to a new, faster-paced environment can be a challenge. Fortunately, universities in the US are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to make reasonable accommodations when a student reports a disability of any kind.1
Finding these resources, however, is often a matter of navigating layers of college bureaucracies and paperwork. There are several resources that can cut through the noise to help these students find and use the improved accommodations that they deserve.
Student assistance offices
Somewhere on every college campus, there’s an office in charge of disability accommodation. In most cases, specific accommodations will all stem from approval and registration with this particular office. They go by several different names: disability resource centers, offices for student assistance, and more. Start with the student services center and go from there.
These offices are generally staffed by people whose job it is to file paperwork and assist in finding specific accommodations geared towards each student’s precise needs. In many cases, they serve as a liaison to professors, which can be especially helpful if a student with a less visible disability wants to avoid special treatment from their teachers; privacy is a primary concern in these offices. The process and requirements vary from college to college, but generally it involves registering with an office, providing verification of the disability, and explaining what specific accommodations are required/approved.
One of the most common accommodations for students with disabilities is adjustments to testing. These can range from requesting more time to take a test to arranging a quieter environment or, in some cases, allowing for an assistant. Not all courses require traditional testing – many college courses evaluate with projects and papers instead – but for those that do, particularly gen-ed credits, testing accommodations can be a lifeline.
Taking notes is a vital component to getting the most out of college courses. While there are some teachers who post their lectures online, the majority of lectures are in-class only. Note-taking services are often offered through resource centers. Again, while the exact process may vary, a common practice is to have the resource center send each instructor a notice that a student has requested a note-taker; from there, the instructor is given a template to ask their students if someone would be willing to register with the resource center and share their notes for minor compensation, credit, or letters commending their service. It can all be done anonymously and can help students with disabilities keep up with the day-to-day aspects of classes.
Resource centers may have various types of adaptive equipment available for checkout – check with your individual university. Examples of this equipment may include closed-circuit audio and/or visual enhancement, alternative keyboards, amplification systems, and more.
For students with aural disabilities, interpretive services may be available to accommodate their needs. These can range from ASL interpreters to computer-generated captioning. Instructors with students who have notified them of necessary accommodations may also be able to help on an individual level – an instructor who is aware of a student with a hearing disability may be able to adapt their class to be more visually-friendly, or an instructor aware of a visually-impaired student may be able to incorporate more aural elements.
In general, it is crucial to work with the on-campus resource centers, as they are set up to assist with documentation and notify students about what accommodations are available and how to avail themselves of those services. However, parents and students alike should never discount talking directly to instructors as well – while instructors are only required to make the accommodations that are required or requested on paper, many will also work one-on-one to assist students. By addressing needed accommodations right away and through all channels, students and families can hopefully have a smoother and more effective college experience.
1Reasonable Accommodations Explained – American Psychological Association