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Families with high-school students who have disabilities often face what feels like a unique challenge:

How do I prepare my child to leave high school and begin college?

The first step is to understand the differences between the rights of students with disabilities in high school and in college.

The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) does not apply to students in colleges. For K-12 students, the school generally takes the initiative on meeting the needs of a student with a disability. In college, it is the student who must take the initiative to make his or her needs known to the school.

Reasonable accommodations in college

Every student with a disability has the right to receive reasonable accommodations in schools. Every college and university has an obligation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and sometimes the Fair Housing Act to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunity to benefit from the services and programs offered by the school.

A school is required to permit reasonable accommodations, which can include auxiliary aids and services or modifications of school policy, so long as (1) the student needs the accommodation because of his or her disability, and (2) the accommodation does not fundamentally alter the nature of the school’s program or activities, pose an undue financial or administrative burden on the school, or pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Common reasonable accommodations in college include additional time or a separate location for tests or quizzes, permission to eat or drink in class as needed, course substitutions for required foreign language or math credits, priority registration for classes, classroom materials in braille or in digital form for use with screen reader software, a reduced course load, permission to have a service animal or emotional support animal in student housing, and more.

Getting a student accommodation plan

It’s important to know how best to navigate the process of getting the reasonable accommodations in place in time for the student to fully participate from Day 1 at the school.

First, the student should contact the school’s disability services coordinator or disability services office. If the student’s need for the requested accommodations is not apparent, the college will ask the student to provide current and reliable medical documentation of his or her disability and need for accommodations. Oftentimes, records from the student’s high school will suffice.

Upon approval of the requested accommodations, the college will consider the student to be “registered” as being approved to receive reasonable accommodations. The college will then provide the student with a Student Accommodation Plan, which lists the accommodations for which the student is approved.

Tips for getting needed accommodations

  1. Start early and over-communicate with the school. It’s best to begin the process for requesting accommodations right away. As soon as the student knows which school he or she will attend, make contact with the school’s disability office or coordinator. If possible, arrange for an in-person meeting to understand the school’s procedures for getting accommodations.
  2. Get a Student Accommodation Plan in place even if you don’t think you will need the requested accommodations. It’s better to be approved for reasonable accommodations and not use them than to wait until you really need them and then suffer a delay in the approval process. Such delays in getting accommodations can hurt a student’s timeline for graduating.
  3. If your requested reasonable accommodations are delayed or denied, be persistent. First, ask for an in-person meeting to follow up on the reason for the delay or the denial. If this does not resolve the situation, ask to meet with the individual’s supervisor. If that doesn’t work, look at the school’s website for its procedure on filing a complaint with the school’s administration about disability services, and then file a complaint. Lastly, you can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. More information on filing an OCR complaint is available at https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/howto.pdf.

If you believe that you or a student you know has a right to a requested accommodation that has been denied, contact Disability Rights North Carolina for assistance or more information about the rights of students at colleges and universities. You can also find information on the Disability Rights NC website at http://www.disabilityrightsnc.org/education-postsecondary-self-advocacy-resources.

Katherine Slager

Katherine Slager is an attorney with Disability Rights NC who works primarily on community access issues, focusing on higher education, housing, and employment issues affecting people with disabilities.