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College Planning for Students with Disabilities

Choosing a college isn't a simple process. When you have special needs, it seems even harder. Even the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn't mean that all schools are created equal when it comes to the services they offer disabled students. Most schools have disability offices or departments, but each school's budget and benefactors impact how many services they're able to offer. Some schools even have scholarships for students with specific disabilities.

"There are some dynamic differences from school to school, depending on size and resources, and to some extent the amount of investment they're making in fully including people," says Michael Hudson, director of the Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities (RCPD) at Michigan State University (MSU).

RCPD was founded before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal mandate protecting disabled people from being discriminated against. At the time, MSU understood mobility issues and visual and hearing impairments. "By the 1980s, we saw the rise of the 'invisible disability' with learning disabilities. And in the 1990s, we saw a newer trend of psychiatric disabilities," Hudson says.

"The biggest challenge now is the influx of students with mental health-related disabilities, such as OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), depression, anxiety and ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder)," says Jack Trammell, director of disability support services at Randolph-Macon College.

In the past decade, Hudson says less than 30 percent of MSU students registered with the RCPD had visible disabilities. More than half of those registered had a type of learning disability.

"The newest disabilities on our radar screen are some of the autism spectrum disabilities, like Asperger's syndrome, that require a different type of accommodation," Hudson says. Students with intellectual disabilities can attend college too. Good candidates for this have a strong desire and motivation to be part of a college program.

"The Career and Community Studies (CCS) program accepts students who have a cognitive or intellectual disability," says Rebecca Daley, program coordinator of CCS at the College of New Jersey. "Students in CCS have a variety of disabilities -- autism, ADHD, dyslexia, cerebral palsy, Williams syndrome, etcetera."

Like any student, the first thing a disabled student should ask is if the school has an academic program that interests them.

"The things I looked into, honestly, had nothing to do with disability," says Jessica Espinoza, a legally blind student at Southwestern University. "Of course I asked about their Center of Academic Services, but mostly what I looked at was the atmosphere and size of the campus."

Espinoza chose a small campus that suited her. However, smaller campuses don't always have the funding or experience to deal with students with serious disabilities.

Like Southwestern, Randolph-Macon is a small campus. "Randolph-Macon College makes academic, housing and environmental accommodations for students with disabilities," Trammell says. "This is something that simply wasn't done formally 15 years ago."

Hudson says disabled students shouldn't dismiss larger schools because of campus size. "The 'bigness' brings with it resources and a broad range of possibilities. We're big, but we can still offer a small campus feel."

Students can choose residence halls near where their classes will be held, and transit options are available on most large campuses. "Yes, there are challenges with larger campuses, but challenges end up helping us develop our skills too," Hudson says.

Many students -- disabled or not -- arrive at college having been used to things being prearranged for them. "We call on a student to use these four years to develop the ability to advocate for themselves, learn how to communicate about their needs, and learn how to organize the services and accommodations that they'll need for the rest of their lives," Hudson says, adding, "We're there as a backdrop if they need it."

Programs like RCPD and CCS offer disabled students support and a sense of community. "CCS has a very strong mentor program that creates opportunities for CCS students to become very involved in campus life, as well as receive academic support in their classes," Daley says. In addition to academic skills, the program focuses on career development and life skills enhancement.

RCPD emphasizes ability and opportunity. "First we start by framing things in a positive way," Hudson says. "Yes, you've got disabilities or challenges or issues that you've got to work around. But we won't get very far if we just talk about what you can't do. Let's talk about what you can do. Let's talk about the opportunity that higher education represents."

Along with typical questions about academics and campus life, there are additional concerns for disabled students. Parents and students want to be sure that it will be possible to flourish there.

"Parents and students should visit each potential campus and ask blunt questions about how disability is viewed on campus," Trammell says.

"What is the attitude about disability at the school?" Hudson adds. "Is it seen as something we have to do, so we do it? Or is it an attitude of, we really want to see people with disabilities excel, and we're investing in that vision of ability and opportunity?"

Beyond the school's official position, Trammell says to ask how other students and faculty respond to the disabled. "Does it seem to be a school where various types of students are welcome and appreciated? Or is the student body one-dimensional?"

The physical landscape should be considered too. If it's a large school, does it have the transportation you need? Is this particular school suited to your specific needs? Are there others on campus with disabilities similar to yours?

Hudson says that the most important question is, "What are my skills, and are there any skill development areas I need to build?"

Espinoza spent several weeks over the summer working with an orientation and mobility specialist, learning her way around Southwestern's campus.

"We came here once or twice a week and just walked the campus so I could figure out how each building related to the other buildings," Espinoza says. "Orientation and mobility is a great start, but so much is trial and error field work, because you can't put all of that ... theory into practice until the campus is fully populated."

Visually impaired students should order accessible textbooks -- in Braille, large print or audio -- early, since can they take a long time to arrive. Before ordering, Hudson suggests checking that the professor hasn't changed texts at the last minute.

Espinoza advises setting up readers since textbooks never arrive in time, and arranging for scribes if necessary. But her biggest piece of advice for any disabled student is: Don't be afraid.

"We go into college believing there are insurmountable obstacles we'll have to conquer. But they're really not insurmountable," Espinoza says. "They're tiny hurdles at [worst]. And you don't realize how many hurdles you can best until you get to college. Don't be afraid of hurdles. Take risks -- they're good for you."


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OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.