The college experience can be deeply impactful and exciting for students from all walks of life. Many campuses have made a clear effort to welcome and support a broader range of students — but those with disabilities still often feel forgotten or left out.
There's no denying that students with disabilities are prominent members of today's campus communities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly one in five college students report having some sort of disability. Why, then, if disabilities are so common on college campuses, do those with physical, mental, or other disabilities often feel so alone?
This struggle partly stems from the lack of a solid support network. While this is a concerning problem among all types of students, it is especially likely for those with disabilities if they lack proper accommodations or simply are unaware that critical services are available. Ideally, inclusivity will be clearly built into campus culture, so there is never any question as to whether students with disabilities are welcomed or respected.
Our guide explains not only how to help students with disabilities in the classroom but also how to structure an entire campus so that all students feel accepted and empowered.
Supporting Students with Disabilities
As they apply for and enroll in college, students with disabilities should be mindful that these institutions do not always provide extensive accommodations quite like their high school counterparts. Still, government oversight provides some protection, ensuring that colleges provide at least a minimal level of accommodation or basic disability services. Students can prepare for future challenges by making the most of accommodations available in high school.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
As a critical civil rights law that protects individuals with disabilities from many forms of discrimination, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is applicable in the modern college environment. All universities, vocational schools, and community colleges that are publicly funded are covered by the ADA's Title II, while privately-funded colleges see coverage under Title III.
ADA protects students from being "excluded from participation" or "subjected to discrimination" by public entities such as colleges and universities. The goal is to make the institution fully accessible, although modifications may not be required if they fundamentally change the very nature of the program in question.
Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
Meant to ensure that a "free appropriate public education" is always available to children and adolescents with disabilities, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides oversight for early intervention, special education, and a variety of essential K-12 services.
Unfortunately, IDEA does not apply within the college setting and, in general, the function of "reasonable accommodations" shifts accordingly. With IDEA and K-12 accommodations, the primary goal is to promote students' success, often through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a 504 plan.
College expectations under ADA focus on access over success. However, if they have properly been supported by IEPs and 504 plans, students should ideally be prepared for the unique challenges presented by college coursework — especially if the college in question provides sufficient accommodations.
Having an Individualized Education Program (IEP)
IEPs may not be available at the college level, but there is no denying their value for college preparation. At this stage, students are highly encouraged to participate in the IEP process — and doing so should fully prepare them to advocate for themselves when they enter college.
What Are the Challenges Disabled Students Face in College?
Students with disabilities are fully capable of thriving in a college environment. Their specific challenges depend largely on the types of disabilities they face and whether relevant accommodations are provided. Academic concerns are prevalent, especially as coursework becomes more rigorous and less differentiated. Students may also struggle with physical access or may simply feel as if they don't fit into their campus culture.
No Two Disabilities Are the Same
While students with disabilities are often lumped into one all-encompassing category, this mindset is far from accurate. In reality, each student encounters distinct challenges and unique opportunities related to their disabilities. These can be amplified when students have more than one disability or experience mental health concerns. We have highlighted several conditions (and their impact on college students) below:
Any limitation that prompts a loss of mobility, dexterity, or other bodily function can be referred to as a physical disability. This category encompasses disabilities that make it difficult for students to walk or move about campus, although by some definitions, hearing and visual impairments may also qualify. Other common physical disabilities include spina bifida, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and cystic fibrosis.
Impacting students' ability to handle reading, writing, or math, learning disabilities often manifest as academic struggles, which may eventually spill over into the professional world. Defining these can be difficult, as many people regard these concerns as differences and not disabilities — in that they may not always impede students from learning.
Conditions frequently referred to as learning disabilities or differences include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and dysgraphia. Comorbidities are common, with many students diagnosed with multiple learning disorders.
Sensory Impaired Disabilities
Sensory disabilities involve, as their name implies, impairments of the five senses. The most well-known among these include hearing and vision loss, although sensory processing disorder also belongs in this category.
Beginning during an individual's "developmental" period and extending through the lifespan, developmental disabilities are chronic concerns that call for long-term solutions. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a common example, although many of the previously mentioned physical disabilities (such as cerebral palsy) also qualify.
What Is the Role of a Strong Supportive Network?
A strong support network can make all the difference for students with disabilities, particularly as they adjust to new routines and tackle rigorous coursework. An inclusive campus will ensure that students with disabilities always feel welcome while also making it easier for them to request and obtain necessary accommodations.
College Disability Services and Accommodations
Disability services form the basis of any inclusive campus. Every college should have some sort of department dedicated to accessibility. This may be known as the Office of Accommodations and Accessibility, with a Director of Student Accommodations working hard to ensure that appropriate accommodations are made for the following concerns:
• Parking and class locations
• Online content accessibility
• Support with college dining programs
• Assistive technology
• Extended time for exams
• Distraction-reduced testing environments
College Counselor's Support
Students with disabilities often also experience significant mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. These can be further triggered by significant changes in their environment or support system, as is likely to occur when transitioning to college.
College counselors can provide valuable support during this time, helping students deal with a variety of mental health problems. Academic advisors and student success coordinators also play a critical role in supporting students with disabilities.
Family Support with Adjustment
Family provides the ultimate support system prior to college, but this should not end upon entering the postsecondary phase. If anything, family support is even more important at this point. Familal support can take many forms, even when family members are not physically present. Examples include phone calls, care packages, and regular visits.
Support From Roommates and Fellow Students
While roommates cannot always be called on for significant support, many unknowingly do so simply by providing emotional solace and a safe space to vent. Many roommates build strong and supportive relationships and may even become lifelong friends. Students can look to the Office of Student Accommodations for support with housing concerns but are also encouraged to embrace student life opportunities, such as clubs or campus ministries.
How to Build an Inclusive Campus Environment
Students should not need to rely exclusively on their support networks to make college easier to navigate. Ideally, the campus itself will be built and structured in a way that intuitively supports students of all types.
Providing Necessary Classroom Accommodations
From traditional lectures to smaller classes and online coursework, classroom setups should be adapted to ensure that all students are able to engage with the subject matter while building meaningful relationships with professors and fellow students. This might mean providing accessible furniture, interpreters, or captioning. Accommodations are also important for lab and clinical experiences, which present unique complications above and beyond those posed by the traditional classroom environment.
Making Sure There Are No Physical Barriers
It should be easy for all types of students to physically access their classrooms or other learning environments. This means complying with ADA Accessibility Guidelines so that students with mobility impairments can easily reach classrooms, housing, and other essentials. Additionally, there should be easy options for allowing students with disabilities to partake in recreational opportunities so that they can find ways to relax and mitigate stress.
Variety of Resources for Instructional Materials
Textbooks remain the status quo for studying outside of class, but in their traditional form, they can present numerous barriers for students with disabilities. Thankfully, digital solutions abound these days, and many students find success with large print or audio files — or even text-to-speech software. Additional accommodations may be needed for certain online materials or to ensure that students can complete different types of projects and assignments.
Assistance With Assessments
Testing is often a huge source of stress for students with disabilities, who may require more time than is typically allotted — or may even need a separate environment where distractions can be kept to a minimum. In some situations, screen readers or special testing booklets may also be needed.
Help Foster Independence and Empowerment
No matter which personal challenges they face, all students should enjoy opportunities to develop independence as they chart their unique paths through college. This is particularly important for those with disabilities who, while requiring some accommodations, also need to learn how to deal with a variety of roadblocks. After all, these students will no doubt face unique challenges as they emerge from the supportive college environment. To that end, colleges need to navigate a fine line between supporting students with disabilities versus inadvertently holding them back.
Students are less likely to take advantage of support offerings if they feel pressured or as though there is a stigma attached to seeking support. Therefore, supportive efforts should be built on a foundation of respect, empowering students to make the best decisions based on their unique needs and circumstances. Likewise, support should never be forced upon a student but, rather, of the student’s own volition.
Follow Up with Positivity
Should they make the most of accommodations, students should know that their choices are respected and appreciated. Positive feedback from advisors, success coordinators, and counselors can help. A top-down approach to developing an inclusive culture will also increase the likelihood that other students are thoughtful and supportive.
Allow Time for Adjustment
It takes time for any student to adjust to the realities of college life, but this adjustment period might look a bit different for those with disabilities. They should be granted plenty of time to learn about their new environment and its offerings — and multiple chances to determine which strategies are most likely to produce successful academic outcomes and improved wellbeing.
How Cumberlands Supports Their Students
On the hunt for an inclusive and accessible campus environment? At University of the Cumberlands, we are proud to offer a variety of services and accommodations that help all types of students make the most of the college experience.
Be supported with Cumberlands as you earn your college degree. Learn more today!