Adjusting to college life can be challenging for students with disabilities, but student services departments are designed to make this transition easier.
In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, colleges and universities are required to provide qualified students with disabilities with the appropriate accommodations and services.
College staff and faculty are not required to identify students as having a disability or assess their needs. Instead, it is the student’s responsibility to submit documentation of physical or learning disabilities from licensed medical or testing personnel.
Barbara Beam, associate dean of Student Affairs at South University — Savannah, says every college has their own way of implementing disability services, but they are required to provide special education and assistive technology and services to documented students with disabilities who need them.
“We have to listen to the students and make sure they get the help they need,” she says. “We have verification and documentation forms that students have completed by a doctor or psychologist. Part of that documentation is the doctor's suggested classroom accommodations.”
Richard Allegra, director of Professional Development at the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), says institutions of higher education need to understand disability civil rights, social justice concepts, and legal compliance as they apply to all aspects of campus life.
“Disabled persons are represented within the diversity of the general student body,” he says. “Thus, colleges need to ensure that their programs, services and facilities are accessible to all students” as well as employees, family members, and visitors.
Disabled students entering college right after high school need to understand the differences between K-12 education and college. Most have come from primary and secondary school situations where parents, counselors, and teachers have managed their school accommodations for them, so they may automatically think college faculty and staff will know what they need.
However, when students enter college, they are considered adults whose privacy must be respected and are responsible for making their own decisions.
“I think it is important for students with disabilities to understand there are differences between high school and college and how those services are delivered,” says Alisa Krouse, assistant chancellor for Student Affairs at South University. “They also need to know what their rights are and their responsibilities as a student with a disability. In a higher education setting, it is about them being proactive and taking an equal role in self advocacy.”
Institutions are obligated to provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services to address accessibility barriers in the environment. There are a wide range of these. Some examples of auxiliary aids and services (not appropriate for all students with disabilities) include: wheelchair access, interpreters, electronic readers, adaptable classroom furniture, reduced course loads, or extra time on exams.
Accommodations are determined and arranged in an interactive process that analyzes each situation, identifies barriers and determines appropriate methods to address the barriers, Allegra says.
College staff and faculty are advised to stay up to date on disability rights and laws.
“Currently, institutions need to be aware of the changes to the ADA, and prepare new policies concerning things like service animals, access for mobility devices, and effective communication,” Allegra says. “New guidelines for accessible facilities are out; institutional planners and managers need to be aware of them and have a plan for implementing them by next year.”
Krouse says South University staff members receive regular training to stay current and compliant. “We actually have a disability services chairperson who will coordinate quarterly web-based training, and all disability services coordinators have access to a manual that outlines processes and procedures, laws, and has different template forms — intake process, quarterly letters, and more.”
Students with physical or learning disabilities have greater access to higher education today. The support they receive from fellow students, faculty, admissions staff, and coordinators of academic and disability support programs can help them meet their educational goals.
“We want to help all students be as successful as possible,” Beam says. “Our primary job is to help students meet their education goals and move on to the next stages of life.”