Heading to a college campus is daunting for anyone, but particularly for students who require accommodations and aren't sure where to start. In many cases, those with physical disabilities and health conditions must spend a significant amount of time advocating for themselves throughout their college years.
To get a handle on how students can best navigate this process, College Confidential sat down with Annie Tulkin, founder and director of Accessible College in Washington, D.C., and former associate director of the Academic Resource Center at Georgetown University, Georgetown's disability support office (DSO). Check out Tulkin's advice to students with health conditions and physical disabilities.
College Confidential: How important is it for students to tell colleges about any disabilities or health needs during the application process?
Annie Tulkin: Students don't have to disclose a disability during the application process, but they may choose to talk about it, particularly if they have educational gaps due to medical treatments or illnesses. Additionally, discussion of a disability might also be a part of the student's personal narrative. They may have overcome something that they want to talk about in their college essays, but they don't have to disclose a disability. It's important to note that college admissions committees don't know if a student got extra time on the ACT or SAT unless the student discloses it. The admissions process is totally distinct from the disability support office and the college accommodations process.
CC: What can students do during the college search process to ensure that they select a school that will best accommodate their needs?
AT: Research! Students can check out the websites of the DSOs to get a sense of the services and supports that the college offers for students with disabilities. If you have a physical disability, try to visit the schools you're considering. It's difficult to get a real sense of what it's like to get around campus from a virtual tour. Even in-person tours may not be accessible to a wheelchair, due to things like oddly placed staircases or cobblestones. All universities are technically required to be ADA compliant, but technical compliance does not always equal usability for every individual. Students with physical disabilities and/or health conditions will need to first identify their needs, then they can use that to inform their college search processes. For example, someone who uses a wheelchair may want to consider looking at places with more temperate climates and less snow, or places that are flat if they use a manual wheelchair. Someone with a health condition that requires specific treatment may opt to stay close to their treating physicians, or choose a college with a medical center.
Typically, the students I work with are looking at academic fit like every other student, they just have additional considerations to factor in. A big part of the equation is connecting with DSOs up front. I usually recommend that when a student narrows their college search down to approximately five schools, that they have conversations with DSOs to find out what services and supports that college offers. It's important to the student to get a sense of the people in the DSO, who the student will be interacting with at least once a semester in order to get their accommodations in place. This conversation with the DSO can help students determine what accommodations they may be able to receive, and where they feel the most comfortable. Additionally, prospective students can ask to be connected with current students with similar disabilities to learn about their experiences on campus. Depending on the college and campus, things can look very different from school to school .
For example, some schools have accessible buses that can transport students with physical disabilities to classes, and at other schools the expectation is that all students will walk/roll to class. Colleges may also have disability resource centers, support groups, or identity groups. In connecting with the DSO prior to applying, students can get a sense of what is available on campus, and how supportive the school will be for them. It's important to understand that the college accommodations process is very different from what students may have been used to in high school. In college you have to self-disclose your disability to the DSO and request accommodations. Additionally, each semester you will connect with your professors to provide them with an accommodation letter, which outlines accommodations that you have been approved to receive. Students have to be comfortable discussing their disability and their needs. For many students, this is uncharted territory.
CC: What should students do to ensure they can get the resources they need at college?
AT: Colleges and universities are required to provide accommodations for students with documented health conditions or disabilities, but students must first disclose those disabilities. At a small college that doesn't have a lot of students, there might be an "ADA or 504 Coordinator," however, most schools have a DSO (note: the DSO may have a difference name. Some examples are Access Services, Disability Support Services or Academic Services). It's the student's responsibility to request accommodations in college. This typically involves providing documentation and participating in the interactive process, where the student discusses their functional limitations and the types of accommodations they are requesting with a counselor in the DSO. For example, if a student has a gastrointestinal issue (i.e.: Crohn's disease or IBS) and they are seeking accommodations, the student would set up a time to meet with a counselor in the DSO, provide documentation, have a conversation about their needs, and request accommodations. They may have frequent flare-ups of their condition and they may request academic accommodations such as breaks during class, breaks during exams and extensions on assignments. They may also need housing accommodations such as a private bathroom and dining accommodations to accommodate a specific diet. It's important that students are able to effectively articulate what they need. Depending on the college, the counselor in the DSO may recommend accommodations or they might solely rely on the student to request specific accommodations.
CC: If a student had an IEP or a 504 plan in high school, does that carry over to college?
AT: The short answer is "no." Students can receive accommodations in college, but they no longer have an IEP or a 504 Plan. The term "IEP" comes from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a law that provides rights and protections for students with disabilities in public schools in the K-12 setting. Colleges provide accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504). Section 504 protects students from discrimination on the basis of a disability. Students who had an IEP in high school will get transition planning as part of the process of moving into post-secondary education. However, this planning may not be comprehensive, so it's important for families to do their own research and preparation. Students with a 504 plan don't receive transition planning, so if the student has a 504 plan for a health condition, such as migraine disorders, epilepsy or another health condition, be sure to have conversations about college transition. The transition process needs to start early. Too often, parents are the driving force in the accommodations process in high school, so there aren't a lot of opportunities for students to learn self-advocacy, executive function and effective communication skills. Many states offer transition guides that outline skills that student should be working on from grade nine to 12 in order to be prepared for the transition to college.
I work one-on-one with students and families starting in high school to determine the accommodations they need based on their current functional limitations, and what questions to ask up-front to select a college that will be a good fit for them. I often work collaboratively with college counselors and college consultants who can support the student in finding the best academic fit. The students and I craft questions based on individual needs, and think through specific scenarios so that when they speak with a counselor in the DSO, they are prepared.
I also assist students in developing self-advocacy skills. This up-front work in the college search phase, combined with the research they are doing with a college counselor/consultant, can be immensely helpful in identifying colleges that will be a good fit for the student.
CC: When should students with conditions start the process of identifying schools and finding out what accommodations they'll need?
AT: As early as possible. At most schools, students start working with a college counselor around sophomore year. Some families opt to hire a college consultant to support the students in the college search, selection and admissions process. At Accessible College, I work with students in the college search phase, all the way through college. One way that students can begin to work on becoming an effective self advocate is know their needs. This usually starts with understanding their condition and how it impacts them in school, at home and socially. College accommodations apply to all areas on campus: academic, housing, recreation and programmatic. Sometimes, students are exhausted by the focus on their conditions, but it's important to engage in conversations about transition early so students can be prepared to request accommodations in college so that they can be successful. Some students may be on the fence about requesting accommodations, but I advise them to get the accommodations approved to have in place just in case they need them.
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