How to Prepare for College When You Have a Disability

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If you have a disability, planning to attend college might seem like a nightmare — but in reality, with a bit of preparation, you can do anything you put your mind to. It’s important to know your rights as a disabled student and know what you have to do to get ready for the next stage in your life. We’ve talked to Bryan Mac Murray, an outreach specialist at Disability Benefits Center, to help you prepare for college when you have a disability. You’ve got this, collegiettes.


1. Distinguish between high school and college

High school and college are two different ball games  and it's important to recognize the difference. “Like typically-abled students, it may be a bit hard to get used to the lack of structure, more specifically if your disability is one that requires a bit of planning to compensate for,” Mac Murray says. “For instance, if your college/university has different campuses and uses shuttle vans/busses to get to each, it's possible that the bus/shuttle that comes through isn't accessible to someone who is para/quadriplegic. If your disability is one that is mental in nature, it can be difficult to adjust to a new environment, which can be compounded by the everyday experience of being a college freshman.”

High school is a teaching environment where you acquire facts and skills, while college is a learning environment where you must take responsibility for thinking, reasoning and applying what you’ve learned. Being aware of the differences and prepared to tackle them will leave you ready to go.

2. Know your rights

As a student with a disability, you shouldn’t be facing any discrimination. According to Mac Murray, disabled students have exactly the same rights as able-bodied students. “However, under the ADA, they do have the right to ask for reasonable accommodation,” he says. “As an example, someone who has a musculoskeletal disorder that inhibits his or her mobility might ask for housing closer to campus." Schools can deny you these accommodations under these three circumstances: 

  • If it's an undue financial or administrative burden
  • If the accommodation is over a personal nature (i.e. going to the bathroom)
  • If it would fundamentally alter the school's academic standards (if they require you to take a class to graduate and your your disability would make it hard or even impossible to pass)

“In addition, religious schools who do not accept federal financial aid may not be subject to the rule of the ADA and may not need to accommodate your request,” Mac Murray adds.

You aren’t required to tell the school you have a disability. However, if you want an academic adjustment, you must let them know about your disability. It’s ultimately up to you, but you’ll have more opportunities for equity if you let them know about it.

Related: People Are Not Happy With The Portrayal of Disability In 'Me Before You'

3. Figure out what school is best for you

Mac Murray says research is key when finding the right school for you. “Many schools have ADA coordinators or administrative staff that can help you figure out if that school is right for your chosen course of study, what problems you might have at the school,” he says. “Assess what you can do, what the school offers, and find out if you can meet in the middle.”

If you’ve established an academic adjustment and it’s not working, it’s important to let the school know as soon as you can. There’s nothing worse than feeling hopeless and not reaching out for help. Work with your school to figure out what works for you, and don’t give up until you find something that does.

4. Love yourself

In a transition time like this, it’s extremely important to love and accept everything about yourself. You’re you and there’s no reason to feel ashamed of that.

Jacqueline Marchioni, a senior at the University of British Columbia, knows just how true this is. “If you don't already love yourself, fight like hell to learn to,” she says. “Speaking as an autistic, I know there are very big, very well-funded hate groups (like Autism Speaks) that say that autism is a terrible thing and want to rid the world of us. In order to help you love yourself in the face of odds like these, seek out supportive communities of other disabled people.” Jacqueline also suggests that autistic women see if there is a chapter of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network near you.

The most important thing is finding a community of people who will love and accept you for who you are. You’re beautiful you, and you must love yourself for that.

5. Try everything

Mac Murray suggests not holding back when it comes to personal life. "The one thing I really regret is that I wasn't as outgoing in college as I could have been," he says. Don't be afraid to try something new. You never know where it may lead you!

Getting ready for college is an extremely exciting time in your life, so don’t let a disability prevent you from having the best experience you can. You’re strong, you’re important and you can do anything you put your mind to. Reach out to your school’s Section 504 Coordinator, ADA Coordinator or Disability Services Coordinator for any questions or concerns you may have. You have a support network there for you.

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About The Author

Rachel graduated from the Honors College at James Madison University in May 2017 and is pursuing a career in the media/PR industry. She majored in Media Arts & Design with a concentration in journalism and minored in Spanish and Creative Writing. She loves spending time with friends and family, traveling, and going to the beach.