What College Students with ADHD Need to Know About Advocacy and Accommodations
Individuals with special learning needs are guaranteed special supports in elementary and high school by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. However, in college, the protections are somewhat different.
Two federal laws guarantee equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in relation to services and employment. College students with disabilities are protected from discrimination in higher education by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and its amendments passed in 2008, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (specifically section 504).
All public institutions are covered by these federal laws and almost all private, religious, trade and technical schools are covered because almost all non-public institutions receive federal financial assistance, either directly or indirectly.
Despite these protections, your right to accommodations is not automatic – colleges that do not accept federal funding are not required to grant accommodations, although they may. This is rarely a problem, however, since almost all colleges receive either direct or indirect federal financial assistance. Colleges that accept individuals receiving federal financial aid are receiving indirect financial assistance from the government, and are therefore required to provide a non-discriminatory environment according to the laws.
Originally published on September 13th, 2017, this article was updated and republished on September 20th, 2022.
Working with Campus Support Services
Who should you talk to about accommodations you need? Each college determines the process for qualifying for accommodations and the type of accommodations offered. Therefore, students need to work with their college to obtain the reasonable accommodations that they need.
Contact the office of disability services or the ADA or Section 504 coordinator at your college. If possible, contact the office during your senior year in high school or as soon as you are accepted to the college in order to start the process of qualifying for accommodations.
Each college has its own guidelines for documenting the need for accommodations so you should contact the disabilities services office before gathering documentation. However, the following are general guidelines for the type of documentation required.
The testing you provide must be conducted by a professional who is licensed and qualified to diagnose the particular disability. Appropriate professionals for diagnosing ADHD/ADD include a clinical psychologist, neurologist, psychiatrist or medical doctor.
The testing procedures must be appropriate for diagnosing the particular disability and be thoroughly documented in terms of types of testing procedures, observations, results and dates of administration.
Generally, the documentation must be “current” which is often interpreted by colleges to mean the testing must be no older than 3 years. If your testing that is more than 3 years old, you should expect to supplement it with a letter from a professional who is knowledgeable about your current limitations. Colleges may require you to be retested if your testing was conducted more than 3 years ago.
You must document the existence of a “functional impairment” stemming from a disability that requires accommodations to level the playing field in the areas affected by the disability. It is not enough to have a diagnosis or a “label” without demonstrating how the disability impairs your ability to participate in an educational program in substantially the same manner as individuals without the disability.
Colleges will make determinations regarding the need for accommodations on a case-by-case basis. They are not allowed to take into consideration any “mitigating measures” that you use to reduce the impact of your disability. For example, they are not allowed to deny accommodations simply due to factors such as taking ADHD medication, working with a coach, receiving tutoring, or the helpfulness of any systems or aids you use to improve your performance.
You’ll want to include documentation of any accommodations you received in high school or at other colleges. An IEP or 504 plan from high school is almost never sufficient in and of itself to document the need for accommodations in college, but it is helpful to share it with the college. You’ll also want to consider documenting any informal accommodations relevant to your request (for example, your high school English teacher giving you more time to take tests).
If You Have a Learning Disability
There are many types of learning disabilities and you may require accommodations to level the playing field that differ from the accommodations needed stemming from ADHD.
Remember that accommodation requests can be based upon your challenges as they stem from either the learning disability or ADHD or both. The requirements above regarding documenting your need for accommodations stemming from ADHD also apply for LD accommodations. For example, you’ll need to document the functional limitation due to your learning disability and your testing must be current.
Plan For Success
Successful students understand themselves well. They know their strengths and they have developed ways to minimize the effects of their weaknesses. They also have a clear idea of their short-range and long-term goals, and are committed to meeting these goals.
These self-advocacy steps will help you obtain the support you need, not only from others but from yourself as well!
Before You Go Off to College
- Have a clear plan to graduate in a certain time frame and set your schedule to realistically accomplish this plan.
- Think about the kind of academic support you’ll need (for example, will you need tutoring) and make plans to set this up.
- Think through what kind of support you’d like to have from your parents and friends and express your needs before you go to college.
- Logically plan the kind of support you need to give to yourself!
- Plan ahead on how to manage stress, loneliness, and change.
Keeping Your Balance
- Don’t suffer in silence – speak out and reach out when you need support.
- Get professional, trained help when you need it: tutor, coach, doctor, etc.
- As soon as you identify a problem surfacing in a class, figure out how to remove it from your path.
- Pause, think and reflect before diving in – avoid the “Opps! and regret.”
- Everything is easier when you get enough sleep, exercise and more healthy foods.
- Seek balance in all things – academics, relationships, personal interests, career development, spiritual growth.
- Seek out stabilizing forces – people, classes, work experiences, living arrangements, etc.
- Keep your long-term, personal goals front and center in your mind, guiding you through the tough times!
- Reward yourself for meeting your deadlines and achieving your goals!
Mindset and Growth
- Resistance and avoidance delay maturity; meet challenges head on and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
- Evaluate and think through setbacks – they are the teachers of success!
- Success is a consistent mindset that says “I can do this, I will do this!”
- Become knowledgeable about your right to accommodations based on your particular challenges.
- Become a calm, persistent and mature advocate for your own needs – and your own strengths!
Stay Connected to Professors
Be sure to interact frequently with your professors and meet with them during their office hours. This will help you find the class more enjoyable as well as improve your grade. Ask your professors to review your work and offer you suggestions on how to strengthen your performance. Showing your professors you’re invested in the class goes a long way towards earning their respect, which will make you even more interested in the class!
Instructors and professors have the power to make decisions that can help students be more successful. The following are some modifications a student may be able to negotiate on a case-by-case basis with individual instructors:
- Obtaining the instructor’s permission to modify an assignment or getting extra time to complete the assignment.
- Asking for advice about selecting classes or instructors.
- Asking the instructor to award an incomplete rather than an “F” – but be aware of the college policy in regard to “clearing” the “I.”
Typical “reasonable accommodations” that colleges may decide to grant include:
- Extra time to take tests.
- Providing a note taker.
- Taking tests in a separate room.
- Test read orally to the student and/or the student’s answers transcribed or typed.
- Placement in a section taught by a teacher who uses multisensory methods.
- Allowing a student to substitute an equivalent online course.
- Use of tape recorder to record lectures.
- Tutoring services (some colleges have tutoring geared for students with special needs, however, most colleges have tutoring available to all students – check both sources).
- Taking a reduced class load.
- Requesting “full-time” status for purposes of qualifying for health insurance or financial aid.
If you’d like to join a supportive and inclusive community of people who understand what you’re going through, check out ADDA+.
Find out more about accommodations in this article.
Dr. Kari Miller, PhD, BCET is a board certified educational therapist and ADHD coach who has been educating and coaching adults and young people who have ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, emotional challenges, and other complex needs for more than twenty-five years. She holds a PhD in educational psychology and mathematical statistics, an MEd in Learning Disabilities, Gifted Education and Educational Diagnosis, and a BS in Early Childhood Education and Behavior Disorders. Dr. Miller provides support across the lifespan – to school-aged students with learning and attention challenges, to young adults in transition to college or the workplace, and to women with ADHD who have passionate dreams, but are frustrated by procrastination, lack of focus and difficulty following through.
Dr. Miller is a great advocate for students with disabilities and an expert on ADHD. Her guidance has been of great help to me while creating a compelling argument to support implementation of already approved accommodations as a graduate student.
My brother has a learning disability, but he really wants to finish college. I appreciate your advice to make sure that he goes and talks with the professors about his problem because I’m sure they’d love to help him reach his goals as well. Maybe they can extend due dates, or point him to some resources that can help him!
Hi my daughter is in college and 3 years ago she has been diagnosed with ADHD by 3 physicians with the recommendations of counsellors from the attending College. It has been a struggle within the school system in itself and the debilitating ability that is now causing her education to be at risk. We have pursued and applied and chased the staff to this institution to just sit and consider her disability. We found few who was willing to review her case and some just quickly dismiss her to narrow done the students of Nursing Program. Now that she has missed the deadline because she was denied for accommodation she no longer eligible to stay in nursing program, after 3 1/2 years of struggle and battle, her mental state is spiraling down. Her depression is to the max. As a mother, my fear Is to no ending. I am asking anyone out there who can help us to be an advocate and a representative to an ADHD college student to please help us stand to GSU college who does not believe that she is just as important as well as any other student. Thank you
My daughter is struggling with the same issue and having the same problem at the college she is attending online in Utah for a teaching degree and we are also looking for an advocate for her she has had herself retested has letters from both her psychiatrist and her family physician the school is aware of her add but is unwilling to allow her to use the tools that she used through grade school in high school which is stated in her IEP which she also sent the school a copy of that so if you find an advocate that can help with your daughter please let me know thank you
Hello! My son is in his freshman year of college for which he received a golf and Bible scholarship. As we know with any scholarship are also requirements of taking a certain number of hours and maintaining a certain GPA. We were concerned about this from the beginning as he was required to take a full load and we felt he needed to start slow with only a few classes to get accustom to college level work, change of living on campus etc., however it’s the only financial support available as we did not qualify for PELL grant assistance. Well our fears came true after his first semester of receiving a .09 GPA we definitely knew something was wrong. So we had him tested for ADD Jan and Feb 2020. Results were given in Mar 2020 that he has Mild to moderate ADD with Global Academic Underachievement. We never had him tested in elementary or high school because his grades were always good throughout until 8th grade and then grades weren’t bad but had started slipping some and we attributed it to adolescent changes, work became harder in school, transition from elementary to junior high where we couldn’t monitor work being done because their was never anymore “homework”. His teachers also never threw up a red flag for us that he had any issues….always just said “Isaacs a social butterfly and likes to pay attention to others and talk”. Anyway…of course as parents we knew something wasn’t quite right but no one else thought so therefore we just moved on.
So….what now? The college claims it ALL has to be student initiated to receive help. Is that true? We submitted his Psych evaluation and emailed the appropriate people at his college. After much delay and a repeat email, that’s what we were told. Isaac has to email all his instructors. So he did and asked for any help they could possibly give him. At this point we were already at midterm and this COVID mess hit so everything went online only, so you know now there’s no help! First…how does any instructor allow any student to even get to failing at midterm, disability or not if you see a student struggling before midterms….HELP THEM!!! RIGHT? Get them tutoring, call them in to find out what’s going on. Some students are embarrassed and extremely nervous to go to their instructors especially freshman that are in survival mode. Lots lots more to this story but I’ve rambled on for awhile now. Any advisement from anyone out there please email me. I’m trying to advocate for my son and feel defeated at every turn. Thank you in advance for help!!
I am able to understand your plight. My daughter has always had to deal with distractions and staying on task. As a very bright, honors students we had to go at it ourselves. She was unable to take any medications as they had a detrimental effect on her many years ago. She went off to college in 2018 and for 3 semesters was a star student, earning accolades, summer internship and more scholarships from her university. Then came March 2020. She told us she was doing well, keeping up her grades and staying on task. We let her be despite not liking the hours she kept, how she ate and lack of exercise. The one thing she found joy in was on line Dungeons and Dragons sessions with friends. We have been asking about final grades and finally found them ourselves last week. She got 2 Fs 2 Cs and 1 A-, Wholly cow, we were stunned, she is devastated and says she was ‘terrified’ to tell us she was struggling. I even suggested on multiple occasions that she follow-up with the school Psychologist to see where she was on the list for the Psychiatrist. She never even did that. Now she has petitioned the school to remain in “Honors” has a meeting with her advisor and hopefully can get the C grades changed to Pass. She has a phone appt with a school counselor this week and we are praying the university will have mercy on her. It was very early on that students were offered the pass/fail option but were only given a week to decide. She never discussed it with us and out of site, out of mind for her and here we are. It I very apparent she needs help and cannot function with online studies without intervention. UNH is going back this fall and she has a bit of an uphill climb to prove that she is capable again. The labs can be retaken, and she knows we love her and will help her. She has to do this herself but we will guide her through the fog as best we can. Parenting never ends and we are researching more about new therapies for ADD/ADHD, both me and her father have it and have dealt with it all our adult lives. It’s not enjoyable but we do continue on. The Covid-19 issue must be having a huge effect on thousands of students, I’d like to hear from other parents on what/how they are helping their students.
I am attending the University of Utah and I am an older student returning to school. Even though I flunked the 1st grade and was in resource, I was not diagnosed with ADHD until a few years ago. This time, since I know of my disorder I registered with the Center for Disability and Access. They sent me for more in-depth testing and I jsut found out I also have dyslexia with a 3rd grade reading recall. I have let my instructors know and the majority have been willing to work with me. However, the accommodations I am receiving through the CDA have been ineffective. Sometimes, I simply do not see some of the assignments on my class dashboard. I told my advisor at the CDA the accommodations were not working for me. It is not extra time on assignments I need, (which I can only have if I set it up ahead of time), but it is being able to see and know about all the assignments.
He said, “I don’t know what to say about that”. So I took my accommodation memo with the ineffective accommodations listed to my instructors. In one class I still missed several assignments. The instructor will not let me make them up and is failing me for the course, which means I will now lose the scholarships I managed to get for the first time in my life and I am going to be on academic probation for the rest of my program until I can retake this class at the end of my program.
I was hoping the Americans with Disabilities Act would protect me more, but so far it is not. I have no idea why they even say it includes learning disabilities because i am finding out that it does not. The CDA office won’t help me because they say the teacher did offer me the extended time on a few assignments I did see and that is according to the accommodations memo they gave me and that is all she is required to do in order to say she worked with me. I even told my advisor they weren’t working but I guess I wasn’t forceful enough. I have been given no other ideas by them as to what might help my situation so I have be googling and calling other CDA offices at universities across the country to get ideas of what sort of accommodations they have offered to students with ADHD and dyslexia. I feel very much let down by my school, the CDA office, instructors and the ADA that offers no protection even though the claim is it does. I am so frustrated and don’t know if I will be able to stay in school because of this.
I am appealing with the associate dean at this point. But if that doesn’t work, I plan to file a complaint with the office of equal opportunity, the Department of Education and possibly the US Department of Justice on my way out the door.
They say the one ineffective accommodation gave me equal access but I disagree. I don’t feel I had equal access as my peers who are able to navigate the class dashboard better and read and interprate instructions better. I might have still failed if I had been able to do the two assignments I missed and not hand one in incomplete but at least I would have failed based on not knowing the class material or being able to do the work. All of my peers at least got that chance. I didn’t even get out the gate by not being able to see or register in my brain the assignment links. How is that equal access??
I don’t get this site. I have tried to post a reply several times but I never see it come up. So when I retry to post it, I get a message saying, “You already said that”. But then I don’t see it anywhere. Does it not show you your own comments.