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.
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.