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A Guide to College Accommodations as a Student with Disabilities

For students with disabilities, obtaining proper accommodations is crucial for achieving academic success in college. The transition from high school to higher education brings new challenges, and understanding one's rights and the process for requesting accommodations is vital. Federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act protect the rights of students with disabilities at the college level, requiring institutions to provide reasonable accommodations that ensure equal access to educational programs and activities.



Understanding the Legal Framework

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 are the primary federal laws that protect the rights of individuals with disabilities in educational settings, including colleges and universities. These laws require institutions of higher education to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified students with disabilities to ensure equal access to educational programs and activities.


Registering with Disability Services

The first step in obtaining accommodations is to register with the college's disability services office. This office is responsible for coordinating accommodations and ensuring compliance with disability laws. It's important to provide documentation of your disability, such as medical records, psychological evaluations, or educational assessments, to support your request for accommodations. In order to make sure that you have access to your accommodations when school starts, it is important to register as early as possible - right after enrolling is a great time to contact them!


Common Accommodations and Services in College

While all colleges must legally provide certain supports and services for students with disabilities, many go beyond the minimum requirements. College websites may list some accommodations, but to fully understand the range of options, it's best to directly contact the disability services office. They can explain the accommodations commonly provided as well as discuss less frequently offered ones. It's important to note that availability can vary across schools, an accommodation being offered doesn't guarantee approval, and additional unlisted options may exist. The disability services staff reviews each accommodation request individually based on the student's specific documentation and needs before making determinations.


Text book in a college library

Commonly Available General Accommodations

Reduced Course Load

  • Allows a lighter academic schedule for students whose disabilities impact their ability to handle a standard full-time course load.

Priority Registration

  • Ensures early class enrollment for students with mobility impairments requiring accessible classrooms, those relying on personal care attendants, or those following strict treatment regimens.

Alternate Format Materials

  • Provides textbooks, handouts, etc. in braille, audio, digital or other accessible formats for students with print disabilities like visual or learning impairments.

Flexible Attendance

  • Permits a reasonable number of excused absences for students whose disabilities cause periodic severe symptoms or episodes, though students must still meet minimum attendance requirements set by the college and instructor.


Student taking notes on a laptop

Commonly Available Classroom Accommodations

  • Permission to Record Classes

  • Permission to use laptop for note taking

  • Permission to receive copies of notes from a classmate


Commonly Available Exam Accommodations

Extended Time

  • Allows additional time beyond the standard limit for completing exams, though untimed exams are rarely provided.

Exam Breaks

  • Permits scheduled restroom/medication breaks during exams for students with physical disabilities or conditions that require brief periods to regroup mentally.

Text-to-Speech Technology

  • Provides exam content audibly through text-reading software for students with print disabilities affecting reading ability.

Reduced Distraction Environment

  • Tests are administered in a location with reduced distraction for students easily prone to loss of concentration. Distraction-free location is typically not available.

Use of Laptop

  • Allows the use of a laptop provided by the school to use rather than be granted the use of a private laptop, unless they have a specially adapted one to accommodate a physical disability. 

Calculator Use

  • Permits calculator use on exams for students approved for this accommodation based on their disability needs. 


Accommodations That May Be More Difficult to Obtain

Memory Aids on Tests

  • Allowing notes, formula sheets, or other memory aids during exams is rarely granted, as students are expected to prepare thoroughly.

Rephrasing Test Questions

  • While text-to-speech software may assist with reading questions, requesting clarification or rephrasing of test content is generally not permitted, as students are expected to understand the exam questions.

Extended Assignment Deadlines

  • Barring extenuating disability-related circumstances, extensions beyond the stated due dates are typically not approved, as students are expected to manage their time in order to meet deadlines.

Instructor's Lecture Notes

  • Rather than requiring professors to provide personal notes, common note-taking accommodations include recorded lectures or peer notes.

Early Access to Slides/Materials

  • Instructors are not obligated to distribute presentation slides, handouts or other class materials prior to the scheduled session.


College student taking an exam

Modifications

While reasonable accommodations must be provided, colleges are not obligated to fundamentally alter courses or curricula through modifications, which are substantial changes to the curriculum or coursework that would alter the essential requirements of a course or program.  Examples of modifications that are typically not granted include:


Reduced assignments or coursework

  • Colleges are not required to reduce the amount of material or assignments, such as having to complete fewer math problems as this would alter the essential requirements of the course.

Altered grading standards

  • Grading standards and criteria must be consistent for all students, and colleges are not required to modify grading policies or lower academic standards for students with disabilities.

Substitutions for core requirements

  • While course substitutions may be allowed in some cases, colleges are not required to waive or substitute core requirements that are essential to the program or degree.

Alternate forms of testing

  • For example a fill-in-the-blank test instead of an essay test, or being allowed to take an oral exam instead of a paper-based exam, is commonly not approved.


Not Really Accommodations

Some common accommodations in high school are not really accommodations, but things that students can seek out on their own and that may be considered during the college search. These can include:


Small class size

  • Students can prioritize applying to colleges offering smaller class sizes if this is important to them.

Extra time with professors

  • Attending professors' office hours allows for additional one-on-one time and guidance.

Quiet study space

  • Colleges offer a variety of study spaces, including quiet library spaces.

Advance notice of assignments

  • Class syllabi typically include assignments with deadlines and exam dates.

Progress reports

  • Online student portals enable monitoring grades and performance throughout the term.

Study guides

  • Students are expected to know how to study and create their own study guides, but schools typically have tutoring centers or peer mentors that can help with this as well. 


Books with support and guidance


Accommodations are widely available at colleges and universities and it is essential for students to be proactive in requesting the specific accommodations they need, even if they are not commonly offered. There is no harm in asking!



The key is to register – and register early – with the disability support office. This ensures that your accommodations are in place from the start of the semester. Remember, if you decide that you don't need certain approved accommodations, you are not obligated to use them. However, there is no such thing as retroactive accommodations in college!



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