Parents of a child with special needs are usually quite familiar with the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) process within their respective schools or district. IEP meetings, academic goals, testing accommodations, and insight into the child’s academic performance are all standard, and the program is reviewed each year as a child progresses through the grades.
But what happens when a child is nearing the end of high school? Well, pretty much everything changes.
What Is an IEP?
For those unfamiliar, “IEPs are generated for students who are in need of customized supports and services in school,” explains Theresa Peterford, Vice President of Career Development and Student Integration at Integration Charter Schools. “In order to be eligible for one, a student would need to meet the criteria for one of the 13 disability classifications as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).” Disabilities include such conditions as autism, learning disabilities, hearing or vision impairment, and more.
Then, Peterford says, “teams comprised of the students’ parents or guardians, teachers, and other relevant staff members come together to create the IEP and determine which special education services the student needs in order to be successful in school.”
While it’s easy for students and their families to grow accustomed to the accommodations provided, they are essentially terminated when the student graduates from secondary school, which can be quite a shock and adjustment.
Why Disclosing a Disability (or Not) to a College Matters
As a student nears graduation, Peterford says, staff members complete a Student Exit Summary describing the students’ academic performance, including recommendations for meeting their measurable postsecondary goals. This is imperative because, “Colleges have no way of knowing that a student requires special services unless the student discloses that information,” she says. “If a student still feels they need support after high school, it is highly recommended that they work with colleges accessibility office upon admission to ensure that they have access to the tools that they need to succeed.”
“Colleges have no way of knowing that a student requires special services unless the student discloses that information.”
Working with the college’s accessibility office is key to continuing support, but it’s also not an obligation. As the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) outlines, if you want a school to provide an academic adjustment, you must identify yourself as having a disability. However, “your disclosure of a disability is always voluntary.”
Typically, OCR writes on its website, the accessibility office will be able to make accommodations, often referred to as adjustments, such as “arranging for priority registration; reducing a course load; substituting one course for another; providing note takers, recording devices, sign language interpreters, extended time for testing, and, if telephones are provided in dorm rooms, a TTY in your dorm room; and equipping school computers with screen-reading, voice recognition, or other adaptive software or hardware.”
However, colleges and universities are not required to modify essential requirements, OCR writes, including the content of examinations, or anything that would, “fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program, or activity, or that would result in an undue financial or administrative burden.” They also are not required to provide personal attendants, devices, readers, or tutoring and typing assistive technology.
And while you cannot be denied admission because of a disability, prospective students are held to the same essential admissions requirements.
How to Manage the Transition
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates that transition planning is included in the first IEP of the year the student turns 16, but Peterford explains, “The IEP team and parents should begin discussing transition planning and post-secondary goals with students earlier if possible. The transition plan covers specific steps that students should be taking in order to achieve their goals as they leave high school.” Regardless of whether college or career is the next step, Peterford adds that the challenges they face and options they have should be discussed in transition planning.
Peterford also says she encourages all students to get a full re-evaluation to obtain the most up-to-date information about their needs, should they choose to disclose them. She adds, “There are also scholarships available for students with disabilities. Students and parents should definitely do their research in advance so that they can take full advantage of these opportunities.”
“Looking at a students’ strengths during transition planning is helpful in order to offer guidance on career paths that the student would excel in,” she says.
Of course, when planning for the college transition, IEP students should also consider all the “typical” questions of a college-bound student. “Aside from considering accessibility options, they should be asking the same questions all other students embarking on the college journey would be asking,” says Peterford.
Factors such as program offerings, location, class and school size, admission rate and requirements, student to faculty ratio, quality of professors, success rates, extracurricular opportunities and campus environment are among the many, many factors all students should consider when choosing a college, she advises.
And as independent as a college student might want to be or feel, parental and guardian support is key, while also allowing and preparing their children to self-advocate.
“Self-advocating takes practice and a great way to begin is by encouraging students to attend and participate in their IEP meetings,” Peterford offers. By ensuring children are aware of their learning styles, strengths, and weaknesses and are able to articulate their own learning needs, it ensures that students with disabilities will be able to self-advocate once they are attending college.
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