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How to Navigate College as a Disabled Student

A black and white service dog.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

What qualifies as a disability? 

Contrary to popular belief, there are no formal qualifications to consider yourself disabled. If you have a condition that impairs your life in a major way, you can be considered disabled.

Disability is a lack of or difficulty with a certain ability, such as writing or walking. Disability is not a bad word, and it doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of amazing things.

It just means there is an area of your life that your condition impacts. Disabilities can be physical, neurological, mental, psychological–anything.

I personally have a few disabling conditions that I will speak on at the end of this article if you are interested in hearing a personal anecdote on the process of seeking accommodations from a fellow disabled person.  

What are “accommodations?”

Accommodations are changes made to help level the playing field between disabled and non-disabled people. They are not “privileges” despite what many people say. Accommodations can be for school, work, a sport team–anywhere in life that you need them.

An accommodation in school is anything that your school or your teachers can do to help aid you with your disability. For example, if you are visually impaired you might have an accommodation of sitting close to the front of the room.

Another example would be someone in a wheelchair needing the accommodation of being assigned a wheelchair-friendly dorm or assistance getting around campus. An accommodation is anything that your school is willing to do to help your specific disability. The good news is that you get to decide what that means for you.

Talk to your teachers 

It may be helpful to speak to your professor at the beginning of the school year about your disabilities. It might help maintain their good impression of you.

Unfortunately, if they don’t know what’s going on with you, a lot of misguided people will write your struggles off as “laziness.” It’s not right of them to, but a lot of people want an easy explanation for their annoyance.

Fortunately, it is not a reflection on you whatsoever. Talking to your professor may also help you understand what hurdles may come up during the school year. They may be able to warn you about events or projects that may be challenging as a result of your disability.

Additionally, talking to your professors may help you get accommodations that the school itself can not provide. These are things like assignment extensions, mental health days, or guaranteed access to your preferred seating in the classroom.

Another reason why talking to your teachers may be helpful is developing an emotional connection. You may not have a lot of support when you get to college. You’re away from your family, your friends, and you’re probably on your own for the first time.

It can be jarring. Talking about yourself and your disabilities can help you establish meaningful connections with educators and staff who might have ideas on how to help. 

How to know what accommodations you’ll need

You may not know what accommodations to even ask for. Maybe you, like me, weren’t lucky enough to have a 504 plan in school or maybe you didn’t become disabled until it was time for college. Whatever the case, it’s okay to not know. A lot of people have no idea.

The first and easiest step is to look it up! Go to your browser of choice and type in “common accommodations for people with (your disability).” Usually there will be plenty of search results to tell you what typical accommodation requests for your condition look like.

You can read that list and write down what you think would be beneficial for you specifically. You may not need the same things that someone else with your same condition does. You should also add any that you come up with to the list. 

If, in the rare instance, your disability has no list of common accommodations online, there are still options. Firstly, there are likely online forums for people with your condition. If you can find your way into one, it should be perfectly acceptable to ask the group what accommodations they would ask for. 

If you can’t find a forum, you can ask friends. Even those without the condition may still be able to offer some helpful insight. As a last point, it’s okay to go into this with no ideas. If you attend your access meeting with no ideas, it’s going to be okay.

The disability office will help you come up with accommodations that would benefit you. If you do happen to come up with some, however, don’t be afraid to ask. They don’t bite. The worst that they can say is “no,” so this is your time to shoot for the stars.

How to request accommodations

The first and easiest thing you can do is go to your school’s website and find their ‘student services’ or ‘disability services’ or ‘office of disability’ page. From there, you’re going to find the email for your school’s disability department. (Try the very bottom of the page if you’re not seeing it.)

If you need housing accommodations, you may wish to find the housing department’s page and cc them in your initial email. If these email addresses aren’t readily accessible, you should contact the school’s general (admissions) email address and ask for that information.

If they do not have an email, you can look up the phone number for the school and ask for the contact information for those departments. They should be happy to help.

Once you have those emails, you may want to ask the department of disability what kind of “documentation” you will need to request accommodations for your disability and whether they have specific templates. If you don’t know, “documentation” in this context essentially just means a doctor’s note.

Your school may have specific formatted templates to give you, or they may just want whatever format your doctor thinks is best. Be sure to ask if they have templates for you. (Side note, if your disability is psychiatric you will likely have to have a psychiatrist’s note, not just a regular doctor’s.)

Once you have the information about what you’ll need, email or call your doctor so the two of you can talk about these forms. You may need to go in person to speak with them, but not usually.

It may take some time for those forms to get filled out, but don’t panic. The best thing you can do is start this process as early as possible, even if it seems excessive.

I submitted my forms in January even though I don’t start school until October. Early submission helps your school be prepared far in advance to help you succeed. 

In the meantime, you should research what accommodations would support your specific condition. This information should be available online, but you’re free to add any suggestions that you come up with to the list. It’s your life and your disability; you know best what’s going to help you.

Make sure you have all your requests written down, because at some point you’ll probably have a meeting with the school’s disability center. This is typically called an “Access Meeting” and is usually held virtually.

When it’s time for your meeting, don’t stress. They’re not there to interrogate you or to make you feel bad. They want to help. Have your list ready, and don’t be afraid to speak your mind. This will not affect your admissions decision, or your tuition, or anything else.

It’s important to make known what needs to happen for you to have equal access. Remember, accommodations are not a ‘special privilege’, not at all. You, as a disabled person may have certain disadvantages compared to your non-disabled peers and accommodations are a way to help level the playing field so that you can have the same access to education as anyone else. 

Your school may reject some of your requests. If you really need that accommodation to thrive in a school environment, you should advocate for yourself and try to get that decision changed.

Consider involving a third party. Maybe a counselor, or a trusted friend, or a professor. There are people who will believe you and who will help advocate for you, and you should ask others for help if you need it.  

How to Choose a College if You Have a Disability

What to do if your request is denied 

Oh no! The Office of Disability says they can not offer you single occupancy housing for your ambulatory wheelchair use needs. What now? Don’t panic, there are things you can do.

Advocating for your needs can be scary. Many disabled people are people-pleasers and don’t want to feel like we’re “burdening others.”

You are not doing anyone harm by advocating for what you need in order to survive a college environment. Their life will not be monumentally changed by you not receiving that accommodation, yours will. The Disability Office’s job is to help you get whatever it is you need.

If your request is denied, you have the right to speak to someone about why. Be polite, of course. Here is a sample email you might send:

Dear (your school) Disability Office,

I appreciate the time and effort spent reviewing my accommodation requests. However, I disagree with the decision made on (whatever they denied) and would like to further discuss. As you know I suffer from (your condition) and require assistance to have equitable access to (your campus) facilities. (Your request that was denied) is vital to my wellbeing, and I strongly believe we can come to a more productive compromise on this decision. My access to education is severely limited by the denial of this specific request, and I apologize if that was not emphasized enough last time we talked. Respectfully, I am requesting another access meeting about my disability accommodations. If you would prefer to discuss this in person or over video call, I am available (your availability). 

Thank you for your time, (or whatever your sendoff is)

—(your name) 

(perhaps include a student ID number if you are emailing in from a personal email and not a school one)

If your school is still not receptive to this and your accommodation request is both reasonable (meaning it can be achieved by the school without significant loss) and absolutely necessary to your attendance (you can not possibly attend school without it), you may wish to consider seeking outside help.

You may consider contacting your state’s ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) department about filing a complaint. This should only be used as a last resort, because it can cause a lot of drama and stress for you, but if your access to the college you have been admitted to is prevented by this issue it may be an option worth exploring.

In order to contact the ADA you can look up “how to report an ADA violation” or “ADA contact information (in your state).” Good luck! 

The emotional aspect 

Living with a disability is exhausting. College is also exhausting. Combined, it may be an emotionally tumultuous experience for you. Here are some ways that I’ve found helpful to deal with the stress as a disabled student.

1. Consider a weighted blanket.

A weighted blanket is what it sounds like: a heavy blanket. It is designed to calm your autonomic nervous system and help you sleep. It’s great for insomnia, chronic pain, autism, or anxiety. It can be a very comforting item to study or sleep with.

2. Plan your meals.

If figuring out what you’re going to have for dinner is a source of stress in your life, you may want to try planning your meals in advance, or at least keeping a list of what meals are available to you.

You may even want to try “meal prepping,” which is the practice of preparing multiple days worth of meals all at once and storing them in the fridge in individual containers so when you want breakfast, you just grab a container and go.

It can be helpful for people who experience flare-ups due to their disability. On low-energy or high-pain days, sometimes not having to prepare food makes all the difference.

3. Talk to a counselor.

Living with a disability can be draining, and having someone to talk to about your struggles is vital to dealing with them. Most colleges have counselors or therapists you can vent to when needed.

If your school does not, the cheapest way to seek professional therapy is likely going to be finding therapists who are still working on achieving their 1,500 hours needed to achieve a formal license. These types of therapists can be found online.

Remember to always ask if your provider can offer “sliding scale” payments when you’re considering your options on a mental health care provider. It’s important not to let yourself bottle up your emotions, because it doesn’t make them go away.

They’re more likely going to bubble up until they come out all at once in potentially damaging ways. Taking care of yourself emotionally is vital to a college education.

4. Offer yourself rewards.

One thing that can be motivating if you are struggling to complete a given task is rewards. This can be anything. Candy, a nice walk, an episode of your favorite show. Whatever sounds good to you.

You can set these rewards up to make yourself feel better after an exhausting task, or to motivate yourself to get that task done quickly. Rewarding yourself comes along with being proud of what you’ve accomplished, and you absolutely should celebrate your achievements, however small.

5. Don’t overdo it if you don’t have to.

Burnout is a real and vicious thing that can happen to anyone. It’s even more likely if you have a disability. By “don’t overdo it,” I don’t mean don’t try hard or strive for great things. You are capable of amazing things and you should take any opportunity you want towards pursuing them.

I simply mean, don’t put too much on your plate. If you don’t need to work while going to school, don’t. You’ll have the rest of your life to work. If being in 5 extracurriculars is causing you distress, drop one.

If you are overloaded all the time, you’re going to burn out fast. Take care of yourself – the endeavors you want to pursue should not be causing you major harm.

My experience with disability

As you may have guessed, I struggle with disabilities. I have Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Anxiety, Depression, and Borderline Personality Disorder. I also happen to have Raynaud’s Phenomenon and two extra bones, but those are just my fun party facts.

My experience with disability is complex. I never had a 504 plan, or really any accommodations in school growing up. My parents didn’t know to ask and my educators never offered.

It was a gamble on whether we even told them, because as I’m sure you know if you’ve ever disclosed a disability, some people use it as ammunition. It can be risky to let the wrong person have that information, and I found that fact out the hard way.

I only started experiencing symptoms of depression and BPD when I was a teenager, but when it rains it pours. I had frequent, almost daily panic attacks. I was paranoid that all my friends secretly didn’t like me.

I was sad and exhausted, and my hair was coming out. I was a mess. The worst part is, I didn’t have help or even answers to what was going on with me at the time. Sadly, many of you may be familiar with that feeling. I wouldn’t get my answers until I was two years out of high school.

It took me a long time to consider myself “disabled.” For much of my life, my idea of disability was limited to a person in a wheelchair. I held this belief despite struggling my whole life with my conditions.

My autism made social situations incredibly stressful and made me feel bad about myself for a long time. I’ve always had intense sensory issues because of it too, and that is something a lot of people don’t understand or know how to help with.

When I would break down in a moment of sensory overload, nobody listened or understood. I struggled a lot with my ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), too. A lot of people don’t believe ADHD is even real.

I never understood how something so life-altering for me wasn’t real, and hearing people spread that misinformation was incredibly hurtful. My ADHD made objects of mine seemingly vanish into thin air.

It made me so full of restlessness that sitting still in a classroom felt like torture. It made my short term memory so poor that I often didn’t know what I had just said.

My disabilities drastically impacted my life, but I only got comfortable using the word “disabled” when I was 19 or 20. The stigma surrounding that word causes a lot of people to not know that they fall into the category, or to be ashamed that they do.

In 2022, I decided that I wanted to go back to school. I’d had a terrible time in high school because of my unaccommodated disabilities, but I was determined to turn things around and make school an experience I got to enjoy despite my disabilities.

I love learning, and I wanted to take it back for myself.  I have had a lifelong passion for film and theater, and it’s what I’d always intended to do with my life, so I made the decision to apply to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA).

To my surprise, I got in. Now it was time to figure out how to navigate this new step in my life. I emailed the disability office with my concerns and sent my documentation forms over to my psychiatrist.

Then came my access meeting, and decisions were made about my accommodation requests. I’m rooting for you (and myself) to get what we need to thrive in a college environment. You deserve equitable access to education, just like everyone else. 

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