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What You Need to Know About Attending College with an Intellectual Disability

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.

Just 10 years ago, there were very few higher education options for people with intellectual disabilities. In fact, there was rarely an expectation of these potential students to attend college in the first place, let alone succeed and graduate with a certificate or degree.

Thankfully, those days are far behind us. 

“Intellectual disabilities” encompasses a wide range of disabilities—all with varying degrees of severity when it comes to how academics are affected—including the autism spectrum, learning disabilities like dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, speech disorders, or mental disorders such as schizophrenia and anxiety, and more.

With increased expert research and ever-present interest from those with intellectual disabilities, college campuses are now more than ever equipped to provide an inclusive education. Here’s what you need to know about attending college if you have an intellectual or learning disability:

The Law is On Your Side

Before you step foot onto a college campus, know that just as broad as the term may be, the laws accompanying intellectual disabilities are also inclusive and encompassing. While accommodations across colleges and universities may differ in practice, the law remains the same.

Federal disability law requires postsecondary institutions to provide equal access to education for traditional students and students with disabilities alike—or else they face the loss of federal funding. Both public and private institutions fall are subject these requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment in 2009. 

Note that while schools are required to provide aids for effective learning and communication, they don’t have to change the nature of the material. Still, you can transition to higher education knowing that every reasonable accommodation will be provided to help you be successful in their academic goals.  

Academic Options and Support Abound

First things first. Know this: As long as you meet the minimum admission requirements for postsecondary schools, you cannot be turned away for your disability. In fact, it’s totally up to you whether you even disclose it.

The higher education options for students like you have grown to include the same options as traditional students, running the full spectrum of vocational and career schools, in addition to two- and four- year colleges and universities.  Some inclusive programs allow a slower pace and schedule while allowing still enabling you to progress toward a full degree of your choosing. Others offer certificates as an alternative option. Reasonable accommodations also include allowing priority class registration, substituting classes for the same credit when necessary, and offering the option to reduce the semester course load to within a your capabilities. 

Inside the classroom, there are often accommodations in place to support academic success as well. This can include measures like allowing extra time for finishing tests, preparing a quiet or even empty space for testing, providing specially-trained tutors, and giving leniency on leaves of absence from class. 

Overall, know that there are more options available to you than the traditional four-year bachelor’s degree.  

Social Skills Are Top Priority Too

Some disorders that fall under the intellectual disability spectrum may affect a your ability to communicate and socialize with peers. That can be nerve-wracking when you’re leaving home for an unfamiliar place and stepping away from your closest relationships. Best advice? Seek out the services of the campus mental health counselors and disability coordinators now. It’s better to plan ahead and to feel at ease than show up on campus feeling underprepared.

For many schools, strengthening social development is a main focus, and inclusive campus resources can include services like educational therapists, specially trained mentors and tutors, life skills coaches, academic advisors with specialized training, and group support programs. 

Success On Campus and Beyond

Campus support isn’t limited to the time you spend on campus.

Most inclusive universities and colleges offer services designed to you transition to life beyond college. This can come in the form of life skills coaches or career services advisors with specialized training. These programs are focused on building life skills that are transferable to professional roles outside of college. They also illustrate how concepts developed in the classroom can relay to the real world and even help you develop tools to live independently away from a college setting, if that’s your goal.

Career services advisors assist students in locating, securing and maintaining gainful employment after college too. Professional services exist on most campuses to assist in the entire transition to the workforce, just as there are transition services to help you when you first arrive at college.

Above all, you should know that there is every option available to you for postsecondary learning than exists for your friends and classmates. Now that you know you’ve got the foundation to succeed, check out our tips for finding the right inclusive college for you.


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Author: Michaela Schieffer

Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.