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Guide for College Students with Learning Disabilities
Going to college is an exciting, but also nerve-wracking time in many students’ lives. The new responsibilities, environments, and expectations of college can be hard for any new student – but students applying to colleges with learning disabilities can face additional challenges. However, with the appropriate resources, accommodations, and tips, any student with a learning disability can thrive in college.
Keep on reading to learn about what learning disability resources are available on college campuses. Doing so will help you choose the right school for your next learning experience!
What is a learning disability?
Great question. A learning disability is any disorder impacting one’s ability to understand or speak oral or written language, do mathematical calculations, move around, or focus one’s attention. Some common examples include:
- Dyslexia: Difficulties in reading or interpreting words, letters, and other symbols
- Dyscalculia: Difficulties in learning number-related concepts, doing mathematical calculations, or performing other foundational math skills (e.g. addition, subtraction, multiplication, division)
- Dysgraphia: Difficulties in writing and/or spelling
- Dyspraxia: Difficulties with movement, coordination, judgment, processing, memory, and some other cognitive skills
- Processing Deficits: Difficulties with the recognizing or interpreting information taken in through the senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste)
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A chronic condition characterized by difficulty paying attention, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity.
While these are the basic definitions of the above disorders, keep in mind that symptoms differ slightly for everyone – even for those with the same condition. Nevertheless, such conditions may make it harder, but certainly not impossible, for students to attend college and keep up with school work.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 1 in 5 (19%) undergraduate and 1 in 10 (11%) graduate students reported having a disability in 2019. So, if you have a disability (learning or otherwise) and are planning on attending college – know that you’re not alone! Many students with disabilities are accepted to, attend, thrive, and eventually graduate from colleges all throughout the nation (and abroad, too).
However, before such students even get to college, they should make sure that they choose the one that’s best suited to their needs. The first step in doing that? Identifying what exactly makes a college “accommodating.”
Identifying accommodating colleges
As with any student, there are tons of factors to consider when choosing a college. A school’s academics, cost, location, and social scene remain particularly important factors for many students. For those with disabilities, however, it’s also important to look for the school that best accommodates your needs. So, how can you know that you’re picking the right school for you? Let’s see!
Types of disability support programs
It’s a true, but unfortunate fact that some colleges do the bare minimum to accommodate their learning-disabled students. Others, however, excel in that area – doing the best they can to assist their students in any way possible. To help you figure out whether a school’s accommodations are basic, extensive, or somewhere in the middle, here are some descriptions of different “levels” of college disability support programs (going from the most “basic” to increasingly accommodating):
Basic disability support programs meet the minimum requirements for disability accommodations (as required by law). They typically have no professional learning specialists as faculty or staff, and the Dean of Students is responsible for reading documentation and awarding accommodations. There are typically no specialized services for students with learning disabilities, so students resort to using the writing center, math center, and other general services that are available to all students.
Moderate disability support programs have Learning Centers open solely to students with disabilities. These centers provide services and support that are much more extensive than a university’s writing center, math center, etc. Such Learning Center services include a wide range of accommodations, assistive technology, and professional tutors or coaches. Schools with “moderate” support programs also have their own professional, Masters-level disability support staff who understand the challenges of students with disabilities.
Comprehensive disability support programs offer students the option of a fee-based program for those who need a more structured learning system. These programs have students meet either weekly or biweekly with professionals who help them with their study skills, organizational skills, and time management. These professionals also listen to any difficulties their students are having and advocate on their behalf if need be. Students interested in these programs are required to fill out separate applications for acceptance into these programs, in addition to the typical college admissions application.
Keep in mind that these (“Basic,” “Moderate,” “Comprehensive”) are not the actual names of universities’ disability support programs. These descriptions help you figure out what support programs and services are considered “bare minimum,” and which are somewhat more impressive.
With that said, you now know what the different “levels” of disability accommodations look like – and can identify schools that fit your criteria. So, let’s get ready to apply to colleges!
Applying to college
Applying to college is a long and convoluted process. There are many steps involved, and students are largely expected to know and complete each step themselves. There is little to no instructions on what to do or how to do it. For those with learning disabilities, there are a few extra steps too. So, how can you make sure that you complete everything on time and are making the best choices for yourself? Well, by following our nifty timeline for applying!
Timeline for applying
Our timeline is a basic outline of what to do at certain points in your high school career. Following it will help you apply to and select the best one for you (considering your disability). While it is certainly not necessarily to follow this to a tee, following it closely helps guarantee that you get everything done. Without further ado, here’s the timeline:
- Junior year (First semester): Set up an appointment with a college advisor who understands your learning disability and your needs. Have them help you set up your own timeline that includes identifying universities where you can thrive.
- Junior year (Second semester): Update your testing and make sure your accommodations are set up. Set up a meeting with your tutors, educational therapist, college counselor, psychologist, and anyone else who helps you manage your learning disability. Let them know that you plan on transitioning to college in one year, and have them help you set up milestones to achieve this goal of yours.
- Junior year (Spring or summer): Visit colleges (if possible)! When doing so, set up an appointment with the disabilities office. Inquire about what services are available, and see if they meet the “basic,” “moderate,” or “comprehensive” description of disability support programs above. Note how comfortable (or uncomfortable) you feel while visiting these disability offices. Can you see yourself comfortably walking into them and seeking help/services while in college? If you are unable to visit a college in person, consider setting up a virtual meeting with someone at the school’s disability office. Make sure to assess how you feel/how comfortable you are when doing so.
- Senior year: Apply to colleges that have met your standards for disability support services (and comfort level!). If you choose to disclose your ability to your university, seek assistance from your consultant when drafting this written statement.
- Senior year (Spring): Once you’ve received your acceptances, try to visit the colleges one last time. If possible, speak with students on campus to hear the experiences of people who’ve actually attended the school. Even better, try to speak to other students with learning disabilities – they may be able to inform you about whether or not the school’s services and accommodations are helpful. If you have time, consider visiting the disabilities office again to see how comfortable you feel while there.
- After accepting a college offer/sending in your enrollment deposit: Make sure your testing is up-to-date, and apply for accommodations! Meet with your educational support team (tutors, educational therapist, college counselor, psychologist) to prepare for your interview with the disabilities office. And, if you feel you need to brush up on your academic skills before college, consider doing more educational therapy the summer before college.
- Preparing for college: Those with ADHD might consider working with an academic coach their first semester of college, while those with anxiety should continue talking with their therapist over the summer and find a counselor on or near your school’s campus. Otherwise, if you feel like you’re all prepped and ready for college, you’re all set. Have fun!
After picking a college
Once you’ve picked the school that seems ideal for you, it’s best to reach out to the disabilities office for instructions on how to request accommodations. While each school has a different process, it’s most common that universities have students submit their psychoeducational report (that includes their diagnosis) upon their first meeting with the disabilities office. This testing report must come from a licensed professional psychologist. And, while some schools accept an IEP (Individualized Education Program), others will not. Students are also encouraged to visit the website of their university’s disability office and fill out any necessary paperwork themselves.
Remember, colleges do not require you to disclose your learning disability when you apply! However, once you’re accepted to a college and decide to attend, it’s best to notify your college of your disability. This way, you can take advantage of the many resources and accommodations available to you.
Accommodations for students with learning disabilities
On that note, what are some of the actual accommodations that students can receive while in college? Well, there are many types available, all meant to help students attend classes, complete coursework, and take exams in a way that best suits their own learning style. So, without further ado, here are some of the most common accommodations:
Adapting individual course instruction
Adapting individual course instruction involves identifying the specific learning needs of a student and adjusting how core content and information is presented to make it more accessible for that individual.
Alternative types of coursework and testing material
Alternative types of coursework or testing materials allows students to express what they’ve learned in a way that is more suitable for them (compared to the original option). Although some courses only meet the minimum legal requirements, organizations like the Universal Design of Instruction are encouraging educators to make their classes more accessible for all students.
Assistive software and technology
Assistive software and technology includes programs to help dyslexic students better process text, to recording devices, stress management tools, and more. We’ll get more into this later!
On-campus support centers
College campuses, especially more accommodating ones, typically have a variety of on-campus support centers and services for students with disabilities. These may include disabilities services offices, trained professional staff to help students with learning disabilities, or even wellness centers. Ideally, students should get to know the staff at such support centers, so they can feel comfortable coming to them if they need help.
One’s classroom accommodations largely depend on their diagnosis. However, some common in-class accommodations include providing students with a scribe or note-taker, accessible seating, or offering a quiet room for students to take tests in.
Additional time to complete coursework and exams
Early on in the school term, professors typically request that students with disabilities inform them of their diagnoses so that these students receive additional time to complete coursework and exams. In some cases, schools may also allow students to take oral (as opposed to written) exams if they are more suitable to the student.
Disability resource centers
Besides those on campus, students can also generally find disability resource centers in their school’s surrounding community. Such organizations often have partnerships with nearby universities and can provide individualized services and support to students with learning disabilities.
With the passage of time comes new and improved technologies. Among these are new assistive technologies, which refer to any equipment, software, programs, or products designed to help those with disabilities of any kind. So, as expected, many assistive technologies have since made their way into classrooms – helping students better navigate and understand their coursework. Some of the more common forms of assistive technology include:
Talking word processors (Speech-to-text)
Speech-to-text technology allows students to get their thoughts into text through being spoken, rather than directly written or typed. This is extremely helpful for students with dyslexia or physical impairments which may make writing difficult.
Those with ADHD and who struggle to pay attention in class may find digital recorders helpful, as these allow them to record classes or lectures and rewatch or re-listen to them later on.
Assistive technology centers
If students have any questions about how to use their assistive technologies, are interested in obtaining assistive technologies, or anything else of the sort – assistive technology centers are the place to go. Not only can they train students on how to use their new assistive technologies, but they can also format one’s coursework to be more accessible to students with learning disabilities.
Helpful accessibility apps
One of the many forms of assistive technology are apps, computer programs or software designed to run on mobile phones, laptops, desktops, or even watches. Apps are a great resource for those with any disability, as there are more than enough to cater to everyone’s needs. So, without further ado, here are some helpful accessibility apps to help those with disabilities (learning or otherwise) live their best lives:
Everyday Skills offers users self-directed lessons to help those with learning or developmental disabilities carry out daily tasks.
Avaz emphasizes the importance of functional communication – the many purposes we have for communicating with others. Thus, the app aims to enlarge users’ vocabulary through the use of both pictures and text. Users can also toggle between pictures and words to create sentences.
ModMath, a free iPad app, helps those with dyslexia and dysgraphia do math. The app has since expanded beyond basic math problems, now allowing students to complete complex algebraic problems on the app as well.
MyLife aims to help those with anxiety and/or stress by allowing individuals to meditate and “wind down.” It also encourages users to think about how they’re feeling and customizes meditation/mindfulness exercises to users’ moods.
Voice Dream allows individuals to highlight text which will then be read to them. This is immensely helpful for those with reading disabilities, like dyslexia.
MyTalkTools Mobile allows those with communication difficulties to say what they want by pressing a sequence of words, sounds, and images. Such sequences can even form complete sentences.
Community Success is an iPad app meant to help those with autism navigate social situations and learn useful functional skills. It also provides specific guidance for common, day-to-day activities like riding the bus.
Smart Steps is somewhat similar but less comprehensive than Community Success. Smart Steps is meant to help individuals with autism through common, day-to-day activities. It does so by allowing users to choose “decision trees” and be guided through everyday situations, one step at a time.
Clear helps users make lists of and keep on top of their daily responsibilities. Thus, it helps users remember what they have to do, when they should do it, and more.
Lumosity exercises users’ memory, reasoning, and other cognitive skills through interactive games and activities. The app itself was designed by neuroscientists with the goal of helping improve people’s cognitive abilities.
All Critical Thinking aims to improve users’ problem solving, reasoning, and critical thinking abilities. To do so, it offers a wide range of activities and games that require individuals to think critically about problems and dilemmas.
Auditory Processing Studio works to help those with auditory processing disorders. Specifically, it aims to improve their auditory discrimination, auditory closure, and phonological awareness.
Dragon transcribes spoken words or conversations immediately on the screen of any phone, laptop, tablet, or desktop. Thus, those who find it difficult to follow conversations may find it very helpful in their day-to-day lives.
Ariadne GPS helps individuals with visual impairments better navigate themselves through the use of “talking maps,” vibrations for street crossings, and announcements when users reach public transport stops.
Light Detector also aims to help those with visual impairments. Specifically, it helps them find sources of light by emitting a sound as users get closer and closer to a light.
Pursuing financial aid
By now, we’ve covered (1) identifying accommodating colleges, (2) applying to college, and (3) helpful accommodations and technologies that make college life easier. However, what about paying for college? Luckily, students with disabilities are eligible for many types of loans, scholarships, and other funding options! Let’s get into them.
First off are the non-loan funding options. HEOA, or the Higher Education Opportunity Act, has made it so students with learning disabilities can qualify for non-loan-based federal aid. Some of these non-loan funding options include:
- Federal Pell grants
- Federal work-study
- Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants
- Other federal and state grants
Besides these, however, students with disabilities may also be eligible for:
- Individual training account funds set up by a One-Stop-Career-Center
- Self-Support (PASS Plans) from the Social Security Administration
- Medicaid Funding for Community-Based Supports
On top of these, students are also eligible for federal loans. Many are specific to students with disabilities or generally directed towards them. Grants, similarly, offer many funding opportunities to students with disabilities.
Students may also be interested in federal grants. If so, we highly recommend that students fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) – as many of their applications require students to have done so. In particular, some of the more popular grants among students with disabilities include:
- National SMART Grant
- Academic Competitiveness Grant
- The Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant
If students are interested in scholarships, however, there are also many directed towards students with learning disabilities! Here are just a few articles covering scholarships for a wide range of disabilities (learning and otherwise):
- Top learning disabilities scholarships
- Scholarships for students with a disabled parent
- Top autism scholarships
- Top ADHD scholarships
- How to get scholarships for hearing impairment
Alternatively, if students feel that the accommodations at many schools are insufficient, they may be interested in attending a college specifically for students with disabilities. Many of these universities have their own, unique sources of funding for their students, which tend to make their costs far lower than that of the average university.
And last, but not least, are some additional resources! These are simply some additional tools to help students transition to college and perform their best. Without further ado, here they are:
AHEAD strives to help students with learning disabilities perform their best in college. To do so, AHEAD offers coaching, mentoring, and self-advocacy skill training for students with learning disabilities.
American Youth Policy Forum offers a variety of webinars and Youtube videos meant to help students with disabilities transition to college life.
NCLD, or the National Center for Learning Disabilities, provides those with learning disabilities advice on transitioning to college. They also provide an honest look into the challenges of navigating college with a learning disability.
The Viscardi Center provides a vast number of resources, programs, and services to those with disabilities. Some of these resources are directed specifically at college-aged students.
U.S. Department of Justice and Civil Rights Division allows individuals to read through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and learn their rights. The ADA provides a thorough description of Title II and how it supports individuals with disabilities.
And with that, we’re (basically) done! Below you can access the answers to some of our most frequently asked questions on this topic. Otherwise, we wish you the best of luck with your college journey, and send you off!
Frequently asked questions
What should I do if I encounter stigmas that may be associated with learning disabilities on a college campus?
If you are hearing and noticing that there is a certain stigma around learning disabilities on your campus, we recommend that students go directly to their school faculty. Most campuses even have someone in charge of the school’s diversity and inclusion initiatives. There, we would recommend asking what the school is doing to combat such stigmas. Ask how they’re attempting to make students with learning disabilities feel comfortable and included. There is a growing body of research on stigmas related to learning disabilities, so know that you’re not alone in your concerns. Universities must express tolerance and support of all their students. They should understand that everyone is “diverse” in one way or another.
How can students with learning disabilities prepare for college?
Before arriving on campus, it is important that students fully understand their own learning disabilities. Ideally, talking to professionals whom they’re close with can help make this easier. It’s also important that students learn to advocate for themselves. Attending college with a learning disability may require them to seek out or ask for services that a neurotypical student may not need. Students should also practice time management. This includes being in charge of their own schedules, appointments, and other responsibilities. Essentially, the goal is to be independent. This, of course, includes asking questions! So, don’t feel afraid to ask for help when it’s needed or wanted. The school and its staff are ultimately there to help you learn.
What if I don’t believe that I can attend college because of my learning disability?
If you are worried that your learning disability will prevent you from thriving in college, you must change your self-perception. Remember, one’s environment is a more important predictor of their success. So, although you may feel like college is a new and challenging obstacle in your life, you must believe that you can attend college. Creating specific goals may help motivate you, and make college seem more doable, or even exciting! Remember to not only set easily achievable goals for yourself, but ambitious ones too. If you ever feel that you need help, don’t feel afraid to ask for help. Your professors and the school staff are there for just that!
How should colleges support students with learning disabilities?
Ideally, colleges should support students with learning disabilities by making information on how to receive accommodations or support easily accessible. This information should not only be a part of the college’s orientation, but also be available in every class, school emails, and more. Universities should let students know where to go if issues arise (e.g. if they are facing difficulties receiving accommodations).
Does having an IEP or 504 plan help you get into college?
No, not necessarily. Colleges generally will not know whether a student has an IEP or a 504 plan. In fact, colleges cannot even ask students whether they have a disability or not (and thus cannot ask whether a student has an IEP or a 504). Students, however, can choose to disclose this information themselves. Despite this, there is no data on how many students who disclose their disabilities to universities are admitted to colleges. Given that roughly 1 in 5 undergraduate students reported having a disability in 2019, it is safe to say that some of these students must have disclosed their disabilities while applying, but still gained admission into colleges. Do not worry that having either an IEP or 504 plan will somehow influence your college admissions chances – it won’t!
By now you know that there are many resources and accommodations for students with disabilities. Make sure that you give yourself plenty of time to research schools that offer what you need to thrive. Best wishes for a successful college experience!