There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparations, hard work, and learning from failure. —Colin Powell

Most parents are familiar with the options for their child after high school. But what if your child has a disability? Is college a viable option? If so, what might be the best way to prepare? Will there be support at the college level? These are all great questions—let’s explore the possibilities!

College for students with disabilities: The facts

Many students with disabilities do well academically and graduate from high school with grades that make them terrific contenders for college. In fact, the National Center for Learning Disabilities reported in 2014 that among high school students with some type of learning disability, 54 percent planned to attend a two-year or four-year college.[1] Jumping forward to 2021, Statista reports that out of an anticipated 21.9 million students enrolling in undergraduate degree programs in the US,[2] more than 200,000 students have some type of learning disability.

This is encouraging news for a lot of families: with appropriate support, students with disabilities are capable of successfully navigating college. A smooth-sailing adventure for your child with disabilities is possible!

As a parent, understanding the challenges—and opportunities—college presents to your student can help as you begin to map out your student’s journey.

Here are a few inside tips you’ll want to keep in mind:

  • Not only are there more programs than ever available to students with disabilities, but there are also tons of funding sources and scholarships to make these programs attainable.
  • All colleges that receive federal funding or accept federal student loans are required to provide equal access to facilities, programs, and services with reasonable accommodations to qualified students with disabilities.
  • Most colleges and universities have a disability service office or a student support services center. In fact, some go beyond the minimum requirements for access and provide additional services, such as tutoring support from trained tutors or study skills workshops.
  • Accommodation plans and Individual Education Plans (IEPs) from high school do not follow a student to college. Colleges are not required to provide services or accommodations unless a student specifically requests the support.
  • At college, students are responsible for self-advocating, requesting, and obtaining support. Ultimately, deciding to take advantage of accommodations is solely the decision of the student, not the parent.

When should you start preparing for college? Early pays off!

So, if college is a desired destination for your child with a disability, when and how should you start? Preparation for the voyage to college ideally begins in the early years of high school. Here are some practical tools your child will need to be successful on the wide-open sea of college life:

  • Within three to five years of their expected enrollment in college, ensure your student has current psycho-educational diagnostic testing. (And if you need help locating a testing professional or would like to discuss the possibility of psycho-educational/diagnostic testing, HSLDA’s Special Needs Educational Consultants are happy to help!
  • If your student needs accommodations for college entrance exams, such as the SAT, ACT, or CLT, it’s best to start documenting their diagnoses and accommodations needed as early as possible. As this magazine goes to press in spring 2021 SAT and ACT availability and requirements are in a state of flux due to COVID-19. Our website series walks you through the basic steps for making sure your teen has access to accommodations if and when they will be taking a college entrance exam.
  • Students with disabilities need the same foundational skills as all kids entering college, so start now by teaching them self-advocacy, notetaking, study, and time-management skills.

Shopping around

During the high school years, as you’re preparing your child to succeed in college, you can also equip them to decide where they want to go! Grades 9 and 10 are prime times to begin “shopping around” together: visiting campuses, submitting applications, and selecting the right institutions or programs that will be a good fit for their interests, goals, and vocational plans.

There is another very important, but sometimes overlooked, factor to check out: does the college or university offer the appropriate support services to meet your student’s unique needs? Whether your teen is considering technical school, community college, or a four-year college, it’s critical that together you explore the resources offered and ensure that the institution provides the support services your teen needs to thrive. (More on this below.)

Start here: Helping your student find the right college

The college voyage is a learning time, and every college-bound student should feel equipped to sit in the captain’s seat. So where do you start?

  1. While still in high school, you can plan to take a few college-campus tours—actual or virtual—with your student. This is a great way for students to get acquainted with what college might look and feel like and what courses, majors, and extracurriculars might be available to them; it helps the process feel a bit more real. It’s vitally important to involve your students in the whole process: it will be their experience, not yours. 
  2. Talk to potential college advisors about any special accommodations your teen might require. Think of accommodations as a buoy, helping to keep your student on course, afloat, and ultimately successful in reaching their destination!
  3. We highly recommend setting aside discussion times with your students where you invite them to express their goals for college. What are their interests? What programs might look intriguing? What areas of study/interest or regions of the country feel most comfortable for them?

Of course, we understand that this is a lot easier than it sounds! Embarking on any new venture can feel scary, but we encourage you to focus on the opportunities that a college experience brings. . . and equip your teen with confidence and solid sailing skills.

Navigating unfamiliar waters: The importance of self-advocacy

Let’s talk about self-advocacy. Because this is your teen’s experience, it’s vital that you come alongside and support your teen in developing self-advocacy skills that will help them flourish in college. Help your student feel comfortable talking about and explaining his or her diagnoses or learning difficulties. Admitting the need for help—and knowing how to get it—will be critical for your college-bound student!

How can you be most helpful? Planning, planning, and more planning! This is probably the most critical aspect of preparing your teen for life after high school. Additionally, consider taking small steps in everyday situations: avoid the urge to jump in when your student is ordering food at a restaurant or talking with other adults.

While not every student is instantly comfortable with the concept of settling into the captain’s seat and taking charge of their own journey, thankfully these are skills that can be intentionally taught, practiced, and fostered right at home.

Here are some clear steps in the college self-advocacy process that allow you to accompany your teen through this new experience, set natural landmarks on your student’s firsthand “I-can-do-this!” map, and make it easy for your budding college freshman to gradually take over the captain’s wheel.

  1. Help your student locate the support services or disability office at college. (This should be a first priority!)
  2. Together with your teen, meet with the college’s disability services office and identify a disability service office advisor. This person will determine what, if any, accommodations a student is qualified for.
  3. If eligible, your student can then decide if they will use the accommodation. Many students choose to try college-level courses without accommodations, and this will always be an option. However, we recommend that students at least have this initial meeting to explore and understand their options—this experience can be truly empowering and build their confidence.
  4. If qualifications are met and your student requests accommodations, letters are provided to professors. Privacy is a significant part of the college experience, so a professor is only notified of the accommodation and not the diagnosis.

Setting sail

As you enter the college years, roles shift, and this shift can be quite dramatic. Your teen moves into the captain seat, taking the wheel, and you become the passenger, providing input, advice, and valuable feedback to your adult child. So, we encourage you to sail joyfully beside your teen as you help them map out their next destination. It is possible!


Looking for more guidance on your student's college prep journey?

If you (and likely your teen) are feeling some natural anxieties about this new expedition, please remember, you do not have to ride the waves alone. Here are some resources that you have at your disposal:

  • Founded by Elizabeth Cohen Hamblet, a recognized author and speaker, who seeks to help students with disabilities transition from high school to college successfully. She offers advice, presentations, family resources, and a helpful blog.
  • An online organization dedicated to helping people with learning and thinking differences, like dyslexia and ADHD. They work to connect people who face these challenges with resources, expertise, and communities that build confidence.
  • The HSLDA Special Needs Educational Consultants are here to come alongside and help you confidently navigate to your destination. As an HSLDA member, you can reach out to us with any questions. We'd love to assist you personally!