What Parents Need To Know About College & Disabilities


Few transitions bring more anticipation than when your child is heading to college.  Years of preparation along with services and supports, all geared toward helping your child realize success in college.

At new student orientation, parents are often ushered into a separate room for their orientation, where administrators talk about life on their college campus and a range of other factoids to help nervous parents relax.  Yet there's often another message that frequently throws even the best prepared parents off-kilter - it's that your child is now an adult...and you can leave. Yet if your child has a disability, this scenario is a bit different, and you need to know how.

 With increasing numbers of students with disabilities attending college, it's important that you know that you play a pivotal role in helping your child succeed.

Here are some key points:

1.  Your child's IEP and 504 are no longer applicable in college nor are their protections under IDEA.   In college, it's the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 which addresses "leveling the playing field" and anti-discrimination.  And, accommodations are not automatically provided. 

2.  Access information from each college's Office of Disability Services.  Your child does not need to disclose during the application process if he/she has a disability, yet see what information is available via their website or office. Check for the types of "typical" accommodations they provide, whether their staff has expertise with specific disabilities, how professors receive information about a student's accommodations, special housing options, and the graduation rate for students with disabilities.

3.  You/your child will need to connect with the Disability Services office after acceptance to request accommodations.  This process requires a relatively recent (i.e. within the past 2-3 years) evaluation report which should clearly outline the college accommodations your child may need, plus you'll want to provide them with your child's IEP/504 for reference.

4.  If your child has mental health issues and needs, connect with counseling or psychological services to evaluate their supports and ask how they collaborate with Disability Services as well.  And if your child is attending college far from home, consider locating and securing off-campus resources and supports as well.  While continuing with your child's current therapist or clinician via teleconference may be possible, sometimes there are in-person needs that require support.

5.  Encourage (no...ensure) that your child signs a FERPA or release of information form so that you're able to speak with college...and they with you.  Do this in all relevant departments as a form signed in one department - e.g. Disability Services, is not necessarily shared with the Bursar's Office.  You want to have all communications options available should issues arise.

6.  And finally, your child needs to understand that they need to secure accommodations early in the semester (within the first week or two) via the Office of Disability Services, plus it's up to them to determine in which classes they'll be needed.  It's similar to preparing for a blizzard - you want things in place.  Accommodations are not retroactive so if your son/daughter is failing a class mid-semester, any accommodations would apply from that point forward.

The transition to college is a major life milestone, for you as parents and for your child.  And despite the messages that may be conveyed during parent orientation and even with privacy issues, you play a pivotal role and remain integral to your child's success in college, including their physical, mental, and emotional health. 

Whether your child is attending college close to home or will be living on campus, expect changes as this is what college is all about.  Maintain regular communication.  Show interest.  And get involved if and when needed.  Turning 18 does not suddenly make your child an adult, so keep the safety net at the ready.  And recognize that it was your support all these years that enabled your child to reach this goal.