Ultimate Guide to College as a Person With a Disability 

Whether you are someone with a physical, visual, auditory, cognitive, or mental health disability, this guide to college aims to provide you with a foundation to build off of when beginning this exciting next chapter of your life.

In this guide we will go over the college search, how to pay for your education, how to access your (future) school’s disability services and finding a community within your school. 

So, let’s get started!

Application and Admission Process

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  1. The College Search 

The first question you should ask yourself when thinking of going to college is this: what am I interested in? Come up with 5 answers. This question will serve as the starting point where you’ll begin your college search. Once you have your answer(s) try to categorize them into a general field (Music, STEM, Arts, Healthcare, Business, etc.). For example, my interests are: 

1) Playing videogames 
2) Playing piano 
3) Biology 
4) Working out 
5) How computers work

If I were to categorize them that would lead me to this: 

1) Computer science
2) Music 
3) Healthcare 
OR
1) STEM Fields 
2) The Arts 

These categorizations will inform you on what types of programs and careers to look into. 

If you are having difficulty trying to identify any interests, you can also use this career aptitude test from O*Net. Use this as a guide rather than a definitive answer on what career you should pursue. 

After determining your interests, using websites like CollegeBoard’s college search feature, fill in as much information as you can using their different menu. The main ones you want to ensure you fill in are the states/areas you think you would like to live in, majors (a.k.a. the field(s) you’re interested in), and under the “Campus Life” button choose the disability/disabilities you have. Through this method, you’ll be able to narrow down what colleges may best suit your needs.

Next, take some time looking at each result and note anything that stands out to you. Big ones to note are: 

  • Tuition (In general, if you live in the same state as a public university, your tuition will be cheaper. Out-of-state tuition is significantly more expense.) 
  • Whether it’s a public or private college/university or community college 
  • SAT score range if applicable (Note: Community Colleges tend not to require an SAT score and may be a great choice if money is your concern; more on financials and my thoughts on community colleges vs. 4-year colleges later) 

Congratulations! You have taken the first steps on your higher education journey. Further steps to take during the searching portion are: 

  1. Reading through their website and noting any scholarships they may offer students. 
  2. Comparing colleges via Niche’s camparison tool and reading their reviews 
  3. Note any accessibility features you may need as well as their student health services/any nearby medical facilities. 
  4. Scheduling an in-person/virtual tour 
  5. Narrow down your list of schools to your top 3 to 5 

Quick note: During my college application time, I saw many peers apply to 6+ schools. There is nothing inherently wrong with this per se, but school applications can be expensive and very time consuming (after all, you want to put your best foot forward in every essay/interview you will write).

You also do not want to apply to just 1 or 2 schools as application cycles typically occur only once per year. Narrowing down (or widening) your list to 3 to 5 schools means more time spent on quality essays and less money spent on applications. 

  1. Testing

    Now that you have your top 3 to 5 schools and have noted the minimum SAT score requirement, you’ll need to ensure your SAT score is hitting that minimum. Today, there are so many resources to study for the SAT for free. Just google “Free SAT Prep [the current year].” (Here’s a google search for Free SAT Prep 2023)

    Or, if you want to avoid SAT testing in general, look into schools that may not require SAT scores at all. This is a growing trend for universities and usually applicants without SAT scores are required to complete supplemental essays/interviews.

    For those wanting to attend community college, most community college degree programs do not require any test scores unless it’s a very popular program such as nursing.

    If you are curious about pursuing nursing as a career, stay tuned for Maddie’s guide to nursing school. 
  2. Applying

    For many colleges and universities, you will be applying through the Common App. A guide for setting up an account and how to start your application can be found through their guide here.

    If you are aiming to go to community college, then more than likely you will need to apply through their website. 

Financial Assistance

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I’m not going to lie, attending college is an expensive endeavor. It would be disingenuous for me to say that a college education is the only way to make your way in the world. That is why it’s important to choose a career that can meet your needs financially and/or choose a college that is financially affordable or won’t put you into too much debt.

Luckily, as a person with a disability there are quite a few avenues you can take to finance your education. 

  1. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR)

    Eligibility for VR services can vary from state to state, however, if you are found eligible then you may be able to receive tuition assistance from VR as well as funding for any assistive technology you may need. To contact your local VR office, go on google and search “vocational rehabilitation office near me.” 
  2. Student Loans and Loan Forgiveness Programs

    FAFSA or the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid” is the main application and website you’ll be using to attain student loans. A big pro of getting a federal student loan is that you would qualify for any forgiveness programs, like PSLF, the federal government may have for you.

    A note about private bank loans: If you are unable to get a federal student loan or your loan amount is not enough to cover tuition, then you can apply to private loans. However, be cautious and always look at the interest rates of companies you could receive a loan from.

    This is because interest, which is a percentage amount that is added on top of your original borrowed money, can add up really quickly and these do not qualify for any federal loan forgiveness programs. 
  3. Scholarships

    There are so many different scholarships that you can apply for. Make sure you check out your specific colleges of interest to see what they may have. Some scholarships range from a couple hundred dollars to a full ride scholarship.

    For more resources on financial support, check out the second half of this article from Best Colleges on financial aid for students with disabilities. 

Accommodations

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  1. Disability Offices 

    Throughout your school life thus far you may have had a 504 plan or IEP that would help you get the support you need through high school. As you may already know, these supports do not translate as easily into the college environment. But that does not mean you have to go to college without any accommodations.

    In fact, a recent 2023 study indicates that disabled students who receive accommodations are more successful in their education (Wilhelm et al. 2003). This is why it is so important for you to reach out to your college’s disability services office.

    Now it may be called something different at your specific school, but every college should have one. To find it, reach out to any school admissions office and email them something similar to this: 

Hello, 
My name is *your name.* I am a prospecting student and was wanting to speak to someone in the disabilities office on campus. I am someone who –insert your disability here- and would like to talk about getting accommodations. I greatly appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you! 
Best, 
*Your name* 

The process may vary from school to school, but they generally schedule a meeting with you to determine what accommodations are available and are most helpful for you. If you do have any questions that pop up however, please feel free to email us at oternativeperspectives@gmail.com 

  1. Your Professors 

    According to two recent studies, professors and students in general are more willing to accommodate disabled students’ needs (Baker et al., 2012, Izzo & Shuman, 2013). And I have found this to be true from personal experience. But stigma against disabilities definitely exists, especially if it is not outright apparent you have one such as invisible disabilities.

    If you find yourself in a less than ideal situation, you may want to reach out to your school’s office of diversity and inclusion. People within these positions can help you navigate such situations and may help you switch professors or find an alternative way to facilitate your learning.

    A way to help you communicate effectively about these situations includes determining what your desired outcome is, 2-3 solutions you think could help you get there, and at least 1 way to attain each solution. It is definitely important for others to recognize their prejudice/biases.

    Unfortunately, with the power dynamics of administration/professors regarding students, it is easy for your concerns to be dismissed. That is why what I have found to be most effective in attaining what my clients want was to bring solutions to the table and build a case as to why this would be beneficial for them.

    In short, stay solution-focused and bring a friend or ally with you when advocating for your needs. 
  2. Laws 

    If you are not already familiar with them, it would be helpful to have a basic understanding of the laws and acts that govern your rights as a student with a disability. These laws include the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Assistive Technology Act. A brief summary of each can be found in this article from Best Colleges

Your Campus Community 

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  1. Peer Support and Disability Communities

    There are numerous clubs often available for you to join throughout your time in higher education. Both 4-year colleges and community colleges tend to have an annual club fair, which you can attend to find people who have similar interests as you.

    During my time at university, I ended up signing up for at least 10 to 15 clubs. I eventually got them off of my mailing list, but it was a great way for me to find people who I could relate to in some way. 
  1. Orientation

    Not all schools have this, but most 4-year universities tend to. I highly recommend attending 1st-year orientation even if you start college at a bit of age.

    It is very easy to find yourself isolating yourself within the first few months of starting college and while it may feel cheesy at times, orientation is a great way to start meeting people. Perhaps you can even use that time to poke fun at how cheesy everything is! I know I did! If you do feel a bit socially awkward (like I did…and still do at times) here’s a few things you could open with to break the ice with someone: 
  1. Where are you from? Then if you are familiar with that area ask if they’ve ever been to a restaurant, hiking trail, etc. If you’re not familiar with that place, ask what they liked most about that place. 
  2. What major are you trying to study for? If it’s the same major as you, bring up something related to that. If not related ask them what about it makes them so excited to pursue it 
  3. Ask them what you thought about whatever last activity you all did!

    Remember, it’s okay for you to not connect with the first 5, 10 or even 15 people you meet. It took me a while in college to find people I enjoyed hanging out with. And even then, I did not always hang out with the same people week to week, month by month, or even year to year. 
  1. Dorm Living

    If you are living in a dorm, this is a great opportunity for you to find friends! And it is okay if you and your roommate do not get along! While I was lucky to have a chill freshman year roommate, we were not the best of friends! But! I ended up making lifelong friends with others who lived in my dorm hall.

    If you have a difficult roommate situation, reach out to your Resident Assistant (RA). Prior to college you may hear about how RAs can be the worse. And as a former RA, I can definitely see where that comes from! I actually thought my own freshman year RA was the fun police.

    But I would say most RAs are there to help make your first-year experience go as smoothly as possible. They truly care about how their residents are feeling and I have helped my residents through difficult times and have also ended up becoming friends with my freshman year RA as I moved onto my sophomore year of college. 
  1. Health and Wellness Services 

    Each college typically has its own student health and wellness services though the quality and services provided do differ. For example, the college I went to for my bachelor’s degree had school therapists, usually staffed by graduate students as well as a nurse practitioner on staff to provide vaccines, basic check-ups, and medications.

    In contrast to my graduate school, which was connected to a major hospital in the Midwest, I was able to receive full specialty services, eye exams, and any other services you would normally receive at a hospital. 

    If your school is not affiliated with a hospital, it is very important that you are aware of any nearby healthcare facilities like hospitals or outpatient clinics should you need them during your time at school.

    For example, during my undergraduate studies, I had multiple medical emergencies that could not be supported by my school’s available health resources. Luckily, the nearest hospital that took my insurance was a 10-minute drive away from campus.

    If you are attending a school that is not within your state, such as I did for both undergraduate and graduate school, make sure your nearest hospital and school has all of your medical records.

    I know, it is very annoying and intimidating to figure all this out, but remember, we never know when a medical emergency happens, and we want to be prepared for anything. Here is a brief step-by-step to ensure your next medical facility has everything: 
  1. Ask your school’s nurse/health coordinator about what medical records they have (you or your parent should have needed to submit a vaccine list at minimum as soon as you accepted your spot) 
  2. Tell your school’s nurse/health coordinator that you need to establish a specialist while you attend college, about any medication prescriptions you have, and your insurance. 
  3. Reach out to your Primary Care Physician (PCP) and tell them you are moving away/have moved away to attend college. 
  4. Sign off on any medical release forms your current hospital system provides you. 
  5. Set-up your first appointment with a PCP in your new hospital system 
  6. Reach out to your school’s nurse/health coordinator to see if you can set up transportation to your new hospital if you do not have your own transportation. 
  7. Attend your first appointment and tell them about any health specialist you saw back home. 

With these 7 steps, you should have established your basic services at college that accept the insurance you need. Again, this is highly recommended! Do not make the same mistake I did back in undergraduate and only take these steps when I had an emergency going on in that moment. It was stressful and became much more expensive than what it would have been should I have taken these steps before. 

  1. Career and Employment Services

    If you are not already a client of VR, then the next best resource for you to use is your school’s career and employment services (CES). This is because a large part of life after high school is networking, that is the process of meeting people that could help you out in life.

    And if you are pursuing a professional career, your school’s CES office will help you get connected with alumni who are in the same line of work you’re looking to get into.

    In fact, networking has played a huge part in me becoming an OT as I am one of the first to pursue a graduate level education.

    By meeting people who have gone through grad school or have had family members with master’s or doctoral degrees, they were able to help me navigate the graduate school application process and served as references for my OT school application. 

Conclusion 

Figuring out your life after high school can be very daunting and trying to get into and through college can be very stressful. As a person with a disability, this can be even harder.

However, with this guide, it is my hope going through this process becomes a bit easier. If you wondering about other aspects of your life outside of higher education, be sure to take a look at our other guides that look at Employment Help, Independent Living Skills, and Accessible Gaming

If you feel like you need more personal guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at oternativeperspectives@gmail.com where we can chat about anything related to your life after high school as a person with a disability. 

References 

  • Baker, K., Boland, K., & Nowik, C. (2012). A Campus Survey of Faculty and Student Perceptions of Persons with Disabilities. The Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1002143 
  • Izzo, M., & Shuman, A. (2013). Impact of Inclusive College Programs Serving Students with Intellectual Disabilities on Disability Studies Interns and Typically Enrolled Students. The Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1026886.pdf 
Author Nathan Baniqued, CEO and Founder of OTernative Perspectives

About the Author

Nathan Baniqued (he/him)

Nathaniel (Nathan) Baniqued OTD, OTR/L is an Occupational Therapist who received his doctoral degree in Occupational Therapy from Washington University in St. Louis, MO in 2023. Originally from O’ahu, HI, Nathan has had 7+ years of experience working with individuals with disabilities in various jobs and settings such as public education, supported employment, and outpatient clinics. The spark that began his desire to work with people with disabilities was after a medical event at 11 years-old when he was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney Disease Stage 3A.

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