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Haven and Hope

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For students, the months leading up to heading off to college are often filled with excitement yet wrought with some anxiety. College will present many new opportunities, life lessons and challenges. Adjusting to a new setting, different cultural and social norms, changes to the structure of the school day, and oftentimes, an increase in academic rigor and expectations are all a part of the first-year college experience. For some students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), college also represents the chance for a “do over,” a chance to start over and do things their way in an environment in which few people, if anyone, knows about their challenges.


Over the years, I have encountered students who have voiced this opinion, feeling as though their IEPs dictated their school experiences and robbed them of the opportunity to sit in mainstream classrooms or traditional schools with neurotypical peers. These students want distance from anything remotely resembling academic accommodations and unsolicited support. Instead, they wish to exercise autonomy by navigating the complexities of college on their own. This is an admirable goal, but with a hard-to-reach target as students with disabilities can, and often do, struggle to acclimate to college due to factors such as heightened levels of academic, financial, and social stress complicating their college experience. Thus, this is the time for students to seek out and apply for all the support services for which they are eligible. This is not the time to disregard the importance of having and utilizing support as their college success could be at stake.  


Data cited by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute indicated that for the 2015-16 school year, 19 percent of all enrolled college students reported having a disability[1]. However, only 8 percent of those from that same group were registered with their campus disability center. Why is this? According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (2022), many students did not disclose their disability to colleges to access the accommodations and supports they needed[2]. Among the reasons for not disclosing were:


  • Wanting to establish an identity independent of disability status
  • Shame or fear of being perceived as lazy or unintelligent or of getting an unfair advantage by requesting accommodations
  • Underestimating how important accommodations are to their academic success
  • Not knowing what kinds of disability services are available in college or how to access them


This indicates that more preparation is needed at the high school level to educate students with disabilities about college accommodations, the process to obtain them, and why they should use them. The transition from high school to college is not easy. Early exposure to the benefits of connecting with disability services can play a role in students’ postsecondary success. Knowing this, how can educators and parents help students feel more comfortable in disclosing, applying for, and accessing the support services they need?


  • Teach and provide opportunities for students to practice self-awareness and self-advocacy skills. Does your student know their S.P.I.N. (strengths, preferences, interests, and needs)? Do they know how they learn best? Do they know their disability diagnosis and are they able to explain how it affects them academically and even socially? What accommodations do they find most helpful in high school and why? Do they know how, who and when to ask for help?


  • Students should understand how college will be different from high school. One of the most critical lessons for students to learn early is that in high school, most learning takes place inside the classroom, and students with IEPs are afforded accommodations whether they want them or not. In college, students must take charge of their learning because 80 percent of it occurs outside the classroom[3] and, unless they apply for accommodations, none will be granted even if they exhibit signs of struggling academically. Again, freshman year in college is not the time to experiment with taking classes without the appropriate supports in place.


  • Depending on the nature of the disability, the services offered on campus may be as important, if not more so, than some other factors involved with choosing the right college. When researching and visiting colleges, students and parents should be sure to request face time with a member of disability services in the same way they would an admissions representative. While there are general accommodations that all colleges must offer to students who qualify, such as extended time on tests and quizzes, some have additional perks which may be fee-based, and/or connections to services such as academic coaching, autism programs, support groups, and mental health services beyond emergency and consultative.


  • Students should learn about disability rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. What is discrimination, and what protections are in place for adults in college? What should they do if they encounter problems accessing accommodations for which they are approved?


  • Encourage students to apply for accommodations before the start of each semester in college and provide a copy of the approval letter to instructors even if they don’t think they’ll need the accommodations. It is always better for students to be approved for accommodations and not use them, rather than realize they need them late into the semester, and not be able to access them. Once in place, it is up to the individual to decide what accommodations they want to use and when they want to use them.


Author Dr. Carmen Roberts serves as Director of Transitional Services and Programs and the Transition Learning Center (TLC) for the O-School. To learn more about the O-School’s TLC and day programs, please visit the pages on our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s or TLC services, please visit our inquiry page or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.


[1] Students with Disabilities – PNPI

[2] Transitioning to Life After High School - NCLD

[3] Stemmle, Dennis. Insider’s Guide to College Success. College Success Academy Press, 2021.


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Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.

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