Special Education

Students With Disabilities Urge Smoother Transition to College

By Evie Blad — November 01, 2022 4 min read
College students blurred and moving around a white male sitting at desk in a college classroom
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For college students with disabilities, even small changes to college-classroom procedures—like taking a test in a small, quiet room rather than a echoing lecture hall—can be make or break for academic success, but advocates say securing access to such accommodations can be confusing, costly, and time-consuming.

A group of student advocates and national disability-rights organizations are seeking legislation to streamline the process by requiring colleges and universities to accept students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs, and evaluations from K-12 schools as proof of the need for accommodations and supports.

For years, they’ve pushed a bill called the Respond, Innovate, Support, and Empower, or RISE Act, which would include that verification requirement. The bipartisan, bicameral bill was included in a package of mental health legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives Sept. 29, the furthest the RISE Act has progressed legislatively since it was first introduced by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., in 2016.

The efforts matter to K-12 educators, who are required under federal law to help students with disabilities prepare for the transition to adulthood, including crafting plans for higher education. Nineteen percent of undergraduate students reported having a disability in 2016, according to the most recent federal data, but not all of them sought accomodations.

“It’s a huge time commitment and it’s also extremely costly” to get evaluated for a disability, said Anna Higgins, a sophomore at Colorado State University who has multiple learning disabilities. “If you already have a test from earlier in your life, that should still count. A learning disability is never going to go away. You’re not going to wake up one day and go, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m not dyslexic any more.’”

You’re not going to wake up one day and go, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m not dyslexic any more.’

Higgins, who advocates for college students with disabilities, was diagnosed with dyslexia, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and dysgraphia—a condition that affects an individual’s ability to write legibly by hand—after an evaluation in 3rd grade.

Her savvy parents ensured she was evaluated again—a process involving hours of assessments and interviews—to qualify for accommodations in college.

But she worries other students, who may not have the financial means or the proper guidance on the issue, may not be so lucky. The process of determining what colleges require to prove a disability, what accommodations are available, and how to find a qualified specialist to conduct an assessment can be challenging for students who are already adjusting to all the changes of college life, Higgins said.

“It’s this lack of education for, not only students, but for teachers and administrators as well,” said Higgins, who developed an interest in advocacy after participating in a peer mentoring program through Eye to Eye, an organization for students with learning differences.

Under federal disability-rights laws, students like Higgins are entitled to reasonable accommodations in education and employment, said Lindsay Kubatzky, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which has pushed for passage of the RISE Act. For example, Higgins may take exams in a private room to minimize distractions, or she might use a computer for essay tests to ensure her answers are legible to instructors.

Those accommodations don’t directly mirror what’s in a student’s K-12 special education plan, but they are designed to fit the college environment the college environment, Kubatzky said. While K-12 schools are bound by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide supportive services, colleges and universities do not have any requirements under that special education law. Rather, they are bound by the Americans with Disabilities Act to reasonably address barriers caused by disabilities.

Proving disabilities can be difficult for college students

Although some colleges and universities accept K-12 student records to verify the need for such modifications, others require evaluations that students often have to locate, schedule, and pay for on their own, he said. That can create another barrier to higher education for many students.

Many undergraduates don’t disclose their learning disabilities to their colleges and universities, many are unaware of the services available to them, and some don’t know how to navigate the process, the National Council on Learning Disabilities has found in surveys and discussions with families.

Among college students who were ever diagnosed with a disability, just 13 percent informed their college of their status, according to a long-term federal analysis of 2016 data released in April.

In addition to requiring colleges to accept students’ K-12 records as proof of disability, the RISE Act would create a $10 million technical-support center for college faculty to learn more about the needs of students with disabilities, provide a centralized source of information about accommodations for students and their families, and require colleges and universities to report more data on students with disabilities.

Some colleges and universities may be concerned about introducing additional obligations to students if the bill passes. But Kubatzky said both students and higher education institutions will benefit from more clarity about the issue.

The U.S. Senate does not currently have a vote scheduled on the RISE Act, but advocates say House passage brought them hope.

“This is the first time it’s passed either chamber,” Kubatzky said. “It’s really exciting for our community. Each year, we get a little bit closer, but this is the furthest we’ve been.”

Coverage of students with learning differences and issues of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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