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Applying for Disability Accommodations at College and University

This is the fifth of six resource guides which give information and tips on how to navigate special education and disability services at primary, secondary, and university levels.

Jump to resource guide 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 6 | College with inclusion programs for students with disabilities

This overview will answer the following questions:

  • Who should I reach out to seek disability accommodations at college or university?
  • What documentation should I have?
  • At what point should I request accommodations?

For many students, their time at university may be the first time they do not have their parents navigating school settings. While this may already be nerve-wracking, students who need and are trying to navigate disability services may feel extra pressure. 

Accommodations should be available at colleges in the U.S. for students with chronic illness, disability or a mental health issue. For example, when it comes to test-taking, someone with anxiety or a disability that affects dexterity may be given extra time, while someone with diabetes may need stop-time, which would allow them to pause testing if they need to take care of their health.

This guide will offer suggestions on who students should reach out to, what documentation they should have, and when they should request accommodations. These are general suggestions, as disability services at universities can vary immensely. 

Seeking disability accommodations at college

Whether you are starting university and already have a disability or you, for example, develop an autoimmune disorder during your sophomore year there, the process for seeking accommodations is roughly the same. There are two main paths to do so.

The first path is to approach disability services directly. You can do this online or in person. Most disability services at universities have websites which will tell you who you should contact to apply for disability services. Or you could go in-person to the disability services at your university. Either way, you should ask to have a meeting where disability services can discuss possible accommodations you could receive, and what you need to do on your end to receive such accommodations.

The second path is to seek accommodations through an advisor. This advisor can be a freshman advisor, a departmental one, or another relevant advisor. This advisor can walk you through how to apply for disability services at your university, as they likely have experience with doing so. In addition, they can help advocate for your needs if you are not happy with the services that you are receiving. 

Documentation

While all universities and their disability services are unique, many recommend or even require documentation to register for disability services. This documentation can range from a student’s IEP from high school to a doctor’s note. The morer recent the documentation the better. 

Also, it may be best to ask a doctor to write a note specifically for university accommodations. Here are some recommendations of what to ask your doctor to include:

  1. A diagnosis or diagnoses 
  2. Symptoms of a mental health issue, illness, or disability
  3. How these symptoms may interfere with academic work
  4. Which accommodations they recommend
  5. Why a student needs those accommodations

It would be nice to think universities would go above and beyond to help students, but this is not always the case. Having a doctor specify in a letter what specific accommodations a student should receive can help advocate for a student’s needs.

When to seek accommodations 

The two best times to seek accommodations during university is during the summer or at the start of a semester. This is because wait times will likely be shorter, and you will likely have less academic work at this time. Advocating for your rights can be like a full-time job if you have a disability, illness, or mental health issue, so periods when you have fewer exams and papers could be a better time to seek accommodations. Let’s face it, exam periods are stressful and can impact students’ physical and mental health. So, it makes sense that many students try to enroll with disability services once they notice their physical and/or mental health is affecting their work. This can, unfortunately, make wait times longer. 

Of course, an illness or mental health crisis may strike at any moment, so a student may have no control over when they need to seek accommodations. You should still follow the steps to get the help you deserve. A longer wait time should not dissuade you from seeking accommodations.

If you are looking for university programs where there is major structural support for students with disabilities, there are also programs at universities tailored towards students with disabilities. These 20 colleges have great inclusion programs for students with disabilities.

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Jump to resource guide 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 6 | College with inclusion programs for students with disabilities

Getty image by Jacob Ammentorp Lund.