Disabilities—such as ADHD, chronic illnesses, psychiatric conditions, learning disabilities, and physical disabilities—are more common among students than you might think. In a recent Student Health 101 survey, 17 percent of students said they’ve been diagnosed with a developmental, physical, psychiatric, or other type of disability. Most of these students qualify for academic accommodations, but 40 percent said they haven’t tried accessing them.
“So many students are concerned that their diploma will be different, that there will be a notation on their transcript [if they use disability services on campus], or are concerned with what other students will think,” says Amy King, director of student accountability and disability services at the University of New Orleans. She assures students these things aren’t true. “We all have differences. We honestly all know someone who has some health, learning, or other impairment.”
Data published by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment indicate the disabilities that are most prevalent on campuses.
Proportion of college students who reported any of the following:
Proportion of college students who felt their academics had been negatively affected by these conditions:
Source: American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Fall 2018.
Why aren’t students accessing disability services?
Research from the National Center for Learning Disabilities shows that there’s a drop-off between high school and college when it comes to accessing disability services at school. There are several potential reasons why. For example, in our survey, some students with disabilities said they arrived at college wanting to make it on their own or didn’t feel they needed accommodations. Others said they didn’t know what help was available or how to request it. Some were concerned about judgment and stigma. Others had encountered difficulties navigating the system on their campus.
These things are all understandable, but not accessing services means you might be missing out. “The more students utilize all of the tools we offer to them as an institution, the more successful the student will be,” says King.
So if you decide you’d like to access support services, how do you get started?
Experts say it’s never too late. Even if you find yourself at the end of the year and you haven’t accessed help yet, it’s still worth reaching out. “I have set up testing accommodations a day before a final,” says King. Going now can help you get any help you need for the remainder of the year and find out what’s available to you next year.
Students with disabilities explain how to get support
We asked students with disabilities what helped them the most. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Let go of the fear of being judged
“What helped me was admitting that I had a problem that I could not conquer myself. Almost flunking out completely helped me realize this and get help.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
“Just say what you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. There’s no harm in needing help; we are all dependent in some way or another.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Aurora University, Illinois
“I struggle with knowing if my disability is ‘bad enough’ or if I ‘deserve’ accommodation. I know those are silly fears; however, I can’t help myself from having them.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Maine
2. Get organized
“I had to coordinate with my audiologist for her to provide official documentation of my disability. I was able to overcome this difficulty.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland
“I knew that I had some sort of learning disability for years but didn’t know I was diagnosed. I had such trouble with time on tests that it crippled my GPA for a semester. I asked my mom to show me the documents that proved I had a learning disability. I instantly went to the ADA office. They were very helpful and helped me get accommodations within a day.”
—First-year undergraduate, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology
3. Find the right support team
Disability Services is known as Accessibility Services on some campuses.
“Always talk to Student Accessibility Services or a campus Title IX coordinator, depending on what your individual needs are. They’re there to help. In my experience, there have been plenty of faculty at my school that have access to resources of all kinds that you may not have even heard of or considered.”
—Second-year undergraduate, University of Maine
“Talk about it! Tell whoever will listen about your disability. Talking about it tends to make others uncomfortable, but I have found it increases the support you receive. I have even had friends research my disorders to help them understand them.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Indiana Institute of Technology
“My OCD is often sporadic, and when episodes prevent me from attending class and completing homework, some teachers offer the bare minimum in support to make up missed work. But on the other side, there are also teachers who are very accommodating and understanding and help me to succeed.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University
4. Be up-front with your professors
“I explain to teachers at the start of the semester that I struggle with depression and anxiety, and that there is a chance that it may affect my academic performance at some point in the future. So if something comes up, they are not surprised.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California
“Talk to people in the academic support center or disability office on campus. Most professors are more than accommodating, but you have to advocate for yourself. If you don’t tell them that you need or receive accommodations, they cannot provide them to you.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Minnesota State University Moorhead
“It is difficult because many students don’t understand a disability, especially if it is not seen visually. Not everyone who has a disability is able to show it physically. I also find that it is difficult for staff to assist at times because they don’t usually see what is happening.”
—First-year undergraduate, Lambton College, Ontario
5. Be persistent if you’re not getting the help you need
“Make sure to advocate for what you think you need, and don’t be afraid to talk to people’s bosses if you’re not happy with how they are treating you.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Michigan Technological University
“If you have a documented disability, you cannot take no for an answer when it comes to accommodations. I have learned from my siblings before me that you must be relentless where personnel are unwilling to give you the accommodations you have a right to. People with disabilities want to achieve their full potential and be given the same opportunity to do so as their peers—accommodations for people with disabilities level the playing field, not give them a leg up on their peers. If you meet resistance toward having your academic needs met, you must fight for your rights.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Missouri University of Science and Technology
“When I found out I had epilepsy I was able to get accommodations, but my professors were not very willing to use them. I had to miss a test due to being in the hospital and the professor would not let me make it up. He wouldn’t budge, so I had to go to the dean of sciences and have him talk to the professor.”
—First-year graduate student, Louisiana
Most importantly, make sure you file with the disability services office
“There is a critically important difference between telling your professors about your situation and actually filing with the disability services office for accommodations. Only when they receive a letter from the disability services offices are faculty supposed to make modifications or accommodations.”
—Dr. Rick Hanson, associate vice president for academic and professional success, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas
Amy Baldwin, MA, director of University College, University of Central Arkansas.
Amy King, director of student accountability and disability services, University of New Orleans.
Rick Hanson, PhD, psychologist, associate vice president for Academic and Professional Success, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas.
American College Health Association. (2018, Fall). American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference group executive summary fall 2018. Retrieved from https://www.acha.org/documents/ncha/NCHA-II_Fall_2018_Reference_Group_Executive_Summary.pdf
Higher Education Research Institute. (2011, April). College students with hidden disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.heri.ucla.edu/PDFs/pubs/briefs/HERI_ResearchBrief_Disabilities_2011_April_25v2.pdf
Krupnick, M. (2014, February 13). Colleges respond to growing ranks of learning disabled. Hechinger Report. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/colleges-respond-to-growing-ranks-of-learning-disabled/
National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Fast facts: Students with disabilities. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60
Raue, K., & Lewis, L. (2011). Students with disabilities at degree-granting postsecondary institutions. US Department of Education. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2011018
Student Health 101 survey, November 2015.
Student Health 101 survey, June 2019.
Wolanin, T. R., & Steele, P. E. (2004). Higher education opportunities for students with disabilities. Institute for Higher Education Policy. Retrieved from https://www.ahead.org/uploads/docs/resources/ada/Opportunities%20for%20Students%20with%20Disabilities.pdf