College Students with Disabilities

views updated


Troy R. Justesen

Frances K. Stage
Magdalena H. de la Teja


Before the 1970s, more than half of the children with disabilities in the United States did not receive appropriate educational services that would enable them to have full equality of opportunity. More than one million of these children were excluded from the public school system and did not go through the educational process with their nondisabled peers. However, with the passage of the first federal eligibility program providing funding for special education and related services, more children with disabilities were integrated into regular classroom environments. This federal program, now entitled the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), ensures educational opportunities for children with disabilities in public elementary and secondary schools.

In the early twenty-first century, the numbers of students with disabilities successfully completing elementary and secondary school (among other improvements for this population) is largely due to the implementation of the IDEA, which increased access for many students with disabilities to the regular education classroom with the necessary special education and related services supports these children need to prepare for postsecondary education. The success of children with disabilities in primary education inevitably led to their desire to attend colleges and universities.

Postsecondary Students with Disabilities

Increasing numbers of children with disabilities are, in fact, entering postsecondary educational institutions. In 1999 the American Council on Education found that higher proportions of students with disabilities were enrolling in four-year colleges and universities than ever before. One in eleven first-time, full-time freshmen entering college in 1998 reported having a disability. Also in 1999, the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that an estimated 428,280 students with disabilities were enrolled at two-year and four-year postsecondary educational institutions. The numbers of students with disabilities transitioning from high school to higher education is expected to increase even more in the decades to come because of increased implementation of federal laws.

Federal Disability Laws Applicable to Higher Education

The protections and considerable modifications and services available under the IDEA to children with disabilities in primary education do not extend to education beyond the secondary level. The IDEA only applies to children with disabilities determined eligible for special education and related services from birth through their twenty-first birthday, and its protections and services end when the child leaves secondary schooleither through aging-out or graduating with a regular high school diploma. The IDEA is not, however, a basic civil rights statute, but rather an educational eligibility program for children with disabilities who are determined eligible for services under the IDEA. The protections and services afforded to children with disabilities do not cross over to higher education. However, two federal civil rights laws specifically apply to colleges and universities; these are the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

The Rehabilitation Act

Before the end of the 1970s, there were only a small number of colleges and universities that provided access for students with disabilities. Many of these institutions were segregated colleges and universities that specialized in serving students with a particular type of disability, such as Gallaudet University, which focuses on educating students who are deaf. The benefits of the civil rights movement for African Americans, and the growing assertion by women for equality, directly influenced people with disabilities to advocate for their rights to equality and opportunity to participate in society, including access to higher education. Many of these early advocates for access to higher education were disabled war veterans and others with disabilities who were highly assertive in forcing federal attention to physical and academic access to colleges and universities. The efforts of these individuals with disabilities led to the passage of the Rehabilitation Act.

The Rehabilitation Act applies to any entity that chooses to accept federal financial assistance for any program or service, including higher education institutions. The specific provision of the Rehab Act that applies in higher education, with respect to otherwise qualified students with disabilities, is section 504. Subpart E of section 504 specifically applies to postsecondary education settings.

In basic terms, Subpart E requires any public or private college or university that accepts federal funds for any activity to provide "program accessibility" to campus programs and services. Program accessibility is a concept that allows recipients of federal funds, in this case colleges and universities, to make their programs and activities available to individuals with disabilities without extensive retrofitting of their existing buildings and facilities by offering those programs through alternative methods. In practical terms this means that campus buildings are not required to be made accessible to, and usable by, students or others with disabilities as long as the "program" is made accessible to individuals with disabilities. For example, if the second floor of a campus science building has no elevator and a course is offered on that floor that a student who uses a wheelchair wants to take, then the course must be relocated to a classroom that is accessible for the student. Under section 504, a campus is not required to make each of its existing facilities accessible to students with disabilities, though newly constructed campus buildings and facilities are required to be usable by all individuals with disabilities.

Congress intended the section 504 program-access requirement to enable individuals with disabilities to participate in and benefit from the services, programs, or activities of public entities in all but the most unusual cases. However, section 504 only applies to colleges and universities that accept federal financial assistance of some sort, and does not apply to those institutions that do not accept federal dollars. Moreover, section 504 was not adequately enforced and, therefore, did not increase the number of students with disabilities attending postsecondary education. A more comprehensive civil rights law was needed to implement access for people with disabilities in all facets of society, including higher education. Thus, the foundation for the Americans with Disabilities Act was developed, leading to its passage in Congress by an overwhelming majority and its enactment into law on July 26,1990.

The Americans with Disabilities Act

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is the most comprehensive civil rights law protecting people with disabilities in history. In terms of higher education for students, the ADA applies to every public college and university and nearly every private college or university in America, with the exception of those institutions affiliated with religious entities or organizations. Examples of exempt institutions include Notre Dame University in Indiana and Brigham Young University in Utah. All public colleges and universities are covered under Title II of the ADA, and private colleges and universities are covered under Title III of the ADA. How the ADA applies to public institutions is very different than how private institutions are covered. Understanding these specific provisions of the ADA is critical to correctly implementing the act.

Basically, the section 504 and the Title II concepts of program accessibility are the same. However, Title II of the ADA extends the program accessibility concept to all public campuses regardless of the source of funding for any campus programs, meaning that existing buildings do not need to be altered to be accessible to students with disabilities as long as the program is accessible. This may mean simply relocating courses or offering services such as retrieving books from inaccessible areas of the campus for students with disabilities. Conversely, covered private campuses, under Title III, must actively remove architectural barriers in existing buildings and facilities where such removal is "readily achievable," or provide goods and services through alternative methods where those methods are "readily achievable." In other words, a major distinction between public and private campuses is that private campuses must remove existing physical barriers whenever and wherever it is readily achievable to do so. This is a higher standard of access for private than public campuses. However, all public and private campus construction since January 26, 1992, must meet minimum federal standards for accessibility to incrementally add to accessible buildings over time.

Public and private campuses are also required to provide the necessary services and supports for students with disabilities to participate in campus activities, both academic and social. Services such as braille materials; providing sign language interpreters and readers; and allowing students with learning disabilities to take course exams in quiet environments may also be required, with certain technical stipulations, to the extent necessary for students with disabilities to participate in campus activities. However, students with disabilities must notify, and in some cases provide documentation of disability, prior to asserting the need for modifications, and they must not wait until the last minute. Furthermore, the level and extent of services that must be provided depend on whether the campus is public or private.

See also: People with Disabilities, Federal Programs to Assist; Special Education.


Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. U.S. Public Law 101336. U.S. Code. Vol. 42, secs. 1210112213.

Henderson, Cathy. 1999. College Freshmen with Disabilities: Statistical Year 1998. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997. U.S. Public Law 10517. U.S. Code 20. Vol. 20, secs. 1400 et seq.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 1998. Fall Enrollment in Postsecondary Institutions 1996. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.

Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504. U.S. Public Law 93112. U.S. Code. Vol. 29, secs. 791794.

Troy R. Justesen


Students with mental or physical disabilities increasingly contribute to diverse populations on college campuses. According to Cathy Henderson (1999), the number of full-time freshmen with a disability increased from 2.6 percent in 1978 to 9 percent in 1998. Learning disability is the fastest growing category of disability, and the most commonly cited in 1998 by freshmen (41%). Other disabilities cited included visual impairment (13%); orthopedic-related impairments (9%); speech impairments (5.3%); health-related disabilities, such as those resulting from cystic fibrosis, cancer, and multiple sclerosis (19%); and "other" disabilities (22%). This last category includes attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and psychiatric disabilities. Twelve percent of freshmen reported hearing impairments in 1996.

Despite this wide array, students with disabilities are increasingly accessing, persisting in, and benefiting from higher education experiences. After examining National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data, Laura Horn and Jennifer Berktold reported in 1999 that individuals with disabilities enrolled in postsecondary institutions are likely to be men, older, white, and pursuing an associate's degree at a two-year college (although four-year college enrollments are rapidly increasing). Faced with numerous challenges to being successful in higher education, students with disabilities are more likely than other students to leave college before attaining a degree. However, the Horn and Berktold study indicates that individuals with a disability who do attain a degree are just as likely to obtain employment, to be paid at a similar rate, and to enroll in graduate school as those without disabilities.

Most colleges and universities provide general learning assistance to increase student success. Since 1990, many campuses have focused on becoming learning-centered campuses that emphasize broad approaches to learning designed to create positive academic outcomes for increasingly diverse student populations. These new approaches, designed to improve students' views of themselves as learners, their motivation to learn, and their self-sufficiency as scholars, are especially important for students with special learning needs. (The term students with special learning needs is used to refer to students with learning disabilities, ADD, or mental health problems that interfere with their ability to function fully without assistance in the academic setting.)

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 prohibit institutions receiving federal funds from discriminating based on disability and are key to the success of students with special learning needs. These pieces of legislation define individuals considered to have a mental or physical disability and describe accommodations and modifications required by law. Case law over the years has also been instrumental in ensuring access and creating an environment geared toward success in higher education and in employment for individuals with disabilities. College campuses are required to recognize the federal imperative to provide equal access to learning for all students they admit and matriculate.

Most colleges and universities provide special support services as accommodations for students with disabilities. In 1998, 72 percent of two-year and four-year colleges and universities enroll students with disabilities (American Council on Education, 2000). Accommodations and modifications include removing architectural barriers; extended-time or alternative exam formats; and providing textbooks on tape, sign language interpreters, tutors, readers, note-takers or scribes, assisted or priority registration, and adaptive furniture, equipment, and technology. Colleges and universities continue to improve physical accommodation as they upgrade facilities and erect new structures. However, students with visual and mobility impairments may still find architectural barriers to easy access to campus, especially in older facilities. As innovative resources designed specifically for accommodation come on the market, particularly those geared toward computer accessibility, colleges and universities are required to continue to conduct accessibility audits and plan for needed modifications to provide access to learning for all college students.

Student Issues

Many students come to college unaware that they have ADD or a learning disability. After a semester or two of difficulties or placement on academic probation, they begin to recognize their particular learning needs. Sometimes they seek and receive formal diagnoses of their disabilities, while others conduct self-diagnoses. Even when students recognize their needs, they are often reluctant to seek help or disclose their needs to others. In 1998, Bradford Kruse, Tina Elacqua, and Ross Rapaport conducted a study of students with disabilities at a Midwestern university, but 79 percent of students declined to participate. The number of students with learning and mental health disabilities is growing, and these students face numerous obstacles in their efforts to become successful college students. The most problematic of these include:

  1. A lack of diagnosis for many students with learning disabilities that would alert them to their own particular learning needs
  2. A general lack of awareness of strategies and services that could be used by students with special learning needs
  3. A reluctance on the part of students with special learning challenges to communicate their needs to others; this is especially true for students with invisible disabilities (e.g., ADD, ADHD, brain injury, dyslexia, mental illness)
  4. A tendency of parents to attempt to intervene for their students, even though the most effective intervention is student self-advocacy
  5. A lack of classmate acceptance of students with special learning needs
  6. A lack of campus staff, equipment, and services to adequately serve this growing campus need
  7. A faculty perceived by students with disabilities as having a general lack of awareness or even skepticism about the realities of learning challenges for college students and a reluctance by faculty to provide classroom accommodations
  8. A general suspicion that students with a mental disability are being deceptive about their needs in order to secure accommodations related to classroom work

To overcome these difficulties and barriers, students must take responsibility for their own success, advocate for their own academic needs, provide documentation from a qualified professional about their disability to the designated office on campus responsible for services to students with disabilities, educate themselves about accommodations that are particularly helpful to them, and identify themselves to campus career centers and counseling centers and be ready to discuss their needs based on the disability and follow the advice given.

Additionally, if students inform faculty immediately about their special accommodation needs, faculty skepticism may dissipate. If students wait until academic problems arise, faculty may be suspicious of the students' veracity or motives. A useful strategy may be to give skeptical faculty the names of staff and other faculty who are knowledgeable and accommodating.

Students can use resources in the community to assist them in accessing and benefiting from a college education, including Vocational Rehabilitation Program offices, public agencies for a specific disability, Centers for Independent Living, special transit, mental health agencies, and high school counseling offices.

Campus Response

According to Bradford Kruse et al. (1998), students who receive accommodations report greater confidence and self-esteem, lowered anxiety and stress, greater ability to understand course material, and improved academic performance. On the other hand, students who do not receive needed accommodations are more likely to experience anxiety, stress, and academic failure. Actions colleges can take to empower students as learners include:

  1. Educate academic advisors and counselors to the range of challenges faced by college students with special learning needs
  2. Develop a network of successful upperclass students with special learning needs who can help facilitate workshops and informational meetings for faculty, staff, and students
  3. Educate faculty regarding indicators of learning disabilities and mental health disabilities
  4. Proactively educate faculty about reasonable accommodations they are required to provide in college courses
  5. Widely publicize campus resources and referral procedures
  6. Identify staff who can be contacted for advice regarding particular student challenges
  7. Encourage faculty, academic advisors, and other staff to proactively respond when they identify students who might benefit from counseling, disability services, or other special campus services
  8. Take full advantage of campus resources such as web-based courses to provide students access to learning services

In addition, campuses can keep advocacy groups for students with disabilities informed about distancelearning options and other campus resources known to promote learning to a broad range of students. Personnel in service offices for students with disabilities, student affairs offices, and others who work with students' special learning needs should be knowledgeable and able to advise students about assistive technology.

Future Issues

As colleges continue to recruit growing numbers of students with special learning needs, many outstanding issues need to be addressed, including:

  • Students who had disability services in their pre-college education will come to expect and even demand them at college
  • Adult students with disabilities who reached college age in the years before campuses were fully accessible will increasingly return to earn the college degrees once thought beyond their reach
  • As diversity increases on campus, diverse learners with special needs will increasingly become a part of the student population
  • More rural students with physical and mental disabilities will seek a college education; barriers to access for these students may include lack of adequate information about higher education opportunities, family resistance to their leaving home, and inadequate academic preparation.

Finally, the greater awareness that exists regarding disabilities, the more likely it is that campuses will meet students' needs. Steps taken by campuses to highlight the successes of upperclass students who have recognized and successfully worked with their learning needs, to develop and articulate the means of identifying other students' possible needs, and to provide widely publicized campus services can ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn.

See also: Adjustment to College; College Student Retention; Personal and Psychological Problems of College Students; Special Education.


Aune, Betty P., and Kroeger, Sue A. 1997. "Career Development of College Students with Disabilities: An Interactional Approach to Defining the Issues." Journal of College Student Development 38 (4):270279.

Dunn, Caroline. 1995. "A Comparison of Three Groups of Academically At-Risk College Students." Journal of College Student Development 36 (3):344355.

El-Hindi, Ameila E. 1997. "Connecting Reading and Writing: College Learners' Metacognitive Awareness." Journal of Developmental Education 21 (2):1018.

Hirsh, Glenn. 1994. "Helping Students Overcome the Effects of Difficult Learning Histories." Journal of Developmental Education 18 (2):1016.

Hitchings, William E.; Luzzo, Darrell A.; Retish, Paul; Horvath, Michael; and Ristow, Robert S. 1998. "Identifying the Career Development Needs of College Students with Disabilities." Journal of College Student Development 39 (1):2332.

Hockley, Dean G. 1990. "Planning Adaptive Computing Services in Higher Education: An Integrated Approach." Paper presented at Beyond Ramps: Accessing Higher Education through Technology: A Disabilities Services Conference for Higher Education, April, 1990, St. Paul, MN.

Kruse, Bradford G.; Elacqua, Tina C.; and Rapaport, Ross J. 1998. "Classroom Accommodations for Students with Disabilities: A Needs Assessment." Journal of College Student Development 39 (3):296298.

Lance, G. Denise. 1996. "Computer Access in Higher Education: A National Survey of Service Providers for Students with Disabilities." Journal of College Student Development 37 (3):279288.

Margolis, Victor H. 1986. "The Role of College Disabled Student Service Programs in Providing Access to the Microcomputer." Bulletin of the Association on Handicapped Student Service Programs in Post-Secondary Education 4 (2):6675.

McCune, Pat. 2001. "What Do Disabilities Have To Do With Diversity?" About Campus May/June: 412.

Roberts, Ellen R., and Thomson, Gregg. 1994. "Learning Assistance and the Success of Underprepared Students at Berkeley." Journal of Developmental Education 17 (3):414.

Scott, Sally S., and Gregg, Noel. 2000. "Meeting the Evolving Education Needs of Faculty in Providing Access for College Students with L.D." Journal of Learning Disabilities 33 (2):158168.

Silver, Patricia; Strehorn, Kregg C.; and Bourke, Andrew. 1997. "The 1993 Employment Follow-Up Study of Selected Graduates with Disabilities." Journal of College Student Development 38 (5):520526.

Stage, Frances K., and Milne, Nancy V. 1996. "Invisible Scholars: College Students with Learning Disabilities." Journal of Higher Education 67 (4):426445.

Stage, Frances K.; Muller, Patricia; Kinzie, Jillian; and Simmons, Ada. 1998. Creating Learning Centered Classrooms: What Does Learning Theory Have to Say? Washington, DC: ASHE/ERIC.

internet references

American Council on Education. 2000. "Facts-in-Brief: Most Institutions Provide Special Services for Students with Disabilities." <>

Henderson, Cathy. 1999. "College Freshmen with Disabilities: A Biennial Statistical Profile." Washington, DC: American Council on Education. <>

Horn, Laura, and Berktold, Jennifer. 1999. "Students with Disabilities in Postsecondary Education: A Profile of Preparation, Participation, and Outcomes." Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. <>

Frances K. Stage

Magdalena H. de la Teja

About this article

College Students with Disabilities

Updated About content Print Article


College Students with Disabilities