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E-mail this pagePostsecondary Education Supports and Accommodations

Frequently Asked Questions


What kinds of supports are currently offered or available to students with disabilities in postsecondary education?

There is a wide range of supports that can be offered to students with disabilities. Broadly categorized, they include:

  • provision of architectural access (i.e., wheelchair accessible ramps, space for wheelchairs in an auditorium, Braille labeling in elevators, and visible smoke alarm devices)
  • provision of communication aids and services (i.e., sign language interpreters, Braille materials, taped textbooks, assistive listening devices, and adapted computer terminals)
  • modification of policies, practices, and procedures (i.e., rescheduling classes in an accessible location, early enrollment, and alternative test taking arrangements)
  • other supports (i.e., tutoring, learning skills classes, advocacy work, mentoring, and career guidance)

However, the frequency with which these supports are offered varies greatly from institution to institution (National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports, 2000). Furthermore, some supports that may be expected in secondary school are not offered in postsecondary school. The processes by which students access support is also very different. Students with disabilities who are not prepared for these differences may find the transition to postsecondary school distressing.


How is postsecondary education different from secondary education in terms of supporting students with disabilities?

One major difference between secondary and postsecondary schools is the types of supports provided. In secondary schools, separate classrooms with modified content are typical. Even with the current increase in general curriculum inclusion, 76.2% of youth with disabilities spend part of their day in a separate classroom (NLTS2, 2003). In postsecondary school, there are no separate classrooms, and every student is expected to learn from the same curriculum. While students with disabilities may be given testing accommodations (such as extra time on tests in a separate environment, if appropriate), they are still expected to master the same content and skills as students without disabilities. There are a handful of programs, often funded temporarily by the government, that provide special content experiences on college campuses but do not give college credit. These programs are good for students with disabilities who are college age and want to experience going to college but do not meet academic prerequisites.

There is a class of supports that are offered in secondary environments but not at postsecondary schools. Secondary schools are often required to provide "related services," which may include physical therapy, transportation, provision of assistive technology and training for its use, speech therapy, tutoring, and classroom aides. Also offered at the secondary level are "transition services," including career education, life-skills and/or job-skills training, mentoring, and supported employment. Once students go to postsecondary school, related services, transition services, and services of a personal nature (such as personal aides or tutors) are no longer required by law and typically not available (U.S. Department of Education & Office for Civil Rights, 2002). Students with disabilities will usually have to look elsewhere for these services, in places like Vocational Rehabilitation, Independent living centers, or local accessible transportation services. College campuses do tend to have some type of career, counseling, and tutoring services available to all students, but these offices do not have expertise in disability issues, technologies, rights, or opportunities. It is possible for students with disabilities to acquire all the supports that they need, but the burden of coordinating different supports, in addition to the usual adjustments to college that all students need to make, can be overwhelming. The sooner students start preparing, the easier it will be for them to transition to postsecondary education with all the supports they need.

A second major difference between secondary school and postsecondary school is the degree to which students with disabilities are expected to identify their own needs and manage their own supports. For example, in secondary school, each student with a disability is identified by the school and has an Individual Education Program (IEP) team that is charged with developing a yearly service plan and progress report for the student. The student's participation in their own team will vary considerably, but often it is the student's parents, teachers, and specialist support personnel who will identify his or her needs, come up with a plan to meet those needs, and manage the provision of supports.

By contrast, in postsecondary school, the student is responsible for (a) identifying themselves as having a disability, (b) documenting their disability, and (c) requesting specific supports, services and accommodations to meet their needs. Students are expected to know what supports they need in order to succeed in their classes. Their parents are no longer part of the decision-making process, so it is important for students to know the why and how of the decisions their IEP teams previously made for them. They need to understand their own disability, the types of supports that help them, and their right to request support.

Most postsecondary support offices require documentation of the disability before they will provide services. Policies on documentation typically vary, but usually students' last IEP report is not accepted. Many schools require a professional assessment, i.e., by a psychologist or medical doctor, which can be very expensive, and often at the expense of the student. Some students have a very difficult time their first semester of college when they discover they need to get an assessment and find the means to pay for it, while at the same time adjusting to postsecondary coursework without accommodations.

Postsecondary support services also tend to be more temporary than secondary support services. IEP teams in secondary school usually make a year-long plan for students' supports. In postsecondary school, students with disabilities need to stay on top of things so that they can request the accommodations they need early, every semester or quarter. Students with disabilities often need to decide before other students what classes they will attend, so that disability support services can acquire the necessary books-on-tape, Braille, or sign-language interpreter services in time for everything to be in place when the new semester begins.


How can we prepare youth with disabilities to make a successful transition from secondary to postsecondary education?

It has been suggested that one way to prepare youth with disabilities for postsecondary education is to encourage them to develop self-determination and advocacy skills while they are still in secondary school (Togerson, et al., 2004; Wood et al., 2004). This might include encouraging students with disabilities to:

  1. Actively participate in the development of their own IEPs.
  2. Develop an understanding of the nature of their disability and how their disability impacts their learning.
  3. Attend special courses or curriculum that focuses on self-determination and advocacy skills.
  4. Seek models of support service delivery that move students towards the transition to postsecondary education.

Another important step is to ensure that youth with disabilities have the opportunity and necessary support to take college preparatory coursework and explore postsecondary options. As much as possible, students should have access to the same general curriculum as students without disabilities. The extra work it may take to keep up with the general curriculum in high school will pay off in postsecondary school. IEP teams need to make plans for postsecondary education early. They should be aware of the high school coursework and prerequisite skills necessary to enter college.

As mentioned earlier, it is important to plan ahead for the different kinds of supports necessary for students with disabilities to succeed. Students, parents, transition specialists, and IEP teams should be aware of the specific supports students will need after high school, and the different sources for them. Applications to support services like Vocational Rehabilitation should start early so that students don't have to do them in the beginning of their first semester in college.

For more suggestions and resources see NCSET topic, "Preparing for Postsecondary Education."


What is the difference between an "accessible" and a "quality" experience in education?

If education is accessible, it means that a student has the opportunity to have an education. They have access to facilities, course materials, lectures, discussions, and examinations. But "access" does not necessarily mean quality, let alone equality.

Postsecondary education for most students is not just about being physically present in a lecture hall. It is about being able to ask questions, discuss ideas with classmates, have a critical conversation with a professor about a paper, reflect upon readings, explore the library, work on a research project, have coffee with friends, experience a multicultural dance performance, go for a swim in the Olympic-sized campus pool, participate in the dorm Halloween party, etc.

A quality educational experience is about gaining knowledge about and insight into a wide variety of human experiences and disciplines. And most critically, it is about being able to do these things without more hardship than the average student experiences during postsecondary education.


Do the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act ensure that students with disabilities have the same postsecondary experiences as students without disabilities?

The Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act mandate equal access for persons with disabilities, including equal access to postsecondary education. However, as discussed earlier, having access to education is not the same as experiencing a quality education. These laws have not necessarily been interpreted in a way that ensures a quality postsecondary experience for people with disabilities. Although many postsecondary institutions have personnel who are charged with ensuring compliance with the law, they may be less concerned with going beyond compliance to enhance the postsecondary experience of individuals with disabilities. There are still barriers that the laws do not address, such as attitudinal barriers, the cost of documentation, lack of funding for universal design, lack of training for personnel, or disjointed student services.


What are the obligations of postsecondary education programs to accommodate students with disabilities?

It is widely recognized that a diverse student body lends to a richer postsecondary experience for all students. Postsecondary institutions have an obligation to address the unique learning needs of a diverse student body. Students with disabilities are only one segment of a student population that may vary in terms of ethnicity, socio-economic background, gender, age, and ability. Postsecondary institutions are required by law to provide accommodations for students with disabilities to have equal access to their programs and services. They are obligated by their funding sources and recruitment efforts to produce high-quality graduates. And they are obligated by society to be a role model for innovative and effective programs and ideas. However, how these obligations play out in each individual student's life varies.


What can postsecondary personnel do to improve the educational experiences of students with disabilities?

  1. Begin work early with students' secondary support to ensure that the accommodations students need will be available to them when they transition to the new environment.
  2. Provide information to students ahead of time about what supports are available and the responsibilities of the student.
  3. Work with policy makers and secondary personnel to establish a reasonable plan for disability documentation so that students are not surprised by the burden of proof when they start school.
  4. Be flexible: Find creative ways to help students learn and participate in the postsecondary experience with the rest of their classmates. See the student first, support needs second, and the disability last. Not all students with the same disability benefit from the exact same supports.


Because there are many types of disabilities, is it possible for postsecondary education programs to provide a quality educational experience to every student with a disability?

Yes! It may be a challenge to provide a quality education to every student, but it is certainly possible. The key lies in going beyond thinking of students with disabilities as "compliance problems" to thinking of them as individuals who are as deserving of a quality postsecondary educational experience as are students without disabilities. With creativity, resourcefulness, and collaborative effort, postsecondary institutions can meet the needs of a wide range of students.

Despite the differences between secondary and postsecondary settings, and the transitional challenges faced by postsecondary students with disabilities, attaining a postsecondary education is worth it. Besides personal enrichment, a postsecondary degree substantially increases the opportunity for independent and successful living. Not all students with disabilities encounter discouraging obstacles in postsecondary education. Some students report that they received more help in college than in high school. Some schools have innovative programs that "go the extra mile" to help students get a quality educational experience (see Emerging & Promising Practices). The difference in supports at secondary and postsecondary schools requires long-term planning and preparation. But do not give up. There are solutions.


References

National Center for the Study of Postsecondary Educational Supports. (2000, April). National survey: Types and frequency of educational support provision in postsecondary programs, Research Findings Brief (Vol. 1, Study Area 4d). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii.

National Longitudinal Transition Study-2. (2003). NLTS2 data tables. Retrieved from http://www.nlts2.org/data_tables/index.html

Togerson, C. W., Miner, C. A., & Shen, H. (2004, January). Developing student competence in self-directed IEPs. Intervention in School & Clinic, 39(3), 162-167.

U.S. Department of Education, & Office for Civil Rights. (2002). Students with disabilities preparing for postsecondary education: Know your rights and responsibilities. Retrieved from http://www.wrightslaw.com/info/sec504.transition.ocr.pdf

Wood, W. M., Karvonen, M., Test, D. W., Browder, D., & Algozzine, B. (2004). Promoting student self-determination skills in IEP planning. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 36 (3), 8-16.


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This page was last updated on November 23, 2011.