A Comprehensive Guide for Students with Disabilities

Navigate your college journey using these tools and resources.

Person in wheelchair; graduation robe.When you are a student with disabilities trying to navigate the college process, sometimes it feels as though someone has thrown you off a cliff surrounded by jagged rocks and told you to “aim for the water.”

It is understandably stressful. It is undeniably confusing. It is unnecessarily complicated. It is unfair that everyone else just applies to college, finds housing, registers for classes, and then is all but done (at least from your perspective).

It can seem hopeless, like no matter how much you research, reach out, and request help, you will not be able to attend college as a “normal” student.

I know this feeling. I have a neuromuscular condition called Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) Type III. It is a genetic condition where you are missing the gene that nourishes, sustains, and powers your motor neurons (nerves that control movement). Without these nerves, you move less, and thus your muscles atrophy.

I only tell you that so you know that this is not some random stranger on the internet trying to take advantage of you. I’m navigating this process as I’m writing this article. I am a wheelchair-dependent high school senior trying to figure out how I can live a relatively normal life; like you, I want to go to college, get a degree, have a career, and contribute to the world.

All this is difficult enough for an able-bodied person, let alone one with a disability. But the reality is, there are many resources that can be incredibly helpful in this process. The hard part is figuring out which you can benefit from. How can you know which ones will help you?

In this article, I will cover several common disabilities, resources and tools for those disabilities, accommodations for standardized tests, laws and rights for those with disabilities, government agencies that help those with disabilities, and a few more general tips for college.

I already have used some of these resources myself and intend to use more as I get further into the college process. I hope this will help you graduate from college with flying colors, as these tools have already helped me.

Types of Disabilities and Corresponding Resources

Before we get into general accommodations for tests and college, I will provide you with a brief overview of (somewhat) common disabilities and related resources for those disabilities.

According to Statista, nearly 31% of US college students in the fall of 2022 reported disabilities or health conditions.

You will hear about cognitive and learning disabilities, sensory impairments, physical disabilities, and speech disorders.

Cognitive and Learning Disabilities and Disorders

Cognitive disabilities refer to a broad range of conditions that include intellectual disabilities, neurodevelopmental disabilities, mental illness, brain injuries, and strokes. They can be related both to IQ and functional ability.

Learning disabilities affect the acquisition of knowledge and/or skills, such as reading, writing, and math. These include dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia.

Although your particular condition may not be included below, many of the services and tools shown may still be beneficial. According to Statista, around 23.6% of college students in the fall of 2022 had Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, a learning disability, or a speech/language disorder.

Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder

ADHD is one of the most common disabilities. According to Statista, around 15% of college students had ADHD in the fall of 2022. Some symptoms of ADHD are inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Students with ADHD may have problems staying on task, daydreaming, not paying attention, acting without much thought of consequences, or being overly active.

Credible sources on ADHD
Resources and Tips to Help Students with ADHD

Autism Spectrum Disorder

A developmental disability, ASD symptoms may include problems with social communication and restricted behaviors or interests, but there are many possible symptoms or levels of autism. Some with ASD may have advanced conversation skills, while others may be nonverbal. According to Statista, in 2022, 2.9% of college students had ASD.

Credible sources on ASD
Resources and Tips to Help Students with ASD


Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty with reading for someone who is intelligent enough to otherwise be a good reader. People with dyslexia have trouble matching the letters they see on the page with the sounds those letters and combinations of letters make.

According to The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, up to 20% of the US population is dyslexic, and 80%-90% of people with learning disabilities are dyslexic.

There are other similar disorders, such as dysgraphia and dyscalculia, but those are less well-known/common. If you have dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or other related disorders, however, you may still benefit from the resources below.

Credible sources on Dyslexia
Resources and Tips to Help Students with Dyslexia


Epilepsy is a chronic brain disorder that is known to cause seizures. These seizures can be generalized, affecting all of the brain, or focal, affecting only part of the brain. Many different conditions can cause epilepsy, such as a tumor, stroke, head injury, or nervous system infection. In 2015, about 1.2% of the US population had active epilepsy, according to the CDC.

Credible sources on Epilepsy
Resources and Tips to Help Students with Epilepsy

Speech Disorders or Impairments

Speech disorders affect a person’s ability to form audible words. They can include stuttering, verbal apraxia, or dysarthria. Some speech disorders can be caused by hearing impairments, neuromuscular disorders, or brain injuries. According to Statista, around 1.1% of college students had some form of speech or language disorder in the fall of 2022.

Credible sources on Speech Impairments
Resources and Tips to Help Students with Speech Impairments

Sensory Impairments

Sensory impairments include deafness, blindness, severe visual impairments, severe hearing impairments, and deafblindness. According to Statista, around 5.6% of college students in the fall of 2022 had low vision or hearing loss.

Blindness and Visual Impairments

Visual impairments occur in varying levels of severity and with various causes. Many different diseases, age-related disorders, and injuries can cause visual impairment, including macular degeneration, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, amblyopia, and strabismus.

Some people who are severely visually impaired can still technically read with high enough magnification but may benefit from many of the resources associated with people who are completely blind. In the fall of 2022, 3.5% of enrolled college students were visually disabled, according to Statista.

Credible sources on Blindness
Resources and Tips to Help Students with Blindness

Deafness and Hearing Impairments

Hearing impairments also occur in varying levels of severity. There is conductive hearing loss (obstruction in the outer or middle ear), sensorineural hearing loss (inner ear or hearing nerve issues), mixed hearing loss (combination of conductive and sensorineural), and auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder (damage to inner ear issues with sound interpretation).

Disabling hearing loss is significantly more prevalent in the senior population, but there are still many deaf students of a younger generation enrolled in college. In 2019, around 1.3% of then-enrolled college students were deaf, according to the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC). In the fall of 2022, that number was 2.1%, according to Statista.

Credible sources on Deafness
Resources and Tips to Help Students with Deafness


Deafblindness is pretty much what it sounds like: it involves having severe hearing and visual impairments. Helen Keller is a well-known example of someone with deafblindness.

Among deaf college students in 2019 (which was 1.3% of all students), nearly 8.1% were blind as well, according to the NDC. That means that around 0.1% of all students were deaf-blind.

There can be many different causes, including hereditary conditions like Down syndrome or Usher syndrome, prenatal complications like hydrocephaly or cytomegalovirus, or postnatal conditions like asphyxia, a severe head injury, or meningitis. Sometimes a person may be born blind or deaf, then acquire the other impairment later in life.

Credible sources on Deafblindness
Resources and Tips to Help Students with Deafblindness

Mobility and Dexterity Impairments

Mobility and dexterity impairments are impairments in a person’s body structure or function, separate from sensory impairments. These can include neuromuscular conditions, such as muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy, or musculoskeletal conditions, such as amputations, spinal disorders or injuries, dwarfism, multiple sclerosis, and joint deformities.

According to Statista, 1.5% of college students in 2022 had a mobility or dexterity disability.

Credible sources on Mobility Impairments
Resources and Tips to Help Students with Mobility Impairments

Standardized Test Accommodations

Various study materials for the visually impaired such as a watch, brail paper and headphones.
Before you even apply to college, you should decide whether you will take an entrance exam like the SAT or ACT (ideally during your sophomore year, so you have time to take it multiple times if need be).

According to BestColleges and Forbes, at least 1,700 out of the 4,000 colleges in the United States are test-optional now (or will be soon), although often, there are certain requirements to be a test-optional applicant, such as having a high GPA or class rank.

This can be great if you have a disability that makes taking standardized tests more difficult, but it may still be worth it to take the test. If you do not submit a test score, then other parts of your college application will matter more, such as your GPA, college essay, awards, achievements, references, or extracurricular activities.

If you feel that you have a strong enough college application without test scores, then you may not need to take it. On the other hand, if your college application is not very impressive (or if you just want the extra kudos of a high test score), you should consider applying for accommodations as soon as possible.

I got accommodations for both the PSAT and ACT, even though my scores were already decent. With the accommodations, both scores increased by around 20%.

Most widely used standardized entrance tests (such as ACT, AP, CLT, GED, PSAT, or SAT), course-specific tests, (such as AP or CLEP), and even some graduate school entrance tests (such as GMAT or GRE) offer some form of accommodations, especially if you provide documentation of your disability from a physician.

Keep in mind that when you apply for accommodations, you will probably not receive them immediately, so schedule your testing day accordingly.

For example, CollegeBoard (which can administer the AP, ACCUPLACER, CLEP, PSAT, and SAT tests) may take up to 7 weeks to approve the accommodation. They may also deny the accommodation, but if you provide additional, more thorough documentation of your disability, you could possibly still get the accommodations.

The most common accommodation is 50% more time (e.g., if you would normally have 60 minutes to take a test, instead you would have 1 hour and 30 minutes to take the test).

There are also accommodations such as having a scribe, a reader, prerecorded audio, extra breaks, larger print, a magnification device, a test in braille with raised diagrams, speech-to-text, a printed copy of oral instructions, colored overlays, and many others.

If you consider taking a standardized test, be sure to check the website of whatever company or organization administers it to see what accommodations you may qualify for and benefit from.

Laws Related to Disabilities

Illustration of a gavel.This next part may sound cliché, but I will say it anyway. Know your rights. There are so many federal and state laws that are beneficial to people with disabilities, but people do not take advantage of them simply because they do not know about them.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

For example, most people have heard of the Americans with Disabilities Act, also called the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), but few people know what is actually said in it.

Disabilities should not diminish a person’s right to participate fully in all aspects of society, so Congress created the ADA to eliminate “discrimination against individuals with disabilities.”

The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, and all but requires equal access in nearly all aspects of society, including employment, education, transportation, communication, and all places open to the general public.

These are excellent resources to turn to if you have any questions about pretty much anything regarding the ADA:


Section 504

Another important law is Section 504 of the 1978 Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 prohibits disability-based discrimination by employers and organizations that receive financial assistance from any Federal department or agency (and colleges).

As long as you are qualified, an employer or college cannot deny you based solely on your disability. There may be other things that disqualify you, but the disability must not be the primary factor.

These are excellent resources to turn to if you want a summary of Section 504, or if you have any questions:


Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The IDEA has provisions about grants that assist states in providing free public education that is unrestrictive to children with disabilities, grants that assist states in providing early intervention services, and discretionary grants to support state personnel development, technology, and more information.

For answers to frequently asked questions regarding the IDEA, look here:


Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (Tech Act)

Finally, we have the Technology-Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act (Tech Act). This was created to make it easier for people with disabilities to select, obtain, and use assistive technology.

There are many examples of assistive technology, from motion-tracking technology to a magnifying glass to screen readers. Anything that makes life easier for people with disabilities qualifies as assistive technology.

With this policy in mind, find out who is the lead agency for your state’s Assistive Technology Project. Find providers of assistive technology and demonstrations if you would like to learn more or get assistive technology for yourself.

For help contacting your state’s Assistive Technology Program, visit the AT3 Center. If you would like to learn more, take a look at these resources:


Government Agencies and Personnel that Enforce and Help Create These Laws

Wheelchair accessible sign.
So now you know how to find your rights, but who enforces these laws? If someone were to be noncompliant and ignore your requests for accommodations, who should you contact?

ADA and 504 Coordinators

All state or government entities that employ at least 50 employees are required to have at least one ADA or 504 coordinator. This includes universities.

An ADA and 504 coordinator are sometimes the same person. They are well-versed in a wide range of disabilities, the ADA, Section 504, and potential accommodations for people with disabilities. Their job is to plan and coordinate compliance efforts for those laws.

If you have an issue with a specific entity that is required to comply with the ADA or Section 504, contact the ADA or 504 coordinator.

You can learn more about ADA and 504 coordinators here:


Federal Agencies

ADA National Network has a list of the different agencies that enforce the ADA for you to contact if there is an instance of noncompliance.

These agencies include the US Department of Justice (DOJ), the US Access Board, the US Department of Transportation (DOT), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

When there is a disability-related issue in any of these areas, you can file a complaint with the respective agency. In college, however, there are other people you can sometimes contact, and I will tell you about those later.

There is also the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the US Department of Education that enforces Section 504 (and other anti-discrimination education laws).

Local Agencies

In most states, there is a workforce agency of some sort (they can be called workforce commissions, workforce departments, employment commissions, labor departments, and employment departments, among other things).

Look up the Medicaid program in your state, enforced by your state workforce commission, and see if you are eligible. I am actually working on this myself, currently.

The Medicaid program helps with costs that would prevent a person with disabilities from joining the workforce, from hospital costs to personal care attendants to assistive technology to a handicap-accessible vehicle, etcetera, etcetera.

Get in touch with your local workforce agency representative.

Local Committees

There are committees for people with disabilities all over the United States. They can operate at the federal, state, or local level. There is a National Council on Disability, there are Governor’s Committees on People with Disabilities, and sometimes there are Mayor’s and County Committees on People with Disabilities.

Not every state or city has something like this, but see if there is something similar in your area. If there is not something like this, check with your local government to see if you can start a committee or something similar.

Often, there is an opportunity to provide public comment if you have seen an issue and would like the government to fix it in the future.

If the committee believes your issue is legitimate and that a law could be created (or amended) to fix it, then they will recommend a policy to the bodies of legislature they work with.

So if you present a comment to a Governor’s Committee, they may recommend a related policy that helps with the issue to the state Senate and House of Representatives at the next biennial meeting.

If you present a comment to a Mayor’s Committee, they will often recommend a policy to the mayor or city council.

I currently serve on the Governor’s Committee on People with Disabilities here in Texas. It is one of the best things I have ever experienced. Every meeting, I hear stories about places where people with disabilities are ignored. It has helped me see past injustices I personally experience to see the issues of other people with disabilities.

That’s how I know that these committees rely on the insight of local people with disabilities to identify issue areas. When you speak up, you can make a difference. If you see something, say something.

General Tips for Navigating College with Disabilities

Person in wheelchair; normal clothes.This final section consists of three main pieces of advice.

College Faculty and Accommodations

First, connect with the Department of Disabilities (or equivalent) at the college you want to attend. If you are having trouble finding them, try looking up your college on the Campus Disability Resource Database (CeDaR).

Ask them about accommodations, potential problems and workarounds, and the potential benefits of being disabled there. Often, you can get accommodations for tests, early class registration, fewer hours with full-time status, and other benefits.

Build a relationship with your disability coordinator. Learn how to communicate your disabilities effectively in advance, so you can be properly accommodated.

When you actually attend college, make sure that your professors know about any accommodations you need. If they do not comply, tell your disability coordinator.

Ultimately, however, it will be up to you to ensure you are given an equal chance at education. You must be able to self-advocate. Although it is written for parents, Understood.org has recommendations on what to do (and what not to do) if you do not receive appropriate accommodations.

For more information on disability services at colleges, look at NCCSD.

Social and Personal Connections

Second, connect with students (or faculty members) at that college and in that community who also have similar disabilities, or any disabilities at all. They will probably know the ins and outs of day-to-day life with disabilities even better than the department of disabilities will.

One of the things that will help you succeed the most in college is simply asking for help. Never be afraid to ask for help.

Ask for someone to help you learn what you need to know about the disability accommodations. Ask for friends to help you do things you cannot do by yourself, whether it is retrieving books, taking notes, or telling you what someone or something says.

I have done several of these things myself, and I can tell you that it works. When you find people like you or who are willing to help you, and you get connected to them, it is exponentially easier to navigate day-to-day life.

It is worth noting that in order for this to work, you must understand your limitations well, and you must be able to effectively and efficiently communicate these to someone who may help you.
Build your social circle—your community—and you will have a much easier time.


Finally, look for scholarships for your disability. For example, Scholarships.com, Niche, BestColleges, Scholarships360, Affordable Colleges, and many other scholarship databases have comprehensive lists of scholarships specifically for those with disabilities.

For more resources on attending colleges, helpful organizations, scholarships, services, research, and accommodations, look at College Consensus, NCCSD, and the Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD).


In closing, there are countless resources for those with disabilities if you are willing to look. If you see something, say something. Never be afraid to ask for help. Learn your rights. Above all, remember: you are not alone.

By Benjamin Willis

Benjamin is a 17-year-old, wheelchair-dependent high school senior. He serves as a member and the Sergeant at Arms of the Texas Governor's Committee on People with Disabilities. He has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type III and hopes to study (mechanical) engineering in college.



by Mometrix Test Preparation | This Page Last Updated: January 17, 2024