Students With Special Needs / Disabilities

The term “special needs” is both broad and vague. Educators often use it to include any student with physical, emotional, or mental disabilities which require additional resources to overcome.

The term is a “big tent,” encompassing a variety of conditions. It includes learning disabilities, such as ADD/ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, low working memory, auditing processing disorders and language disorders (dyslexia, dyscalculia, and others). It also includes mood disorders, such as depression and bi-polar disorder. Anxiety, which technically is not a mood disorder, is also included. Finally, students suffering from addiction are included under the tent. Of course, it also includes students with profound “physical” ailments, such as blindness, and hearing and mobility issues.

Most such students are perfectly capable of succeeding in college. However, they need more help in choosing colleges where they will thrive, and assistance in tailoring successful college applications.

(For parents just starting down this road, note that many “special needs” students are very intelligent. “Gifted” students with special needs are referred to in our field as “twice exceptional students.”)

No two students have the same “special needs,” and, as discussed below, colleges are often hard-pressed to provide excellent services to all such students. This can make choosing the right college a long and difficult journey.

I specialize in assisting students with “special needs” find their “best fit” colleges. Below are a few of the issues many families encounter during their college search.


Standardized testing

Some students can obtain accommodations from the administrators of the SAT and ACT exams. These can include extra time or a quiet space in which to take the test.

You will need documentation from the student’s medical provider of the disability. For many disabilities, you should pay for testing by a neuropsychologist.

Evidence of an IEP or 504 plan is a good place to start, but if the documentation supporting your student’s plan is not current, you will need to obtain new evidence of all disabilities. You should start working on this project at least six months before the first exam.

Note:  even if the information is current, colleges usually require current data – no later than three years old – before providing services or accommodations based on a disability.

There is another solution if your student does not do well on standardized tests: test-optional colleges. There is a growing movement to abolish standardized testing as a criterion for admission. See I have also posted a short article on the phenomenon recently: With almost 1,000 schools (including a few large universities), your student will enjoy many options.

Again, note that your student will still need current evidence of a disability to obtain services from the college disability office.


Academic issues and “broken transcripts”

Students with disabilities may not enjoy a smooth trip through high school. Some may show erratic performance. Students sometimes suffer “Ds” and “Fs” in one or more courses or face suspension, or even expulsion, for “disciplinary” reasons; others may have to take breaks for therapy (in-patient, wilderness, short stays in specialized boarding schools); those stints result in transcripts “broken up” by absences from traditional high school. Even purely physical injuries, such as cancer, can take their toll on school performance.

Some of these problems can be ameliorated with additional academic work when the student is ready to undertake it. For any course where a student received a final grade of “D” or “F”, he or she should take a makeup course in the same subject online from a reputable university (e.g., Brigham Young University); high schools may substitute the grade earned online for the bad grade or average the two grades. In some cases, the problem just disappears from the student’s record.

However, for more serious issues, colleges expect an explanation. With so many students presenting with disabilities of all types, colleges are more understanding than you might expect. Although colleges can accept inconsistent performance, they need the context necessary to evaluate applicants fairly.

Ask your student’s high school guidance or college counselor to write a letter to college admissions departments explaining how your student has struggled with his or her disability; the letter should highlight successes and explain poor grades or discipline issues. Teacher recommendations are particularly useful here.

Finally, almost every college (as well as the Common Application, used by over 500 colleges) provides an opportunity for the student to disclose a disability and explain how it has affected his or her performance. Students who are able and willing to explain their struggles with their disabilities can greatly improve their chances of admission.

Whether to write such an essay is a complicated question, requiring careful consideration of what that essay might convey, the issues involved, and the willingness of the student to reveal such information. I can help with that process, including careful editing before the essay is submitted as part of the college application.


College disability services vary widely

Many parents assume that all colleges are equipped to support their student’s disabilities. Not so, by a longshot. The quality and range of services provided by college “disability services” offices vary widely.

Some colleges are mostly geared toward temporary physical problems (e.g., a broken leg, need for a wheelchair). A few colleges specialize in helping students with certain disorders (notably Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADD/ADHD); a growing number maintain dormitories for students recovering from addiction.

However, most college Disability Services offices are not so specialized. They serve all students with “disabilities,” from wheelchair bound students to those suffering from anxiety. And even those that focus on disabilities may focus on one group of students, say those struggling with ADD/ADHD, but not students with another (e.g., Autism Spectrum Disorder). Matching the student with a Disability Office which supports them with respect to their disability is usually a huge challenge.

Worse, a surprisingly large number of college disability offices simply comply with the letter of anti-discrimination laws without actually providing meaningful support. You may have to dig deep to identify those with a commitment to your student.

The key is finding an environment where your student can find success. Because your student will face more challenges than some, that inquiry must be especially thorough and rigorous. The goal is to determine whether there is a good match between your student’s strengths and weaknesses and the ability and resources of the college to meet your student’s needs.

The fact that your student has special needs does not necessarily rule out large, mainstream colleges. Although many students will benefit from a small, nurturing atmosphere, a student who is less social or even anxious around others may be uncomfortable with a small college where no student goes unnoticed. Further, a large school in an urban area may be more likely to offer specialized services, such as on-site psychiatric care (including medications), than a college in a small farm town. There are many variables specific to your student which need to be taken into account.

Indeed, an important part of evaluating colleges is visiting them. You and your student should stroll onto campus and visit with the disabilities coordinator and counselors. There is no substitute for you and your student sitting across the table from the people who will be your student’s “lifeline” for the next four years. (Of course, I can give you a list of topics to cover.)

Do not approach the process with preconceived notions of what you will find. You may well be pleasantly surprised.

I live in Tucson and am available to help you and your student. I have received training – and have experience – in guiding students with disabilities to their “best fit” colleges. In addition, I am part of a network of college counselors specializing in students with disabilities. This means that I can assist you in finding doctors, medical facilities, psychiatrists, and therapists, both locally and where your student may attend college. Finally, I will do the sheer, dogged research required to find the “best fit” colleges for your student, and help your student win admission to them.

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