CEC’s book focuses on ensuring successful transition from high school to college for students with disabilities

The world has changed tremendously for students with disabilities over the past several decades. Laws have been put into place to make college more accessible, and the public’s understanding of students with disabilities has evolved. These students are graduating from the most competitive institutions in the country with the highest degrees and going on to fulfilling careers. This is great news!

Yet, some students with disabilities experience a really difficult transition to college. Although most students with and without disabilities struggle to adjust to the college environment, students with disabilities also have to deal with changes in the support system – both in their responsibilities and in the level of support available.

Elizabeth HambletAccording to CEC author Elizabeth Hamblet, so much of their distress could be avoided if students gain a better understanding of and prepare for the college environment while they are still in high school. In her book, 7 Steps For Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities, Hamblet walks readers through the steps parents, teachers, child study team members and the students themselves can take to make the jump to college go smoothly and successfully.

CEC Today: During the move from high school to college, there is a shift in the laws covering services for student with disabilities. What are some of the significant ways these laws change?

Hamblet: As students with IEPs graduate, they are no longer covered by IDEA because it only covers K-12 (and students who don’t graduate but are still in the system through age 21). Instead, they fall under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its Amendments (ADAAA). One of the things that helps to explain why there are differences is the fact that IDEA is an education law, and Section 504 and the ADA are civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination. IDEA requires school districts to identify students who may have a disability, test them and, if they are found eligible for services, provide them with individualized instruction, with education in the least restrictive environment, and to improve their educational results. It is important to note that IDEA also mandates the education of all students. Section 504 and the ADA require colleges to remove barriers so that students can get access to their programs, which include classes, residential life, and school-sponsored extracurricular activities. However, this is only true for “qualified’ students, which means it only applies to students who meet the regular admissions standards. Once they get in, students are in charge of initiating the accommodation process by applying for adjustments; colleges are not responsible for identifying the students or offering them accommodations. It also is important to note that Section 504 and the ADA allow colleges to reject certain kinds of accommodations.

This applies to accommodations that:

  • constitute a fundamental alteration to colleges’ programs;
  • pose a direct threat to the safety of others;
  • constitute an undue financial or administrative burden;
  • mean providing a personal service (e.g. special tutoring) or device (software for personal use).

While numbers two and three on this list of exceptions are not scenarios that arise often, students need to be aware that numbers one and four may mean that accommodations they receive in college may be different. They also need to be aware that number one means that they need to choose their college and their major carefully, as colleges are not required to waive or substitute core courses for fields of study or graduation.

CEC Today: Students with disabilities are afforded supports through high school. What kinds of supports are available at the college level?

Hamblet: Some commonly available accommodations include extended time to take exams, priority registration, permission to record lectures, using note takers, books provided in alternative formats and use of speech-to-text technology. These adjustments are very basic ones that students should be able to find anywhere. Colleges that go beyond the minimum required by the law may offer appointments with a learning disabilities specialist, copies of helpful software for the student’s own computer, or special support or social groups for students with disabilities

CEC Today: What are some of the characteristics of students with disabilities who are successful in college?

Hamblet: Students with disabilities who achieve success at college have qualities that we see in most people who succeed in all areas of life – they are motivated to achieve their goals, they have confidence that they can succeed, they persevere in spite of difficulties they encounter, they are resilient, and they have the self-discipline to make sacrifices and work hard in order to achieve success. For many of our students, these qualities have helped them earn good grades in high school and get them into college. They are not afraid of hard work and they are ready to face challenges in a way that some of their classmates who don’t have disabilities — and have never had to try hard – are not. Some of our students come to college much more ready for the rigorous environment because they are used to working this way.

For students with disabilities, there are skills that can be helpful at college, which is an academic environment where students read, study, and write independently and where they have several responsibilities related to accessing disability accommodations. The research shows that students with disabilities who are successful at college have:

  • an ability to organize their time, materials and assignments.
  • coping skills to handle juggling academic responsibilities with other aspects of their lives.
  • awareness of their learning strengths and weaknesses and knowledge of strategies to bypass their weaknesses.
  • self-determination skills.
  • self-advocacy skills.

Because students spend so little time in class and are expected to do so much learning on their own in college, it is crucial for them to develop these self-knowledge and self-management skills so that they can study effectively. They need self-determination skills because they have to choose a major that they can complete without fundamental alterations to their chosen program, and the advisors at college may not know anything about how their disability might affect their ability to complete the requirements. And they need the self-advocacy skills so that they can access the accommodations they need and speak up for themselves if anything goes wrong with the delivery of their approved accommodations.

CEC Today: When should the discussions about college begin for students with disabilities?

Hamblet: The experts in the transition field recommend discussing college (and other post-secondary options) as early as 8th grade. The reason for this is that the same experts say that students who wish to go to college should take college-prep level courses so that they can develop the academic skills they will need in college. Also, since colleges don’t have to alter their admissions requirements - even for students with disabilities - a student whose high school waives foreign language or math classes may have fewer choices when it comes to selecting a college to attend since such courses may be an admissions requirement.  This is why it’s important for families to have information about college as they are selecting classes for high school. Also, some accommodations may not be easily available at college (such as study guides prepared by a teacher or tutor), so the selection of accommodations during a student’s high school years should be kept in mind. For students who want to go to college, IEPs and 504 plans can include certain supports during a student’s early high school education but each year the IEP team should consider phasing out the accommodations students are unlikely to receive in college in order to better prepare them for the college environment.

CEC Today: What are the fundamental rights and responsibilities students with disabilities have when it comes to applying for and attending college?

Hamblet: In the admissions process, colleges are not allowed to ask students about their disability. If you look at the Common Application that some schools use, it does not ask students about their disability or accommodations. Students may certainly choose to disclose their disability somewhere in their application or essay, but they do not have to do so. Students should remember that disclosing their disability will not result in their being evaluated for admission under different criteria. Schools are not required to alter their admissions requirements, and many do not.

Once they enroll at college, the first right students can exercise is the right not to be identified as a person with a disability. Since colleges don’t collect information about disability in the admissions process, they don’t know which students have one, and they don’t have any other way to find out. Plus, since students are no longer under IDEA, colleges don’t have the same mandate to find and identify them. So if students want to have accommodations, they have to apply for them once they are admitted to college. This process is a simple one that typically involves completing a form, possibly meeting with a Disability Services (DS) office staff member, and submitting disability documentation. But if students don’t complete this process, they will not get accommodations.

Once they are registered with the college DS office, students have a right to keep their documentation (mostly) private. At many colleges, DS will not alert students’ professors or any other member of the college staff about the specific nature of their disability; instead, they will give students a Letter of Accommodation to give to their professors stating what accommodations have been approved. This letter will not say what the student’s disability is. DS offices are careful about not sharing that kind of information unless they have to (as in an emergency situation).

Students who are approved for services have a right to reasonable accommodations (i.e. those that don’t violate the exceptions previously mentioned) to be provided in a reasonable amount of time. It is important to note that students may not receive their preferred accommodation all the time. For instance, if a student requests the use of a particular software package for accessing text, and the college owns a different one, the college does not have to buy a copy of the student’s preferred program, as long as the one it owns provides the same level of access. With regard to the time element, students should understand that it may take some time to get certain accommodations arranged, such as a note taker. For example, a student who has been approved for a note taker should not have to wait a month into classes before she is assigned a note taker (as long as she has completed all of her obligations in the accommodation system, such as completing forms and giving the DS office a copy of her schedule).

Lastly, students who are unhappy with their accommodations can file a grievance. This applies to students who do not get approved for accommodations at all, who are approved for some of their requested accommodations but not others, or who get all of their desired accommodations but find that something interferes with their proper delivery. For instance, if a student who is approved for extra time on tests has to take that test in an alternate setting (such as a professor’s office), and the phone keeps ringing, that student did not get an appropriate exam setting, and can file a grievance (though it is better to try to resolve the problem informally first).

CEC Today: What are some survival skills you recommend to parents and teachers of students with disabilities?

Hamblet: Obviously, since college is an academic environment, students need a solid foundation of study skills. They should know how to take notes in a way that works for them, catch information they may have missed during lectures, read for comprehension, and write a paper using primary sources. In the research, college students with disabilities commented on the level of work they were expected to produce – that they had to analyze and interpret more than they had ever had to do. In addition, they have to be able to manage their time, materials, and deadlines, since professors don’t typically give daily or even weekly assignments, so the only grades they will get a chance to earn will be on two exams or papers. If they get behind and do poorly on the first test or exam, they will be under a lot of pressure to do well on the next one.

In addition to having these academic skills, students also need the skills to handle themselves in an environment with a lot of freedom. Students have to get themselves to classes – it isn’t anyone’s job to wake them for class or to make sure they go back to the academic buildings after they go to lunch. They also have to keep up with deadlines, such as those for housing and registration. And then there are just the everyday life management skills, such as paying bills on time and keeping up with laundry. Students often look forward to the freedom of college (seeing friends when they please, going to sleep when they want) but they have to be prepared for the responsibility that comes with such freedom.

CEC Today: How can students with disabilities find whether a school is a good “fit”?

Hamblet: After they work with their guidance counselor to compose a list of colleges that suit them in all of the traditional ways, students can use the Internet to do more research.  They can do a search to find the page for the DS office at each college they are considering. Once on the page, they should look to see if it provides information about what accommodations are commonly provided, what adaptive technology is available, how many staff members work there and what their background is (in case it is important to them that the DS staff have a background in special education, which they may not). They can use the information they glean from this research to decide which school’s services are the best match for them.

CEC Today: What is a transition portfolio?

Hamblet: A transition portfolio is a collection of documents that evolves throughout students’ education and can follow them to college. At the start of high school, it should contain a copy of the current IEP and perhaps a learning style assessment. Each year, as the newest copy of the IEP is put in, students, their parents, and the child study team should talk about how the student is progressing toward the goals outlined in the plan, and how the accommodations in the plan move students toward the independence they will need at college. As students move toward college, copies of their SAT scores, recommendations, and other relevant documents can be put in there. When they are seniors, they should work with an IEP team member to create a list of accommodations they want to request at college that are supported by their documentation and are appropriate at the college level. This should go in the portfolio, as should a copy of their documentation, and the portfolio should come to college with them, as it will contain the paperwork they will need to apply for accommodations at college.

Elizabeth C. Hamblet is a learning specialist at Columbia University who also has worked the high school end of the college transition as a special education teacher and case manager.  Based in Princeton, N.J., she speaks, writes, and consults on transition to college for students with disabilities. Hamblet is the author of 7 Steps for Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities, published by the Council for Exceptional Children, and Transitioning to College: A Guide for Students with Disabilities, published by National Professional Resources. She is a regular contributor to Disability Compliance for Higher Education, and her work has appeared in the Journal of College Admissions and Career Development for Exceptional Individuals. Hamblet’s Web site, www.ldadvisory.com, offers information and helpful links for families and professionals, and she uses Facebook to post interesting articles and links related to transition and to learning disabilities.

7 Steps for Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students with Disabilities
This practical guide explains how the system for accommodations works, describes students' rights and responsibilities within that system, and employs the voices of seasoned professionals and college students to explain the skills and strategies students should develop while they are in high school to ensure success when they reach college. As a bonus, it also offers answers to questions students with disabilities frequently ask about disclosing their disability in the admissions process. Learn more.

 Elizabeth's work was also featured in the Spring 2014 GW HEATH Newsletter!