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Transitioning from High School to College – Students with Disabilities

By Guest Blogger Jean Ashmore, President, Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). This article was originally published on

It’s the time of year again when yellow school buses are on the roads, uniforms and school supplies are everywhere, and students and parents alike are excited and anxious about a new school year. Those years when a student switches schools are particularly salient, with much to be learned and encountered in the new school. This is especially true when a young person transitions to college. All college students bring along academic and social experiences and lots of expectations and concerns – none more, in my thinking, than students with disabilities. Let me share some particulars on why college transition may be extra challenging for students with disabilities and give some suggestions to help make this time a success.

One of the greatest factors impacting a move from high school to college for students, who have received special education services during K-12, is that the laws regarding disability assistance differ substantially between primary and secondary educational systems. In providing resources and services for students with disabilities, colleges are guided by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), both of which focus on non-discrimination and rights of access.

On the other hand, special education in public schools follows the provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which mandates what is to be done for students identified with disabilities that adversely impact their education. These differences can result in a student with a disability being disappointed and frustrated in college. At the college level, course requirements are not modified as they sometimes are in high school, homework isn’t reduced, tests are not routinely modified and for the most part, professors aren’t notified by the college about a student’s accommodation needs before classes begin. Note, I use the word “accommodations,” not modifications.

In college, accommodations are not modifications. Accommodations aid a student in accessing courses and tests, dormitory living, etc., but success is up to the student. That might sound harsh, but when you really think about it, it’s wonderful. This means in college, a student with a disability does the same work as his or her peers, earns grades of the same value, establishes himself or herself as a student heading to a good future rather than a person defined by a disability.

Because a disability may result in functional limitations for a student, the college will provide reasonable accommodations to reduce the impact of those limitations. Let’s say a person has a disability resulting in the inability to read print efficiently. Working with the student, the college’s disability resource office will explore what the student needs, such as large print, Braille, electronic texts etc. and then will work on providing those accommodations. Notice that the reading material and tests will be the same but the means the student uses to access them may be different. This is not Special Education under IDEA, rather this is at the heart of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as recently amended – providing access so a person with a disability can learn, work and live a full and productive life.

So if the laws governing college are based on non-discrimination and the provision of access through reasonable accommodations, and the laws covering K-12 Special Education are quite different and provide for things not covered by colleges, such as school buses, personal care attendants and modified curriculums, what’s a transitioning student with a disability to do?

First of all, educate yourself about how the differences between high school and college will impact you. Understand your disability and learn to self advocate. If you’re not sure about how to be a self advocate, talk to your parents and teachers. Practice giving a brief “info bite” with people you know to develop confidence for when you need to discuss things like accommodations at your university. Don’t let others do this for you – remember the great saying, “not about us without us.” Being defined by your interests, personality and accomplishments rather than those “dis” things is where you want to be. I really hope you’ve chosen your college because of what it offers academically. It’s important to know about the college’s disability resources, but check those after you know that the school matches your interests.

College can be likened to a job with certain KSAs – knowledge, skills and abilities. Having the right KSAs will make college successful for all students, but especially those with disabilities.

K – knowledge of what disability resources and services are available at the college and how the system works, knowledge of what you need and why and knowledge of your goals.

S – skills with adaptive technology (exposure and training on AT should happen in high school), skills in talking with people about your needs and skills to follow a schedule you develop.

A – ability to work hard to do the academic work, ability to self-advocate and a very important ability, being independent as a college student regardless of the supports or accommodations that you may need.

Although many of these suggestions are geared toward a student who has a disability, I think these words can also be helpful to parents and others inquiring about higher education for students with disabilities. College is the gateway to good careers and lifestyle options that everyone aspires to, but I would venture to say that college is essential for individuals with disabilities, especially those with profound disabilities. Unfortunately, employment statistics of people with disabilities are woefully poor. While a college education will not guarantee solid employment, it definitely will help in that direction.

In my own experiences as a director at a university disability resource department, I’ve met some of the most incredible students. Future doctors, engineers, musicians, teachers, lawyers and so many other exciting careers. The challenges for an engineering student who is blind may seem overwhelming to others but to that student, it’s business as usual – ‘What’s the assignment?’; ‘How will I do it?’; ‘What do I need to get it done?’; ‘When am I going to do it considering everything I need to and want to do?’…voila! The work gets done and a well earned grade results. The student who reads books auditorily or who devotes lots of time to reading print just does that to get the job done. For these students, their learning strategies have incorporated functional elements linked to their disabilities. They do not define them – they are simply the methods these students use to achieve their goals.

There are some great resources about college transition for students with disabilities. The Department of Education‘s brochure, “Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities” ( is a good place to start.

My professional association, AHEAD (, has a number of helpful resources, too. Add a copy of 100 Things Every College Student with a Disability Ought to Know by Johnson and Hines to those KSAs, and the student will be well poised for success. I can’t recall if the 100 Things book recommends it, but I’ll end this post with “know how to do or get laundry done (without Mom)!” Here’s to a great school year for everyone.

Jean Ashmore is the President of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) and the former director of Disability Support Services at Rice University where she lectured in Education Certification.  With backgrounds in rehabilitation and school counseling, Ashmore’s career has entailed working with people with disabilities in various settings.


Bookshare has some terrific resources as well, including a  special collection of books for middle schoolers, high schoolers and community college students. This collection includes books about applying to college, studying for tests, acquiring financial aid, doing research, writing papers and more! This special collection was assembled by our own Allison Hilliker, Collection Development.

The Student Resources special collection is a categorized list of books that may be helpful for a wide variety of students.  Whether you’re in junior high, high school, college, graduate school, or thinking about embarking on a new plan of study, you’re bound to find a few helpful books in this collection. 

This list doesn’t cover all books in the Bookshare library, it’s a compilation of recommended titles that we think may be helpful to students.  Please feel free to browse and enjoy!


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