5 Tips for Approaching a College Office of Disability
With high school commencement ceremonies underway, graduating seniors might be swept up in the proverbial pomp and circumstance of ending what has thus far been the most important chapter in their lives. For those matriculating to college, the beginning of the next chapter might seem distant, but it will begin in mere weeks. Students with disabilities have some particular considerations to make before beginning their college experience. Perhaps under the tutelage of their parents or a guidance counselor, they should be in touch with the receiving school’s office of disability to discuss what accommodations might be necessary in the fall and beyond. Below are some tips for how to best initiate this conversation.
1. Actually Take the First Step – Students with disabilities don’t have to reach out to their school’s office of disability. No law requires it. However, that office isn’t required to come looking for them either. Not bothering to reach out because of some hesitation or lack of information could prove costly should a student need a particular accommodation. The most fundamental tip is to actually take the time to identify the office and make contact. Almost every credible college will have some office of disability. The school’s website should include a link. It might not be immediately obvious and might be bundled with student services or titled something such as “student access.” Locating it and establishing contact cannot be stressed enough. Another crucial tip: students must make this contact themselves. Colleges won’t have the conversation through parents.
2. Have All Paperwork Ready – Getting accommodations through an office of disability will only happen via some proof of need. While some physical disabilities might be apparent because of equipment, others aren’t as easy to observe—or prove. Generally, an office of disability will want proof of a diagnosis from a physician. Moreover, the extent of need must be proven through some kind of documentation. A physician-issued statement of what accommodations are necessary in a school setting should accompany this. Particular documents, especially a 504 Service Agreement, will help the cause. The 504 should include a statement about the diagnosis and will outline what accommodations are needed. The accommodations needed in high school might not be the same as those needed on a college campus. Some might not be transferred, but this document will help start the conversation. Importantly, colleges typically must at least consider the 504 plan. This isn’t so with IEPs, which end at high school graduation.
3. Be Prepared to Discuss Accommodations, Not Disabilities – The office of disability will need a diagnosis before providing services, but the most critical part of the conversation will be about specific accommodations. Students should anticipate what accommodations they’ll need and be ready to articulate these to the office’s staff. Not every person with the same disability will need the same accommodations. The college will want to know exactly what each student needs. Naturally, some needs might only surface as a student begins navigating campus life. In most cases though, students will know prior to starting classes. Students who can clearly express what services will help them stand the best chance of receiving those services.
4. Start the Conversation Early – Establishing a connection with the office of disability can happen before enrollment. For some students, an effective and responsive office of disability might be instrumental in determining which school to attend. To facilitate the best transition from high school to college, a conversation with the office of disability should happen as early as possible. Students can wait and begin the conversation a semester or two into school, but having support in place from the start is a better idea. Making this happen requires making contact early in the proceedings.
5. Get a Plan in Writing – As a safeguard, students should press to get a statement from the office of disability detailing what accommodations will be provided. The office should work with the college’s instructors to provide the accommodations, but students would be wise to have some statement about these in writing. Letting professors know about necessary accommodations is part of self-advocacy. Having the statement from the office gives validity to these efforts. Should an issue arise, the document will carry more weight than any verbal agreement.
The last summer before college should be an exciting time. It’s also the time to make certain any necessary accommodations are in place for the coming first semester. Having a meaningful conversation with the office of disability will help make that first semester a success.
Written by Jeff Hartman