This article from The Daily Herald discusses a topic that sometimes gets overlooked: How should you be thinking about college for a special-needs child who qualifies for college admission -- and has their heart set on attending? It's a different landscape than they have experienced in high school.
The author is Teri Frykenberg RN, founder and CEO of NShore Patient Advocates, who writes a consumer health column every Monday in The Daly Herald. -- Mary Anne Ehlert
How to help a college-bound student who has a disability
It’s mid-winter. By now, high school juniors and seniors planning to attend college — along with their parents — are usually deep into the search process. Maybe you visited campuses last summer, are checking out the new FAFSA and are giving thought to an academic major.
It’s a time that’s fraught with emotion for most parents, and if their child has a qualifying disability and an IEP (individualized education program) in high school, parents have an additional reason for concern.
An emotional, developmental or physical disability can be a stumbling block in college, but it needn’t be a roadblock. In fact, students with disabilities make up one-fifth of the college population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Samantha Bartek, a National Certified Counselor with My College Planning Team, based in Naperville, says it just takes additional planning.
“In addition to identifying whether a college offers the academic program your child wants to pursue, provides the social life they’re looking for and is affordable, you must also research what a college considers a qualifying disability and what support services it offers,” she says.
The most common disability among college students, according to a survey by the American College Health Association, is attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADD/ADHD. On a typical campus, you will also encounter students with physical disabilities, those on the autism spectrum, and those who have low vision/blindness or are deaf/hard-of-hearing.
If your child takes medication to help manage their disability, you will want to be sure they understand that it’s important to use it responsibly.
Samantha said some students are reluctant to disclose their disability to their college.
“Students who don’t disclose a disability are cut off from support services that may well make the difference between graduating and not graduating,” she says.
There are two major differences between high school and college when it comes to disability services, she advises.
The first is that colleges are not required to accept a student’s IEP or 504 plan that ensured them equal access to education in their K-12 schools. But, Samantha notes, “Assuming your child is otherwise eligible for admission to two- or four-year school, colleges and universities cannot deny admission solely because a student has a disability.”
In addition, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all public and private colleges to offer equal educational access. “What that looks like varies widely from campus to campus, but colleges and universities must offer appropriate academic adjustments, aids and services to students with qualifying disabilities,” she says.
This is where it’s important to have written documentation by your child’s doctor of their diagnosis, regardless of their IEP/504. It will be required to access services.
Another difference is that, at age 18, your child is considered an adult for the purposes of medical privacy. As I have written before, before they head off to college, make sure your child signs a HIPAA release giving you the ability to communicate with the college and medical practitioners about their health issues.
If your child is attending a college away from home, a patient health advocate could be a valuable addition to the student’s care team, assisting with health concerns and being the parents’ eyes and ears when it comes to medications, doctor appointments and emergencies.
This also means that your student will need to advocate for themselves due to privacy policies at the college level.
“Accommodations could be made, but their professors may be unaware of them unless the student shares them and requests the extra help they are entitled to,” Samantha says.
She recommends that families identify the office that provides services and support to students with disabilities. It could be called academic support center, office of disability services, office for accessibility services, student disability access center or something similar.
“If you’re planning a campus visit, be sure to set up an appointment to meet with the staff,” she says. “There will likely be an application process in addition to the application for the college itself.”
Discuss with them which services have worked well in the past for your child. Have they used assistive devices? Had the help of a note-taker? Needed extra time for exams or special proctoring?
I have worked with parents of children with disabilities, and they are a determined lot who understand the importance of advocacy.
Set your child up for success in college with additional research and planning.