Disability services work very differently in college than they do in high school—one of the key differences being that students, not staff or parents, are responsible for self-advocating for their needs. Before you head off to college, here are the key things to know about disability services–and important steps to take–if you have ADHD, autism, dyslexia or other learning differences.

What to know about disability services in your college search

  • Exploring disability accommodations will not adversely impact admission decisions. Disability services offices are completely separate from admission offices and are committed to maintaining a student’s privacy. There are a few exceptions, such as colleges where students apply to learning disability support programs concurrent with their college applications. In these situations, the two offices may communicate during the admission decision process; however, a student’s disclosure of a disability is generally more likely to be helpful than harmful.
  • There is a difference between accommodations and support services. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that all US colleges make reasonable efforts to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities—for example, allowing students to sit in the front row of class or to take tests in a distraction-reduced environment. However, some students need additional support services to succeed in college, such as academic coaching to help with time management and study skills. These services are only available at certain colleges (often for an additional fee) and may be provided by a separate office for academic or student success.
  • Writing about your condition in your college applications may shed light on other parts of your application. You’re not obligated to disclose your diagnosis when applying to college. However, if it would help an admission committee understand your situation better, then it may be to your advantage to use the “additional information” section of the Common Application (or school-specific application, if they have a similar section) to write about your disability. Examples could include changing high schools because of your disability or an upward trend in your grades resulting from diagnosis and treatment.

Steps to take for your needs

  • Research student disability services during the college search process. That way, you can be sure you’ll be satisfied with the services you’ll receive when the time comes to make your final college decision. If you’re having trouble finding disability services in your research, be sure to search for “accessibility services,” as many college offices are shifting to this word usage. Whether you’re touring schools virtually or in person, make an appointment with the disability or accessibility office and have a list of questions ready.
  • Prepare questions for the disability office in advance. For specific suggestions, see our post on Questions to Ask the Student Disabilities Office. Having this list of questions will help you find out more easily if the accommodations you need will be available—and note that modifications of the curriculum (e.g., reduced/simplified assignments) are not typically provided.
  • Gather the documentation you’ll need to obtain accommodations. The required documentation for students with learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia or autism varies from college to college. Some institutions require a neuropsychological evaluation that’s less than three years old, while others will accept older evaluations, a letter from a doctor or an IEP or 504 plan. Evaluations can be expensive, though they’re sometimes covered by health insurance. Check to see if your school district can perform the testing. A few colleges provide low-cost testing or referrals for students who need updated documentation, but it isn’t common. At a minimum, test reports should specify the student’s diagnosis and recommended accommodations/services.  
  • Sign a FERPA waiver. If you want parent access to student information (e.g., health, academic standing, etc.), learn about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Without a FERPA waiver signed by the student, parents can’t “check in” with a college on concerns about their student’s grades or mental health. 

Learning differences in college don’t have to be a huge barrier for students—that’s why colleges offer accommodations. Colleges want all their students to be able to learn to the best of their ability, so don’t be shy about seeking information regarding learning accommodations at your schools of interest. It will only benefit you in the long run and set you up for success.

A version of his article was originally published in CollegeXpress.