Students with disabilities may have tremendous potential as well as exceptional needs. But to fulfill that potential in college, they need to be sufficiently prepared, because the transition from high school involves a huge increase in independence. Here are seven key strategies and mindsets that can help set students up for success.

1. Get an early start planning your accommodations and services. 

During the college search process, high school students should research what documentation they will need for disability accommodations in college, as well as what accommodations are offered at each school. Susan Smythe, Americans With Disabilities Act Program Manager/Senior Project Manager at Swarthmore College, recommends students “reach out to the admissions and disability services offices at the schools you are interested in ahead of time to see what services they offer/how the campus is set up, and plan ahead. In addition, many students who may not have needed accommodations in high school start to struggle in college. Reach out early and register with the office, and at least have an initial intake/conversation – even if you feel you might not need it. Accommodations are never retroactive, so don’t wait until you’re really struggling to start the process.”   

Kelsey Bohlke, Assistant Director of the Office of Accessible Education at Agnes Scott College, likewise observes, “You’re going to be so much more successful if you proactively put supports in place (even if you never use them!) than waiting until an academic or mental health crisis occurs and you’re scrambling at the last minute.”

2. Be prepared to advocate for yourself.

“Once you get to college, you will be expected to self-advocate for essentially all of your needs,” Bohlke notes. “Whether it is to discuss a grade, find a counselor or set up accommodations, the expectation is that you, the student, take the lead on all of this rather than a parent or teacher. An important precursor to being able to advocate for yourself is self-awareness. If you know yourself and what you need, you will be better able to advocate for those needs to others.” 

Of course, students aren’t born with these skills. Allyson Hyland, Assistant Director of Disability Services at UMass Boston, encourages teens to develop self-advocacy while still in high school.You will greatly benefit from making the shift in your mind, behavior, and choices toward increased independence and self-advocacy; begin taking on more responsibilities at home and have more control over your own needs and care. Start small if it feels overwhelming and gradually add things in. Specifically, you will benefit from knowing your diagnosis, treatment plan, and the ways in which your disability affects various aspects of your life. Unlike high school, college is going to require that you approach the accessibility office on your own, submit documentation, and have a registration meeting where you are able to describe what you think will help support you in school, and what has worked well in the past. You are expected to work independently with the accessibility office to come up with an accommodation plan. This is a very empowering step! The accommodations process in an employment situation mirrors that of the college process, so navigating this in college is good practice for the work world.”

3. Think beyond disability services.

The student disability/accessibility office is the ideal place to start for obtaining accommodations. However, as Jeff Edelstein, Student Advocacy Coordinator for the National Center for College Students with Disabilities, reports, “students who struggle to register with their campuses’ offices should know that this is not the only way to secure assistance in their courses. Many faculty feel comfortable working out accommodations on an individual basis.” 

Annie Tulkin, Founder and Director of Accessible College, LLC, similarly advises students to “Talk to their professors, connect with their RA, and take advantage of any academic support the college offers, like the writing center, academic coaches, and tutors.” Tulkin also points out that accommodations can extend beyond the classroom: “accommodations apply to all areas on campus, including housing and recreation. Students should consider their needs holistically, especially if they plan to live on campus.”

Moreover, there are many services available throughout the university, such as academic advising and career counseling. Elizabeth C. Hamblet, college learning disabilities specialist, reminds students, “Most colleges have tutoring centers where they can get help with a variety of subjects, and some now offer workshops on time management, organization, etc. Some even offer peer mentors or academic coaching. And there may be a writing center and a math help room. Many colleges also offer mental health counseling, and they may have small groups for students with eating disorders or other issues.”

4. Accept that it’s hard sometimes.

Students “should remember that their classmates are likely feeling a bit insecure and tentative in this new environment, so they’re not alone if they feel that way,” adds Hamblet. “They should be aware that the environment at college is meant to be different and challenging, so if they’re struggling, it’s not because they don’t belong there. It just means they should seek out some of the supports put in place to help them. They should also avoid falling into a mindset that they’re supposed to be able to do everything on their own without help. Colleges wouldn’t provide all of the supports they do if they didn’t expect students to need them.”

5. Embrace who you are.

Students who have received special education services throughout childhood sometimes feel stigmatized or excluded. They harbor fantasies of a fresh start in college, where they hope to blend in or assimilate. L. Scott Lissner, Americans With Disabilities Act Coordinator & Section 504 Compliance Officer at The Ohio State University, says, “College offers an opportunity to remake yourself. Many students want to put special education behind them, often for good reasons. The college experience of disability is different; don’t avoid it. Talk to the disability office early, explore disability as part of diversity, as part of identity,  as a strength.”

Likewise, Edelstein cautions, “Students may hesitate to register with their disability service offices, even if they had an IEP or similar supports in K-12. Don’t! Even if you don’t think you’ll need them, if you have the resources to register with your institution’s office, make sure to do so. For students who feel bad or guilty about accommodations, treat it like insurance; you hope you don’t need them, but you’d rather have them just in case. Students should also know that use of accommodations is not a personal failure!”

6. Create a community.

Edelstein also emphasizes the importance of building a community: “Despite the widespread presence of disability services offices, colleges have remarkably few opportunities for students to develop a sense of disabled identity and community. That’s not to say they shouldn’t register with disability services offices – they absolutely should if they can, even as a proactive measure – but being accommodated is different than being accepted. Students should look into clubs, classes on disability studies, or local centers for independent living (or online!) for community. They should also be aware of online communities found on social media like Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook where communal knowledge about disabled experiences in college can be shared widely.” 

Likewise, Hyland urges students to connect with others. “I strongly encourage students to attend as much as they can various events and sessions around campus, from orientation to information sessions about student groups, etc. Finding a friend group or even one other person who knows you can provide comfort, a resource, and friendship. Don’t count out what you offer, too! You are also a resource for other students who are experiencing college for the first time and could use a friend and classmate to support them.” 

7. Step out of your comfort zone.  

Hyland further advises,  “Walk around; get a feel for your new learning environment. Some ways to feel confident include preparing well, practicing independence, meeting new people, and knowing that you are a resource and an important part of the campus community, too. You have a unique perspective and life experience—your community benefits from you sharing it! 

Finally, confidence grows as you widen your perspective on yourself and on the world around you, and one way to do that is practice seeing things with a fresh lens. Try something new, give yourself a chance to develop parts of yourself, put yourself out there, and know that you are a person of great value.” 

The transition to college is undeniably a huge step. But with careful planning, students can build a social and academic support system that will help make college a successful and fulfilling experience.

(This article was originally published in Exceptional Needs Today magazine.)