What You Need to Know About College as a Student with a Disability

The transition from high school to college can be both a scary and exciting time for every student. College is a whole new world, and unlike anything most students have yet experienced.

 

Before heading off to college, students have questions and concerns about their future. Most students probably wonder about their major, whether they will like the school they have chosen, and what their new friends will be like, but for students with disabilities, the questions can often be a little more complicated.

 

Students with disabilities may wonder about accommodations, accessibility, services and supports, and getting help with everyday needs. And these questions may not be easy to answer.

 

As someone who’s a former college student, and an individual with a disability, I wanted to share some of the things that I wish I had known freshman year in hopes that it may make your transition a little bit easier.

 

Self Advocacy Is Key:

Growing up, it was typically the responsibility of your parents, teachers, or other administrators to make sure you got the accommodations and supports you needed to be successful in school. But, in college, it becomes primarily your responsibility.

 

Self-advocacy is always important but becomes especially essential when navigating college. College is often the first time students have lived away from home, and it is important to remember that you are your own best advocate: there are lots of supports in place to help you be successful, but you have to be proactive and reach out so that the people around you know what you may, or may not need.

 

Most schools have Offices or Departments of Disability Services in place to help students with disabilities get the accommodations they need, such as note-taking support, extra time on exams, or any other reasonable academic accommodation, but nobody from the office is going to seek you out, especially if they don’t even know you’re there.

 

Make a point to become familiar with the services and supports that exist on your campus. Talk to the disability support staff to work on a plan for your accommodations to help ensure success from day one. You are in college now and, like your peers without disabilities, there are still people there to help you, but for the most part, you are in the driver’s seat now!

 

The Laws Are Different:

K-12 education for students with disabilities is mandated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), this means that students with disabilities are entitled to public education and that it is the responsibility of the school to see that all students are getting an appropriate education. Colleges don’t fall under IDEA, and therefore, are not required to make accommodations to the same degree as the public school system.

 

In college, students with disabilities are protected from discrimination, such as inaccessibility of buildings, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Schools must provide reasonable accommodations such as notetakers or extra time on exams, but they don’t have any obligation to modify coursework to accommodate students with disabilities or provide additional supports such as assistance with personal care or activities of daily living to ensure a student is successful.

So, if you are, for example, a wheelchair user who needs help to get in and out of bed or perform other daily activities, the ADA requires your school to provide you with an accessible dorm room, but there is no legal obligation to provide you with an assistant or other types of personal care support.

 

This is important to know because it means that you will need to set up the supports you need on your own before you head off to school. Some schools have programs to help students with personal care needs, but this is not a requirement for all schools. Look into what your school offers to figure out what kind of supports may be available.

 

For more information about the difference in laws governing K-12 education and college check out the resources below:

 

https://umaine.edu/disability/accommodations-high-school-vs-college/

 

https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transitionguide.html

 

https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/auxaids.html

 

 

It’s Okay to Reach out for Help and Support:

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or struggling more than you thought you would, there is absolutely no shame in asking for help. Mental and emotional well-being is just as important as physical health, and academic support.

 

Most colleges have a variety of services to support students from health centers, to counseling and other mental health services, and wellness programs, in addition to academic supports. Take advantage of the support and community that exists around you, and don’t be afraid to reach out.

 

Additionally, there are lots of groups and activities on college campuses, and many colleges even have organizations run by and for students with disabilities. These organizations may or may not be support oriented. Many of them may just be social groups, or groups focused on advocacy and activism.

 

Whether or not they are disability focused, student organizations and extracurricular activities can be another great place to find support in college.

 

 

Transition Is Not One-Size-Fits-All:

Everybody is unique, which means that everyone’s experience in transitioning from high school to what comes after will look, feel, and be, very different. Whether you’re planning to go to school far away, attend college close to home, or do something else after high school, it’s important to remember there is no right way to transition from high school to beyond.

 

Whatever you decide to do after high school graduation, focus on making sure that it’s the right option for you, rather than worrying about whether it’s what other people expect.

 

For more information you need to know,  check out the topics below:

What You Need to Know About Preventative Care and Disability
What You Need to Know About Sexual and Reproductive Health and Disability

Transition Is…

 

Sometimes, unexpected or scary but also real and exciting

 

There are specialty clinics and hospitals throughout the country to address the unique needs of children with disabilities like cerebral palsy, but the same is not true for adults. Once people with disabilities reach the age of 18 or 21 they often have to stop seeing their pediatric providers, only to find there is no adult provider to take their place.

 

This is a major issue that affects young adults and adults with disabilities throughout the country, and contributes to a range of health inequalities and other issues. As we have addressed before, transitioning from pediatric care to adult care can be particularly difficult if your new doctor has little to no familiarity with disability.

 

Adults with disabilities need access to the same care as other adults, but they also need providers who are familiar with the unique needs that may come along with disability, and that is when young adults with disabilities can feel as though they’ve entered a void. However, one UCP affiliate is working to bridge that gap in a particularly creative and comprehensive way.

 

UCP of Minnesota/Gillette Specialty Children’s Hospital is the home of Gillette Lifetime, a clinic for patients with lifelong disabilities such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida who are ages 16 or older.

 

Kathy Lindstrom, an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, at the Lifetime Clinic, says it grew out of an unmet need in the community.  Lifetime Clinic’s Transition Program started as, “a grassroots movement put together based on patient needs. “

 

Kathy Lindstrom Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, at the Lifetime Clinic

Kathy Lindstrom Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, at the Lifetime Clinic

 

 

Easier, with the right resources and support

 

The services at Gillette Lifetime Transition Clinic merge medical needs with the unique psychological and social needs of transition-aged young adults with disabilities. As Lindstrom explains “everything seems to change when patients reach the late teenage years; it’s not just medical, but in all aspects of their lives.”

 

Lindstrom says, “Legal decision making becomes an issue, [so does vocational] planning, post high school planning and discussions about future living arrangements.  Parents are bogged down with meeting the challenges of daily life, and sometimes it can be hard to develop a vision for the future… and so transition sneaks up on families.”

 

Parental involvement in the process often shifts at this stage, so it’s also important to prepare both parents and young adults for this change.

 

Transition is not a simple process that happens overnight, or automatically, on a patient’s 18th birthday. Lindstrom understands that it can be hard for patients to come to the clinic for the first time, as many of them have had the same providers for their entire lives, and it can be hard to let go.

 

Lifetime makes this transition a little bit easier by allowing patients to transfer some care to adult providers, while continuing to collaborate with other specialty providers for other aspects for a period.

 

During their first visit to the clinic, patients meet with Lindstrom and her colleagues to discuss transition, and outline the issues that are most important to them. These appointments are conversations, not exams, and take place in a conference room, as opposed to an exam room. The appointment gives patients, and their families, an opportunity to discuss any questions or concerns they may have, and to get a feel for the services available at Lifetime.

 

 

About choices, and coordination

 

Lifetime is focused on specialty medical needs, and is not a primary care facility. Lindstrom offers the following advice to any individuals with disabilities looking for primary care providers:

 

  • Meet with the family Primary Care Provider (PCP) and talk about the potential of becoming a patient. If the doctor already sees the rest of the family, they might be a good start for patients with disabilities as well. She encourages patients to integrate into their family’s practice whenever feasible.

 

  • Arrange an advanced meeting with the PCP and see how accessible the facility is before becoming a patient in the practice.

 

  • If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Lindstrom cautions that you may not click with the first provider you meet with, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find somebody who works for you.

 

  • Your insurance will affect your options for a PCP, so remember to check first to make sure your preferred provider is covered!

 

Lindstrom also encourages primary care providers to connect with a patient’s specialty care providers. Gillette operates a telehealth triage line for all patients and their providers, regardless of age. If a primary care provider is unsure of how to treat a patient, they can reach out and communicate with other members of the patient’s care team.

 

In addition to medical care, Gillette Lifetime supports patients with the social aspects of transition such as recreation, community integration and helps prepare them for changing relationships with their family and friends, even giving them space to talk about the potential of romantic relationships.

 

Transition is difficult for every young adult, but when you have a disability, you may not know where to go, and you may have a unique set of questions that you feel like no one can answer, which is why transition clinics like Gillette Lifetime’s Transition Clinic are so important.

 

Learning more

 

There are several clinics that specialize in current medical recommendations for young adults with cerebral palsy throughout the country.

 

If you are located outside of Minnesota or the Midwest, and would like to see if there is a transition clinic near you, please be sure to check out our latest guide on healthcare for adults with cerebral palsy and related disabilities for clinics and additional resources that may be helpful in the transition from pediatric to adult health care.

 

Patient with a practitioner at the Lifetime Clinic