Due to reasonable accommodations, opportunities for students identified with disabilities to experience success in postsecondary settings have increased. The growth in enrollment and the recognition that students with learning disabilities experience difficulties have also led to an increase in the types of support services offered at institutions of higher learning.
Despite these positive trends, students with disabilities still face challenges when transitioning from the secondary to the postsecondary environment, as evidenced by graduation rates that continue to lag behind those of nondisabled students.
Two things are key to the postsecondary success of students with disabilities: an understanding of the law and an understanding of how to self-advocate in the face of the law. Both are skills that students can begin to develop in high school—and that their teachers can help them with.
Understanding the Law
After students graduate from high school, their legal protections change. In high school, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) applies—that’s aimed at supporting student success through the assignment of supports and services, and it’s legally incumbent upon the school district to identify needs and provide services.
After students turn 18, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which focuses on providing equal access to educational programs, becomes the legal guide for support and services. Under Section 504, a college or university is not responsible for identifying students with disabilities and ensuring effective support services. Rather, the students become responsible to self-disclose their disability, provide evidence of need in the form of evaluations, obtain accommodations, and self-monitor their effectiveness.
Furthermore, when a student turns 18, the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) adds another element of responsibility. As a federal law, FERPA protects the privacy of student education records. At the postsecondary level, unless given permission by the student, a student’s parents cannot call the professors to check on progress (a form of advocacy) the way they could throughout the child’s education through 12th grade.
For adult students with disabilities, it’s crucial to understand what changes legally when they turn 18, particularly with respect to their newfound responsibility to seek support services from university offices for students with disabilities, communicating their unique learning needs to professors, and self-evaluating the efficacy of their academic accommodations.
The Importance of Self-Advocacy
In postsecondary educational settings, as noted above, students must self-disclose and seek out supportive services; then it’s incumbent upon them to communicate to each of their professors their need for accommodations in the classroom. Again, that’s often a radical shift from the secondary school experience they’re accustomed to, where school districts are responsible for identifying students with disabilities and then provide and monitor services to ensure student success.
Although advocating for themselves might be a skill that students learn while in secondary school, that shift often means they need to ramp it up in a postsecondary environment.
Research suggests that self-advocacy skills among students with disabilities are linked to better school retention rates and more successful adult outcomes. Key to self-advocacy is the student’s understanding the specific characteristics of their disability, knowing how their disability affects the way they learn, accepting their need for support services, and having the ability to communicate this information to their professors. For example, a student identified with dyslexia needs to understand and communicate how their disability affects their reading fluency and comprehension, as well as how they would benefit from extended time on exams or taking the exam in a reduced-distraction environment at a campus testing center.
Additionally, in postsecondary settings, students are responsible for evaluating the effectiveness of the services provided, communicating with their counselor/adviser or professor about weaknesses in the services, and developing a new plan for success in the face of solutions that don’t work well.
How to Prepare Students to Self-Advocate
Secondary school teachers can be critical in helping students to learn about their disability and how to effectively communicate their academic needs. They should encourage their students to attend and participate in their individualized education plan (IEP) process, which will afford the student the opportunity to learn about their disability and need for supports.
Furthermore, once a student with a disability turns 14 years old, their IEP team must write a plan that will help prepare the student for a successful transition to life after high school. When students are full participants in this planning process, they can take charge of preparing for their future. One effective practice during this preparation period is having students learn to write emails to disclose their disability and explain accommodations they need; ideally they should master that skill while they’re still in high school.
It’s helpful, even as early as high school, to have students craft emails that they can later send to their professors prior to the start of every college semester. In the email, they can introduce themselves on a personal level, explain how their disability affects the way they learn, what accommodations are provided by the university, and, most important, how the accommodations help the student overcome challenges. This often makes it easier for them to form a productive, supportive connection with their professor. Students can even write an email that they can use repeatedly throughout their postsecondary career.