During my senior year of high school, I was frequently reminded that my IEP expired the moment I was handed my diploma and that I would have to find another way to receive disability accommodations in college. I wasn’t worried about it though, because I had met with Disability Services at each of the colleges I had applied to and made a plan for how to create a Disability Services file after committing to my top choice college, which had gone above and beyond with helping me learn about the disability accommodations process. Here are my tips for how to create a Disability Services file at a four-year college, based on my experiences as a student with low vision and a then-undiagnosed neurological condition (which was later diagnosed as Chiari Malformation).
When I was researching colleges, I divided their approaches to disability services into two categories- proactive and reactive. Proactive departments would encourage students to have accommodations set before the first day of school, provide students with options to take tests in alternative environments, and share resources with professors. Reactive departments would encourage students to contact them if they ran into a problem with a professor, didn’t prioritize having accommodations before the first day of school, and did not talk to professors about disability inclusion or accessibility.
On college visits, I would interview staff from Disability Services to determine if they had a proactive approach or a reactive approach, as well as ask how I could use assistive technology like large print or screen readers in the classroom. In one memorable instance, the person I was meeting with asked me what assistive technology was, and said they had no idea how to support students with low vision who didn’t read braille, so I knew that college would not be a good fit for me.
After I received my acceptance letter to my top choice school, I went back to talk to Disability Services again and met with the assistive technology department and a few other staff. Once I paid my deposit for the fall semester, I was able to create my Disability Services file with a case manager.
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Collecting documentation for Disability Services
The exact documentation needed for a Disability Services file varies based on the college and based on the disability itself. When I met with Disability Services after paying my enrollment deposit, I brought in my current IEP, my prior 504 plan from eighth grade, and documents from my ophthalmologist that described my diagnosis. For my then-undiagnosed neurological condition, I brought a note from my primary care doctor that described the functional limitations of my condition.
Other helpful files to bring to a Disability Services intake meeting include
- Department of Blind and Visually Impaired case files
- Assistive technology evaluations
- Orientation and mobility files
- Occupational therapy assessments
- Recent surgical notes
- Documentation from other specialists, i.e surgeon, neurologist, etc
All documentation was in a large binder that could be easily referenced during the meeting, though my college also provides students with the option to upload copies of paperwork online.
Can I transfer accommodations from one college to another?
When I took math classes at another community college in the state, my Disability Services file did not automatically transfer, and I still had to meet with the Disability Services coordinator to get each of my accommodations approved. The same process would have taken place if I had been a recent high school graduate that had an IEP or a 504 plan while I was in school- students will still need to get accommodations approved, even if they had them before. Of course, it helped tremendously that I had previously approved accommodations, as this helped to cut down on the amount of documentation I needed, but I didn’t receive the same exact accommodations that I had on my Disability Services file back at university or my IEP/504 plan in high school.
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Examples of disability accommodations in college
While my disability accommodations in college ended up being pretty similar to the ones I received in high school, my Disability Services coordinator reminded me that college was different from high school and I would likely need to have different accommodations to accommodate for the different courses I was taking. We went over each of the accommodations that were listed in my IEP and determined if the accommodations should stay the same, be changed slightly, or removed entirely from my Disability Services file. Some examples of accommodations I was approved for include:
- Extended time/150% time on exams, quizzes, and tests. This was eventually changed to 200% time for math and other highly visual classes
- Copies of assignments and class notes in a digital format
- 24-pt font on classroom handouts. This was different from the size 18 font on my IEP, and changed to a larger font over time
- Use of assistive technology for low vision, including screen readers, screen magnfiication, etc. This accommodation is a bit vague since I use a few different tools for fluctuating vision and didn’t want to list specific app names
- Alt text and image descriptions for graphics
- Preferential seating/reserved seat in the front row
- Verbal warnings when flickering lights or for content with flashing lights
- Common Classroom Accommodations For Low Vision
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Disability Services Testing Center
At my university, testing accommodations are written separately from classroom accommodations. Students have the option of taking exams, tests, quizzes, and other timed assignments in the Disability Services Testing Center, a multi-room minimal distraction space for taking tests with assistive technology, extended time, and other accommodations that would be prohibitive in the classroom. I have an entire post about the Disability Services Testing Center and testing accommodations for low vision students linked below.
- What To Bring To The Disability Services Testing Center
- Testing Accommodations For Low Vision Students
- Remote Testing Accommodations For Low Vision
- Math Test Accommodations For Low Vision
- How To Use Guided Access For Testing And Exams
- Seven Unexpected Disability Accommodations For Virtual Learning
Additional resources for Disability Services
Outside of classroom and testing accommodations, there are several other resources available for students with Disability Services. Some examples of services at my college include (but are not limited to):
- Writing center for papers and English classes
- Tutoring resources that are hosted by various departments
- Disability-specific organizations- my school has several disability organizations, including ones for autism, diabetes, visual impairment, and others
- Disability transportation services for getting to classes
- Priority registration for classes
- Workshops and lectures on different disability resources
- Events and resource fairs with community organizations
- Job and internship placement resources
I recommend subscribing to the Disability Services newsletter to stay connected with campus resources!
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Requesting Disability Housing
I have chronic migraines and a neurological condition that requires me to receive disability accommodations for housing, which is handled by a liaison with Disability Services and University Housing. Along with my Disability Services file, I had to submit another form freshman year that explained how my disability affected my ability to live in traditional housing, and recommended housing accommodations. This was filled out by my primary care doctor and my neurologist wrote an additional note as well.
Disability housing accommodations that were requested my freshman year include:
- Single room with no roommate
- Climate controlled space with heating and air conditioning
- Dorm building with elevator
- Lower-level room, preferably first or second floor
- Suite-style bathroom
- No fluorescent lights
My accommodation request was initially denied at first due to insufficient documentation on why I needed to avoid having a roommate, so my neurologist wrote a letter stating that I had chronic migraine and needed a quiet, dark place away from others to recover from headaches as I cannot take medication for my condition. After submitting the letter and going through an appeals process, my accommodations were approved before move-in day, and were automatically approved in subsequent semesters. Even though on-campus housing is not guaranteed for upperclassmen, having disability accommodations meant that I was guaranteed housing for the four years I lived on campus.
My freshman dorm was a single room with a bathroom that I shared with the resident advisor, and I had a similar set up in my senior dorm as well. For other semesters, I had a single room in an apartment that I shared with three other girls, with the exception of when I lived in emergency housing and had a bathroom to myself.
- How To Choose A Dorm And Pick College Housing
- How I Decorate My Dorm Room With Low Vision
- How To Hack An Accessible Dorm
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- Seven Things I Tell My College Suitemates About My Disability
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Get a referral to the assistive technology specialist
Okay, maybe I am a little biased because I minored in this and run a blog on the topic, but assistive technology is one of the coolest departments on campus. While students are required to have a Disability Services file to receive services, they will likely also need a referral to receive services from assistive technology specialists or departments. Assistive technology can help with the following items:
- Getting accessible textbooks and classroom materials
- Troubleshooting course websites and class items for accessibility issues
- Providing free or discounted licenses for assistive technology software
- Lending devices or teaching students how to use devices in campus labs, i.e video magnifiers
- Reporting campus accessibility issues
- Learning which professors are awesome at providing accessible materials, and which ones are…less awesome
- And more!
Disability Services identifies the problems and accessibility barriers that students may encounter, and assistive technology helps solve these problems and empower students with important self-advocacy and self-reliance.
- What To Know About College Assistive Technology Specialists
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- Learning to Self-Advocate
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Requesting Faculty Contact Sheets
Faculty contact sheets are a list of disability accommodations for the classroom and testing environments that professors can reference during the semester. Students will need to request faculty contact sheets from Disability Services, as they are not automatically sent to professors, and I recommend sending them via email either the week before classes start or on the first day of classes- professors cannot provide disability accommodations until they receive a copy of the contact sheet.
When I took a class at a community college, my Disability Services file was still processing on the first day of classes, and I told my professor that I was in the process of creating a Disability Services file and would need for them to give me a copy of the notes they were presenting so I could make sure I copied information correctly. I sent a copy of the Disability Services file as soon as it finished processing at the end of the week so my professor could give me extended time on tests and other accommodations as needed.
There has only been one class I took where I didn’t need to share my Disability Services file, and that was a virtual capstone class that focused on an independent project. I still disclosed my disability to the professor, but ended up not using any of my approved accommodations for the class.
- How To Explain Disability Accommodations To Professors
- How I Talk To Professors About Photosensitivity
- Requesting Extracurricular Accommodations
- Why To Take Virtual Classes in College
- Eight Things You Need To Know About Your Disability Accommodations
More tips for how to create a Disability Services file
- Some colleges require students to list a primary disability and list out additional disability categories when relevant. In my case, I listed my primary disability as visual impairment and listed neurological condition and chronic illness as secondary categories
- Disability Services files do not contain specific diagnoses or medical condition names, and it is illegal for professors to ask for this information
- Students have the option of meeting with Disability Services throughout the school year to revise accommodations or report disability violations as needed, though I rarely met with Disability Services once my accommodations were approved- a lot of my interactions were with the testing center and assistive technology
- 504 Plans can be used in college, but are typically paired with a Disability Services file, and students are not required to have a 504 plan to receive services