Special Education

Preparing Students With Disabilities for the Transition to College

There are important differences between disability accommodations in the K–12 and postsecondary settings, and teachers can help students understand them.

January 3, 2024
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Statistics indicate that 55 percent of students diagnosed with a disability continue their education in a postsecondary setting. Information critical to postsecondary success, however, is rarely taught to students with disabilities. 

Below, I outline key information about differences in disability accommodation in K–12 and postsecondary environments. I then share activities that teachers can use to acquaint students with applicable policies and prepare them to navigate systemic complexities.  

Defining Disability

Before we consider high school and college contexts, it’s important to think closely about what we mean by disability. The United States Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the special education law that ensures a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to eligible students diagnosed with disabilities. The legislation provides special education and related services on an individual basis to those students. The federal government provides definitions of 13 eligible disability categories—an integral part of the qualification process for receiving support services.  

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act both define a person with a disability in this way: “A person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” The definition further includes “people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability, and individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability.” 

The ADA makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with disability.

Success vs. Access

Under IDEA, K–12 school districts utilize accommodations and modifications to curricular expectations to position qualifying students for success and to meet their unique needs in the classroom. 

Students are entitled to these alterations, which are a legally binding aspect of their individualized education program (IEP). Both general and special education teachers must implement them in all classes. If teachers and districts don’t follow IEPs, they may face legal action, most commonly resulting in a consequence of public-funded compensatory education.  

ADA and Section 504 were penned as civil rights statutes. The focus of both pieces of legislature is ensuring equal access to opportunity. At the college level, this translates into equal access to the opportunity to fully participate and receive the same benefits as their nondisabled peers. Therefore, the purpose of accommodations at this level is to ensure access for students with disabilities. While the hope is that all students will be successful, accommodations are not provided to facilitate success.  

Reasonable accommodations are a means to an end. They are approved, as needed, on an individualized basis to ensure that students with disabilities are not subject to discrimination. If the individual’s disability presents a functional limitation that acts as a barrier to this access, accommodations are approved to remove such barriers. Student success is not a guarantee.

Student Responsibility

After students graduate from high school, as the legislature changes, so do their legal protections. According to mandates set forth by IDEA, school districts are responsible to search for, identify, and evaluate students who may require special education. When a teacher or school suspects that a student may possibly have a disability, that student must be evaluated to see if they qualify for Special Education support and services.  

This evaluation determines whether a qualifying disability (13 categories) is present, and if so, whether that disability negatively impacts the student’s performance and whether they would benefit from special education. Depending on the need, a school will implement an IEP or 504 plan.  

Under ADA and Section 504, a postsecondary educational institution is not responsible for identifying or diagnosing students with disabilities. Rather, the students themselves are now responsible to self-disclose their disability, request accommodations, provide supporting documentation to give evidence of said disability, and self-monitor the efficacy of their approved accommodations. 

Academic Standards and Expectations

All students with an IEP or 504 plan are entitled to modifications that their team determines are needed. Modifications change what the student is expected to learn. Modifications can also be applied to assessments, such as exams, assignments, or projects. In these situations, the IEP team decides upon specific accommodations and documents them in the student’s IEP. These alterations typically focus on student strengths, levels of performance, and the use of appropriate materials that are relevant to the general education expectations.

At the postsecondary level, reasonable accommodations are not provided to support students who are struggling academically. They are provided to support students with disabilities who need them to have full access to opportunity. Additionally, none of the approved accommodation can pose a fundamental alteration to the program design or a substantial change in an element of curriculum. Simply put, all students must complete the same assignments, exams, projects, etc., as their nondisabled peers. No alterations to student expectations are permitted.  

Engaging and Educating Students 

To familiarize students with the above information, you can incorporate powerful preparatory activities in a student’s transition plan. 

Using a guided questionnaire, ask students to conduct research about disability service programs at the institutions they hope to attend. Or ask them to conduct an interview with personnel in disability services and report on the experience. These exercises can elicit engaging conversations about the changing expectations and legalities. 

Because self-advocacy is vital to student success, you may offer direct instruction in disability awareness and accommodation needs. Students who understand and have practice communicating about their disability, its effects, and accommodations are best-positioned to self-advocate.  

You can also support students’ considerations of whether an accommodation is success-based or access-based. For example, a student currently receiving the accommodation of “breaking large assignments into smaller segments” on their IEP would hear, at the postsecondary level, that this is “unreasonable,” since it’s geared toward a “success-based” outcome.  

On the other hand, if a student requires “extended time for assessments,” this is an access-based strategy, allowing the student an equal opportunity to demonstrate to their professors their knowledge and skill base.

Understanding differences in expectations and responsibilities is paramount in the successful transition for students with disabilities to college. As teacher, you can help educate students, fostering a positive adjustment and enhancing success.

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  • Special Education
  • College Readiness
  • Education Equity
  • 9-12 High School

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