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Some Advice for Students With Disabilities Heading to College

Last week, I wrote about the growing number of opportunities to attend college for students with intellectual disabilities. Although these programs provide a lot of independence, they also monitor students closely.

For students with other types of disabilities, navigating traditional college programs doesn't often come with the same attention to detail. And sometimes, that turns out to be a big surprise for students used to the protection provided by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from birth through the end of high school.

"The average high school teacher has no training—unless for some reason they've sought out the information—they don't know a lot of accommodations are not commonly given, or what the access is. They can't prepare their students," said Elizabeth Hamblet, author of a new book about the transition from high school to college for students with disabilities. The book, 7 Steps for Success: High School to College Transition Strategies for Students With Disabilities, was published by the Council for Exceptional Children.

"It's a peculiarity of the law that there is no official vehicle for colleges to communicate to high schools about what postsecondary supports and services are like," she added.

She said there are several things colleges and universities, governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act rather than IDEA, don't have to do for students with disabilities, including fundamentally altering a program to accommodate a student, taking measures that would be an undue administrative or financial burden, or providing a personal service or device. (The federal Education Department's office for civil rights recently did find, however, that schools and colleges must be sure that technology is accessible to students with disabilities.)

While colleges and universities do need to work with students with disabilities, how they work with students varies widely, Ms. Hamblet said. What is considered an accommodation isn't always clear. So students and parents should do their homework before choosing a school, and they should be prepared for a very different experience from elementary, middle, and high school.

"College is a place of independent living and learning. We do expect a certain amount of independence from our students," she said. "I think students need to know they're going to a place where 12 to 15 hours a week professors teach and the rest of the learning is on your own."

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