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High School VS College Disability Support Services

Do you know what is in store for students with disabilities who graduate from your school and head off to postsecondary education? Do you have the information you need to advise them on what to expect in postsecondary education?

For students with disabilities, a big factor in their successful transition from high school to postsecondary education is accurate knowledge about their civil rights. The purpose of this guide is to provide high school educators with answers to questions students with disabilities may have as they get ready to move to the postsecondary education environment.

This guide was developed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). OCR has enforcement responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504), as amended, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, (Title II), which prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability. Every school district and nearly every college and university in the United States is subject to one or both of these laws, which have similar requirements.1 Private postsecondary institutions that do not receive federal financial assistance are not subject to Section 504 or Title II. They are, however, subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Justice and which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by private entities that are not private clubs or religious entities.

This guide also makes reference to Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides funds to states to assist in making a free appropriate public education (FAPE) available to eligible children with disabilities. IDEA requirements apply to state education agencies, school districts, and other public agencies that serve IDEA-eligible children. Institutions of postsecondary education have no legal obligations under the IDEA.

Similarly, this guide references the state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Services Program, authorized by the Rehabilitation Act, which provides funds to state VR agencies to assist eligible individuals with disabilities in obtaining employment. State VR agencies provide a wide range of employment-related services, including services destined to facilitate the transition of eligible students with disabilities from school to post-school activities.

In preparing this guide, we have highlighted the significant differences between the rights and responsibilities of students with disabilities in the high school setting and the rights and responsibilities these students will have once they are in the postsecondary education setting. Following a set of frequently asked questions, we have provided some practical suggestions that high school educators can share with students to facilitate their successful transition to postsecondary education.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Admissions Process

In general, tests may not be selected or administered in a way that tests the disability rather than the achievement or aptitude of the individual.4 In addition, federal law requires changes to the testing conditions that are necessary to allow a student with a disability to participate as long as the changes do not fundamentally alter the examination or create undue financial or administrative burdens.5 Although some institutions of postsecondary education may have their own entrance exams, many use a student’s score on commercially available tests. In general, in order to request one or more changes in standardized testing conditions, which test administrators may also refer to as “testing accommodations”6, the student will need to contact the institution of postsecondary education or the entity that administers the exam and provide documentation of a disability and the need for a change in testing conditions. The issue of documentation is discussed below. Examples of changes in testing conditions that may be available include, but are not limited to:

  • Braille
  • Large print
  • Fewer items on each page
  • Tape-recorded responses
  • Responses on the test booklet
  • Frequent breaks
  • Extended testing time
  • Testing over several sessions
  • Small group setting
  • Private room
  • Preferential seating
  • The use of a sign language interpreter for spoken directions.

Generally, institutions of postsecondary education are not permitted to make what is known as a “preadmission inquiry” about an applicant’s disability status. Preadmission inquiries are permitted only if the institution of postsecondary education is taking remedial action to correct the effects of past discrimination or taking voluntary action to overcome the effects of conditions that limited the participation of individuals with disabilities.7

Examples of impermissible preadmission inquiries include: Are you in good health? Have you been hospitalized for a medical condition in the past five years? Institutions of postsecondary education may inquire about an applicant’s ability to meet essential program requirements provided that such inquiries are not designed to reveal disability status. For example, if physical lifting is an essential requirement for a degree program in physical therapy, an acceptable question that could be asked is, With or without reasonable accommodation, can you lift 25 pounds? After admission, in response to a student’s request for “academic adjustments,8” reasonable modifications or auxiliary aids and services, institutions of postsecondary education may ask for documentation regarding disability status.

No. If an applicant meets the essential requirements for admission, an institution may not deny that applicant admission simply because he or she has a disability, nor may an institution categorically exclude an applicant with a particular disability as not being qualified for its program.9 For instance, an institution may not automatically assume that all applicants with hearing or visual impairments would be unable to meet the essential eligibility requirements of its music program. An institution may, however, require an applicant to meet any essential technical or academic standards for admission to, or participation in, the institution and its program.10 An institution may deny admission to any student, disabled or not, who does not meet essential requirements for admission or participation.

No. Institutions do not have a duty to identify students with disabilities. Students in institutions of postsecondary education are responsible for notifying institution staff of their disability should they need academic adjustments. High schools, in contrast, have an obligation to identify students within their jurisdiction who have a disability and who may be entitled to services.

No. A student has no obligation to inform an institution of postsecondary education that they have a disability; however, if the student wants an institution to provide an academic adjustment or assign the student to accessible housing or other facilities, or if a student wants other disability-related services, the student must identify themself himself as having a disability. The disclosure of a disability is always voluntary. For example, a student who has a disability that does not require services may choose not to disclose their disability.


Post-Admission: Documentation of a Disability

Academic adjustments are defined in the Section 504 regulations at 34 C.F.R. § 104.44(a) as:

[S]uch modifications to [the] academic requirements as are necessary to ensure that such requirements do not discriminate or have the effect of discriminating, on the basis of [disability] against a qualified ... applicant or student [with a disability]. Academic requirements that the recipient can demonstrate are essential to the instruction being pursued by such student or to any directly related licensing requirement will not be regarded as discriminatory within the meaning of this section. Modifications may include changes in the length of time permitted for the completion of degree requirements, substitution of specific courses required for the completion of degree requirements, and adaptation of the manner in which specific courses are conducted.11

Academic adjustments also may include a reduced course load, extended time on tests, and the provision of auxiliary aids and services. Auxiliary aids and services are defined in the Section 504 regulations at 34 C.F.R. § 104.44(d), and in the Title II regulations at 28 C.F.R. § 35.104. They include note-takers, readers, recording devices, sign language interpreters, screen-readers, voice recognition and other adaptive software or hardware for computers, and other devices designed to ensure the participation of students with impaired sensory, manual or speaking skills in an institution’s programs and activities. Institutions are not required to provide personal devices and services such as attendants, individually prescribed devices, such as eyeglasses, readers for personal use or study, or other services of a personal nature, such as tutoring. If institutions offer tutoring to the general student population, however, they must ensure that tutoring services also are available to students with disabilities. In some instances, a state VR agency may provide auxiliary aids and services to support an individual’s post-secondary education and training once that individual has been determined eligible to receive services under the VR program.

Institutions may set their own requirements for documentation so long as they are reasonable and comply with Section 504 and Title II. It is not uncommon for documentation standards to vary from institution to institution. Students with disabilities should research documentation standards at those institutions that interest them. A student must provide documentation, upon request, that they have a disability, that is, an impairment that substantially limits a major life  activity12 and that supports the need for an academic adjustment. The documentation should identify how a student’s ability to function is limited as a result of their disability. The primary purpose of the documentation is to establish a disability in order to help the institution work interactively with the student to identify appropriate services. The focus should be on whether the information adequately documents the existence of a current disability and the need for an academic adjustment.

The student. Institutions of postsecondary education are not required to conduct or pay for an evaluation to document a student’s disability and need for an academic adjustment, although some institutions do so. If a student with a disability is eligible for services through the state VR Services program, they may qualify for an evaluation at no cost. High school educators can assist students with disabilities in locating their state VR agency at If students with disabilities are unable to find other funding sources to pay for necessary evaluation or testing for postsecondary education, they are responsible for paying for it themselves.

At the elementary and secondary school levels, a school district’s duty to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) encompasses the responsibility to provide, at no cost to the parents, an evaluation of suspected areas of disability for any of the district’s students who are believed to be in need of special education or related aids and services. School districts are not required under Section 504 or Title II to conduct evaluations that are for the purpose of obtaining academic adjustments once a student graduates and goes on to postsecondary education.

Generally, no. Although an IEP or Section 504 plan may help identify services that have been used by the student in the past, they generally are not sufficient documentation to support the existence of a current disability and need for an academic adjustment from an institution of postsecondary education. Assessment information and other material used to develop an IEP or Section 504 plan may be helpful to document a current disability or the need for an academic adjustment or auxiliary aids and services. In addition, a student receiving services under Part B of the IDEA must be provided with a summary of their academic achievements and functional performance that includes recommendations on how to assist in meeting the student’s postsecondary goals.13 This information may provide helpful information about disability and the need for an academic adjustment.

By the time most students with disabilities are accepted into a postsecondary institution, they are likely to have a transition plan or receive transition services, which may include evaluations and services provided by the state VR agency. High school personnel can help a student with disabilities to identify and address the specific documentation requirements of the postsecondary institution that the student will be attending. This may include assisting the student to identify existing documentation in her or his education records that would satisfy the institution’s criteria, such as evaluation reports and the summary of the student’s academic achievement and functional performance. School personnel should be aware that institutions of postsecondary education typically do not accept brief conclusory statements for which no supporting evidence is offered as sufficient documentation of a disability and the need for an academic adjustment. School personnel should also be aware that some colleges may delay or deny services if the diagnosis or the documentation is unclear.

A diagnosis of impairment alone does not establish that an individual has a disability within the meaning of Section 504 or Title II. Rather, the impairment must substantially limit a major life activity, or the individual must have a record of such an impairment or be regarded as having such an impairment.14 A diagnosis from a treating physician, along with information about how the disability affects the student, may suffice. As noted above, institutions of postsecondary education may set their own requirements for documentation so long as they are reasonable and comply with Section 504 and Title II.

Students who have the same disability may not necessarily require the same academic adjustment. Section 504 and Title II require that institutions of postsecondary education make individualized determinations regarding appropriate academic adjustments for each individual student. If the student’s disability and need for an academic adjustment are obvious, less documentation may be necessary.

If the documentation a student submitted for the institution’s consideration does not meet the institution’s requirements, an official should notify the student in a timely manner of what additional documentation the student needs to provide. As noted above, a student may need a new evaluation in order to provide documentation of a current disability.

Post-Admission: Obtaining Services

It depends. Institutions are not required to provide an academic adjustment that would alter or waive essential academic requirements.15 They also do not have to provide an academic adjustment that would fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program or activity or result in undue financial or administrative burdens considering the institution’s resources as a whole.16 For example, an appropriate academic adjustment may be to extend the time a student with a disability is allotted to take tests, but an institution is not required to change the substantive content of the tests. In addition, an institution is not required to make modifications that would result in undue financial or administrative burdens. Public institutions are required to give primary consideration to the auxiliary aid or service that the student requests, but can opt to provide alternative aids or services if they are effective. They can also opt to provide an effective alternative if the requested auxiliary aid or service would fundamentally alter the nature of a service, program or activity or result in undue financial or administrative burdens. For example, if it would be a fundamental alteration or undue burden to provide a student with a disability with a note-taker for oral classroom presentations and discussions and a tape recorder would be an effective alternative, a postsecondary institution may provide the student with a tape recorder instead of a note-taker.

Institutions may establish reasonable procedures for requesting academic adjustments; students are responsible for knowing these procedures and following them. Institutions usually include information on the procedures and contacts for requesting an academic adjustment in their general information publications and Websites. If students are unable to locate the procedures, they should contact an institution official, such as an admissions officer or counselor.

A high school counselor, a special education teacher or a VR counselor may meet with high school students with disabilities to provide services or monitor their progress under their education plans on a periodic basis. The role of the disability coordinator at an institution of postsecondary education is  different. At many institutions, there may be only one or two staff members to address the needs of all students with disabilities attending the institution. The disability coordinator evaluates documentation, works with students to determine appropriate services, assists students in arranging services or testing modifications, and deals with problems as they arise. A disability coordinator may have contact with a student with a disability only two or three times a semester.

Disability coordinators usually will not directly provide educational services, tutoring or counseling, or help students plan or manage their schedule. Students with disabilities are, in general, expected to be responsible for their own academic programs and progress in the same ways that nondisabled students are responsible for them.


As soon as possible. Although students may request academic adjustments at any time, students needing services should be advised to notify the institution as early as possible to ensure that the institution has enough time to review their request and provide an appropriate academic adjustment. Some academic adjustments, such as interpreters, may take time to arrange. In addition, students should not wait until after completing a course or activity or receiving a poor grade to request services and then expect the grade to be changed or to be able to retake the course.

Once a student has identified themself as an individual with a disability, requested an academic adjustment and provided appropriate documentation upon request, institution staff should discuss with the student what academic adjustments are appropriate in light of the student’s individual needs and the nature of the institution’s program.

Students with disabilities possess unique knowledge of their individual disabilities and should be prepared to discuss the functional challenges they face and, if applicable, what has or has not worked for them in the past. Institution staff should be prepared to describe the barriers students may face in individual classes that may affect their full participation, as well as to discuss academic adjustments that might enable students to overcome those barriers.

Once the needed auxiliary aids and services have been identified, institutions may not require students with disabilities to pay part or all of the costs of such aids and services, nor may institutions charge students with disabilities more for participating in programs or activities than they charge students who do not have disabilities. Institutions generally may not condition their provision of academic adjustments on the availability of funds, refuse to spend more than a certain amount to provide academic adjustments, or refuse to provide academic adjustments because they believe other providers of such services exist.17 In many cases, institutions may meet their obligation to provide auxiliary aids and services by assisting students in either obtaining them or obtaining reimbursement for their cost from an outside agency or organization, such as a state VR agency. Such assistance notwithstanding, institutions retain ultimate responsibility for providing necessary auxiliary aids and services and for any costs associated with providing such aids and services or utilizing outside sources. However, as noted above, if the institution can demonstrate that providing a specific auxiliary aid or service would result in undue financial or administrative burdens, considering the institution’s resources as a whole, it can opt to provide another effective one.

If the academic adjustments provided are not meeting the student’s needs, it is the student’s responsibility to notify the institution as soon as possible. It may be too late to correct the problem if the student waits until the course or activity is completed. The student and the institution should work together to resolve the problem.

Keys to Success: Attitude, Self-Advocacy, and Preparation

The attitude and self-advocacy skills of students with disabilities maybe two of the most important factors in determining their success or failure in postsecondary education. Students with disabilities need to be prepared to work collaboratively with the institution’s disability coordinator to enable them to have an equal opportunity to participate in an institution’s programs and activities. To ensure that students with disabilities possess the desired levels of self-advocacy to succeed in postsecondary education, high school educators may want to encourage the students to:

Students with disabilities need to know the functional limitations that result from their disabilities and understand their strengths and weaknesses. They should be able to explain their disabilities to an institution’s disability coordinators or other appropriate staff. As part of this process, students should be able to explain where they have had difficulty in the past, as well as what has helped them overcome such problems and what specific adjustments might work in specific situations. To assist students in this area, high school educators can encourage high school students to be active participants in their IEP or Section 504 meetings. High school personnel also can suggest that students practice explaining their disabilities, as well as why they need certain services, to appropriate secondary staff or through role-playing exercises to prepare them to engage in such conversations with confidence in a postsecondary setting.


All students, including those with disabilities, must take primary responsibility for their success or failure in postsecondary education. Students with disabilities, in particular, are moving from a system where parents and school staff usually advocated on their behalf to a system where they will be expected to advocate for themselves. An institution’s staff will likely communicate directly with students when issues arise and are generally not required to interact with students’ parents. In general, students with disabilities should expect to complete all course requirements, such as assignments and examinations. Students with disabilities need to identify the essential academic and technical standards that they will be required to meet for admission and continued participation in an institution’s program. Students also need to identify any academic adjustments they may need as a result of their disabilities to meet those standards and how to request those adjustments. Students with disabilities need to understand that, while federal disability laws guarantee them an equal opportunity to participate these laws do not guarantee that students will achieve a particular outcome, for example, good grades.

All students will be expected to meet an institution’s essential standards, students with disabilities need to take a high school curriculum that will prepare them to meet those standards.

If students with disabilities plan to attend a rigorous postsecondary institution, they, like their peers without disabilities, need to make high school curriculum choices that support that goal. High school guidance counselors and state VR agency counselors, in particular, can play an important role in students’ curriculum planning.

For all students, good study skills and the ability to write well are critical factors of success in postsecondary education. High school educators can help students in these areas by offering or identifying opportunities, such as workshops, courses or tutoring programs, that emphasize the importance of reading, writing and good study skills.

Staff should encourage students to enroll in classes that will focus on writing and study skills in their freshman year of postsecondary education.

Although a primary role of high school educators is to provide monitoring, direction and guidance to students as they approach the end of their high school career, staff also need to prepare students to act independently and to manage their own time with little to no supervision. High school educators can assist students by identifying resources that will help them learn time management and scheduling skills.

Postsecondary students use computers to complete a multitude of tasks, from registering for classes to accessing course material and obtaining grades, it is essential that students learn to use computers if they are to be prepared for postsecondary education.

Ideally, students with disabilities need to start using computers as early as possible in school to increase their familiarity with computers. Students with visual impairments, hearing impairments, learning disabilities or mobility impairments may have problems with inputting data or reading a computer monitor. Assistive technology can help certain students with disabilities use computers and access information.

A variety of institutions of postsecondary education have  programs  students can participate while they are  in high school, to ease their transition to postsecondary education.

These programs often expose students to experiences that they are likely to encounter in postsecondary education, such as living in dorms, relating to other students and eating in dining halls. The programs may also focus on instruction in certain subject areas, such as math or English, or in certain skills, such as computer, writing or studying. High school educators can assist students with disabilities by identifying opportunities in their area of residence.

Students with disabilities may select any program for which they are qualified but should be advised to review carefully documentation standards and program requirements for their program or institution of interest.

For example, students should pay close attention to an institution’s program requirements, such as language or math, to avoid making a large financial and time commitment only to realize several years into a program that they cannot, even with academic adjustments, meet an essential requirement for program completion.

Campus visits, which include visits to the disability services office, can be helpful in locating an environment that best meets a student’s interests and needs. In addition, while all institutions have a legal obligation to provide appropriate services, certain colleges may be able to provide better services than others due to their size or location.

To help students avoid the isolation that can occur away from home during postsecondary education, high school educators should encourage students to live on campus and to become involved in campus activities. Attendance at orientation programs for freshmen is a good first step in discovering ways to get involved in the postsecondary education environment.


If you would like more information about the responsibilities of postsecondary schools to students with disabilities, read the OCR brochures Auxiliary Aids and Services for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities: Higher Education’s Obligations Under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA and Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities. You may obtain copies of these brochures by contacting  The Office for Civil Rights or at

For more information about the civil rights of students with disabilities in education institutions, contact OCR at:

Customer Service Team
Office for Civil Rights
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, DC 20202-1100

Phone: (800) 421-3481
TTY: (877) 521-2172

Web address: