Three Questions to Ask About College Disability Services

This month, graduating high schoolers across the country are making their selection of four-year colleges, and at the same time, high school juniors and community college students are starting to research where they want to apply next year.

This is a stressful process for anyone, but one that holds particular concern for students with learning disabilities and ADHD (LD/ADHD). These kids don’t just have to look into academics, dorm life, financial aid, and everything else that makes a college unique; they also have to learn all they can about a school's disability services.

At a minimum, every college provides basic accommodations for students with LD/ADHD, which are typically listed on the disability services office website. Still, the way each of these offices delivers services and engages with its students can vary quite a bit.

In order to navigate the terrain, many families turn to the numerous “best schools for students with a learning disability” rankings that are available online. But even some of the most elite LD/ADHD support programs, like the University of Arizona's SALT Center or the University of Denver’s Learning Effective Program, may not be the best match for students based on location, interest, or cost. So, how do you figure out if a college and its disability service office is the right fit for you?

Evaluating Universities: Three Questions to Ask

In my position, I work with dozens of disability service offices around the country, providing me with a unique vantage point to evaluate what makes for a great department. As the National Program Director at Eye to Eye, I help facilitate mentoring programs that are run in partnership with disability service offices and that pair college students who have learning disabilities or ADHD with similarly labeled middle school students. I get to see disability service offices work with a program that is innovative in the field and outside of their core responsibilities, and it has taught me a lot about how to assess the feel and culture of these departments from university to university.

One consistent theme I notice is that the most effective disability service offices work hard to avoid being seen as an isolated department within the school, one that only has contact with students when they are seeking accommodations. The most high-impact disability service staff have members who are proactive and find ways to be present throughout campus. College students with learning disabilities or ADHD want to be engaged by disability services, and when they are, they are more likely to embrace their disability and continue to use the accommodations that are available to them.

If you are a student or parent looking into disability service offices, there are three questions to ask to get a sense of the way that these offices become a real part of the university community. Keep in mind that no disability service office will give you the perfect answer to all three questions, but the responses will tell you a lot. I also mention three universities that I think are doing a great job supporting students who have an LD/ADHD.

How does the disability service office collaborate with other parts of the school?

A disability service office that finds ways to collaborate with academic departments, clubs, or other offices within the university will engage more students and encourage them to see the disability service as an important part of their campus life and experience. These partnerships create opportunities for students to see the disability service office as a place for community and engaging activities, which allows students to explore their disability identities and share their experiences with others.

One such example is the Disability Resource Center at the University of Florida. When I first spoke to the center’s staff, they were eager to tell me about their traditional LD/ADHD services and accommodations as well as their developing collaboration with the school’s Disabilities in Society minor. Moreover, they were planning an upcoming event on Women with Disabilities in conjunction with the university’s Women’s History Month program.

Does the disability service office provide mentorship opportunities?

Students with LDs or ADHD too often feel as if they are the recipients of service, so it can be deeply meaningful when there is an opportunity for them to give service back through their learning disability. These opportunities to work with others often include partnerships with different programs or offices within the school, such as the community service office. Studies consistently show how powerful an experience mentoring is for a person with a learning disability, either as a mentor or a mentee. Many disability service offices, such as the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Rochester, have mentoring programs for students with LD/ADHD that pair upperclassmen with incoming freshman or other underclassmen to help younger students navigate college life.

Eye to Eye’s own program presents a great chance for college students to give back to their community of different thinkers. A list of schools with Eye to Eye chapters can be found on our website, with an updated list coming out each May.

How does the disability service office train and communicate with the university’s staff, professors, and administrators?

There are rarely laws or policies that requires university staff to receive particular training on working with students with disabilities, so I recommend learning how the disability service office trains, engages, and responds to professors and administrators. How are faculty and staff trained to work with students with disabilities, and what do the training sessions look like? How are students encouraged to talk to their professors about their need for accommodations? What is the appeals process if students feel that they are being treated unfairly or not accommodated for their disability?

The Disability Service Office at the University of Pittsburgh believes in the power of first-person testimonials as a means of training their colleagues in other departments. The office helps the school’s Eye to Eye chapter set up a series of story-sharing workshops, during which our volunteers recount their personal experiences with LD/ADHD to the staff of various departments.

By asking these three questions, you’ll get a sense for how different disability service offices find unique and community-based approaches to supporting students with LD/ADHD. When you dig a little deeper, past questions around accommodations, you’ll be able to select a college that is the right fit for you or your child.

A Note from the Editor

There is debate within the learning disability community about the classification of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a learning disability; some experts consider ADHD to be a type of LD, while others do not. In previous articles published on Noodle, many of our experts fall into the former camp, but Eye to Eye considers ADHD to be a unique learning style.

You can use Noodle to search for colleges based on various customizable features, and ask questions of experts about learning disabilities and finding a college.