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Taking the Next Step: Helping Students With Disabilities Transition from High School to College


Narrator: Welcome to “Taking the Next Step: Helping Students with Disabilities Transition from High School to College."

The passage from high school to college, from adolescence to adulthood, is difficult for most students—it’s an anxiety-producing time. And it can be a lot harder for students with disabilities. The fact is more and more students with disabilities are attending college and some are decidedly better prepared than others.
There are vast differences between what high school did and colleges will do to work with students with disabilities. The extent to which students have been prepared for these differences largely predicts their early success or failure once they arrive on a college campus.

Most of the differences can be found in the law. The legislation governing Kindergarten through high school is Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. IDEA requires schools identify students with disabilities and provide a free appropriate public education, often involving program modifications, assure the student equal opportunity for success. It is not uncommon for students, parents and high school personnel to assume that these same type services will automatically be available in college. This is NOT the case.

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act are “civil rights” legislation, which protects qualified persons with disabilities from discrimination based upon disability. As a result of these two laws, all public and private colleges are only obligated to provide equal access along with reasonable and appropriate accommodations for students who self disclose their disability. Colleges ensure access; not necessarily success.

From kindergarten through high school, students with disabilities have relied on their parents and schools to identify the disability and provide the necessary assistance. At the college level, only one person is ultimately responsible for these issues—the student.

Transition is the formal process, beginning at age 14, of helping the student with disabilities move successfully into the adult world. It is a process that, ideally, guides a student along a continuum from self-doubt to self-advocacy and from dependency to self. A successful high school to college transition, the topic of this CD/ROM, must actively involve the student, parents, educators, adult service providers and the community!

Student Section

As a student with a disability, your school has provided you with unique services during your education. These services may have included specialized learning strategies, classroom or testing accommodations, or training you on assistive technology. Students who receive special education services follow a carefully designed plan called an Individualized Education Program, or IEP. Among other things, an IEP lists your strengths, special needs and services, and the providers of these services.

A team of people working together on your behalf develops your IEP This team must include your parents, teachers and a school administrator. Often other people attend, such as staff from Vocational Rehabilitation especially if they provide or will provide needed services to help you complete your education. Your IEP team meets at least once a year or more often if necessary. Your “custom-made” education plan follows you as you move from grade to grade.

During the year you turn 14, you are invited and encouraged to attend your IEP meetings. This is when transition planning begins. From that point on, your IEP must include a transition plan on how you will reach your post-high school goals and dreams as you envision them. From that point on, your IEP becomes less of an annual plan and more of a roadmap for your life over the next several years—into young adulthood.

This is why it is vitally important for you to attend your IEP meetings and play an active role. You need to be present in order to represent your preferences and needs. After all, do you want to plan your future or do you want someone else to?

If you haven’t already, there are several things you can do right now to get involved with your IEP:

Remember colleges are not under the same obligations as high schools to provide you with services based on your disability. Your college education won’t be handed to you.

If you want accommodations in college, you will have to ask for them yourself! That’s why as you prepare for college, it’s important for you to become a self-advocate. Self-advocacy is the art of speaking up for yourself and your needs. It requires self-confidence, self-knowledge and assertiveness.

Learn about your civil rights and responsibilities under Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act…know your disability and be able to describe exactly how it affects your ability to learn.

Develop independent living skills and take responsibility for your actions.

Most of all don’t be just a bystander when it comes to developing the transitional component of your IEP. Be a player!

Parent Portion

As the parent of a student with a disability wishing to pursue college, you want to do all you can to help your son or daughter make the transition from the structured environment of high school to the more demanding world of higher education.

From the time your child began receiving special education services, an Individualized Education Program, or IEP has guided their education. You have probably been an active participant on the IEP team. Once a child turns 14, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires the IEP team begin transition planning. From that point on, the IEP should begin to resemble a roadmap guiding your child’s entry into the adult world.

Once transition begins, the student is invited to IEP meetings so they may practice self-advocacy skills as they represent their own preferences, interests, needs and dreams. Since your child has chosen college as their post-high school goal, nearly every element of the transition plan should further that goal. For example, the high school course of study should ensure timely high school graduation and entry into college.

Besides the student and their parents, the IEP transition team involves the participation of teachers, counselors, administrators, adult service providers, employers, higher education personnel and others. Representatives of adult agencies, which may provide the student services while in college, can and should be invited to IEP meetings in the Junior Year.

You have a right to invite them. A smoother transition to these services will result if these providers are included in transition as early as possible.

If your son or daughter is unable to attend an IEP meeting, you can make sure their desires, goals and interests are well represented.

After all, you bring to the table a wealth of information about your child, including their medical history, insights into their behavior at home and in the community and knowledge of how their disability affects their everyday life.

Try to do everything in your power to encourage your child’s participation in IEP meetings. Preparing for meetings together offers you and your child quality time during which you can help them solidify their goals and aspirations.

Your child’s involvement in the transition process gives them practice in speaking up for themselves—a skill they will need and value as a young adult. Remember that neither their 504 plan nor IEP follow them to college.

In order to receive services and accommodations at the college level, your child must ASK for them. That’s why it is essential for your child to be able to describe their disability along with the types of accommodations and supports they need to be successful in an academic environment--information they would likely know well if they were involved in the IEP process!

In the college setting, under federal law, parents are no longer allowed automatic access to student information concerning their disabilities, accommodations or academic progress. This may be unsettling for students who are accustomed to strong parental support and intervention on their behalf. College students are treated as legal adults in charge of their own affairs.

While parents of college-age students may no longer have the same authority they once had in their children’s lives, they can still offer much-needed guidance, support and wisdom. Parents are used to being advocates for their high school children; with young adults in college the parental role changes to advisor-mentor.

Ultimately, the young adult must learn to solve his or her own problems. Parents can teach and exemplify problem-solving skills, which include information gathering and weighing options. Throughout their high school career, you should make every effort to involve your son or daughter in activities that promote independence and help them self-advocate.

The key to effective high school to college transition planning is to begin early. Here is a helpful timetable:

Educator Portion

Statistics show that more and more young adults with disabilities are attending college after high school. Hopefully this is an indication that we have found more effective ways to help students realize their true potential.

However, just because young people are getting to college doesn’t mean they are adequately equipped to succeed. Consider, for example, the following statistics:

Obviously, our high school graduates are experiencing difficulty adapting to college. And, students with disabilities face far greater challenges! In order to help students with disabilities successfully transition to college, educators need to strongly convey two key concepts:

These are but a couple of the issues surrounding the federal laws ensuring equal access to college by students with disabilities.

The best advice educators can give students and their families is to know their legal rights and responsibilities, as well as the college’s. This includes familiarizing themselves with the provisions of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

Additionally, families should be encouraged to begin dialoguing with the college’s disabilities support services office well before high school graduation.

From kindergarten through high school, students with disabilities are used to relying on their parents and school to do things for them.

Once in college, they’re very much on their own! Consequently, the skills most needed by the college freshman are those leading toward self-advocacy. Educators involved in transition can do much to nurture self-advocacy and self-determination in the high school student:

Vocational Rehabilitation may be able to contribute to these goals as well—students receiving special ed services should be referred to “voc rehab” by the spring semester of their junior year.
Most importantly, educators should remember to build on a student’s strengths.

Typically, the focus at IEP meetings has been on a student’s deficits. At team meetings, we should highlight the things they can do with or without accommodations. We can praise their accomplishments and then discuss their needs and most importantly how to work with the adverse effects of their disability.
If we truly want to help students with disabilities successfully transition to college, we have to allow them to do things for themselves, and even make mistakes when appropriate. To paraphrase a familiar quote: the most important thing parents and educators can teach young adults is how to get along without them!

Now That Your Ready For College Section

Now that you’re ready for college, here are the Top Ten questions you should be asking, along with their answers:

  • How do you receive disability services in college? You need to contact the Disability Services office on campus to begin the application process.
  • When do I need to apply for disability services? You should apply as soon as you’ve been admitted to the college so that any accommodations you may need can be arranged.
  • Do I have to inform a college that I have a disability? No. However, if you want the school to provide any academic accommodation, you must identify yourself as having a disability. You should also let them know you have a disability if you want to ensure you’ll be assigned to accessible facilities.
  • Do colleges provide IEPs? No. In college, the student is responsible for identifying themselves as individuals with disabilities, providing disability documentation and requesting accommodations.
  • Can I use my IEP or 504 plan for documentation of my disability? Although an IEP or 504 plan may help identify services that have been effective for you, it is generally NOT sufficient documentation of your disability. This is because college places different demands on you than high school. Find out from the college what documentation they require.
  • Will I receive the same services I received in high school? Maybe. High schools are required to provide whatever service, help or accommodation you need to be successful. Colleges are required to provide “equal access to education”. They provide this access by using accommodations, not necessarily services or extra help. For example, services such as word banks or reduced assignments probably wouldn’t be offered in college because they don’t provide modifications that would change educational standards.
  • Who decides what accommodations I can use in college? The Disability Services office at the college in which you are enrolled makes the final decision on accommodations. This is done after reviewing your disability documentation and visiting with you. Accommodations are based on how the disability interferes with access to the educational environment and course curriculum.
  • Do I have to pay for my accommodations? No. It’s the college’s responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations to eligible students.
  • Can I receive a failing grade for a college class in which I am receiving accommodations? Yes. Accommodations ensure “access”, not necessarily success.
  • Will the Disabilities Service Office provide services like helping me get ready for the school day? No. Services or equipment needed to assist a person with daily living activities are the responsibility of the individual.

When it comes to receiving disability services at college, know your rights! Students who know their rights and responsibilities are much better equipped to succeed.


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