The College and University Life: Obtaining Disability Services and Acommodations

By Brian MacDonald, M.A. of Education* and another lawyer at the firm

You’ve finished high school and have been accepted to a college or university. Congratulations on this huge accomplishment! This is a very exciting time for you and your family. Going to college, whether locally at a community college or a university, near home or thousands of miles away, means a totally new environment with new professors, new students, new challenges, and fortunately, new resources to help you succeed inside and outside the classroom. College and university campuses are much larger than what you may be used to and the transition to college can be quite intimidating for anyone starting out, but especially so when you have special needs that may have been addressed before through your IEP or 504 plan. Now it’s going to be a different process, and there is support out there for you!

Colleges and Universities Do Not Follow IEPs

If you have an IEP in high school, the document can be informative, but your college or university does not have to follow it. Colleges and universities are not responsible for meeting the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) like high schools would be, but they do have to follow federal and state anti-discrimination laws such as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). So what does this mean for you and how do you navigate this new territory smoothly?

Understand the Law

First, you should familiarize yourself with what the law protects against and what it does not. The state and federal laws are enacted to protect you from being discriminated against based on a disability you have and to make sure you are treated equally, as other students would be treated. Know and understand your rights so you can properly advocate for your rights on campus. Here are the laws you should be familiar with as you pursue accommodations:

Rehabilitation Act of 1973

  • Section 504: Any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance such as a college, university, or postsecondary institution cannot discriminate based on disability.
  • Section 508: Federal agencies must make electronic and information technology equally accessible to people with disabilities compared to others.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

  • Title II: Public colleges, universities, and other state and local governmental entities cannot discriminate based on disability. These types of protections are meant to prevent unequal treatment, segregation or exclusion of people with disabilities, barriers to access for people with disabilities such as buildings and restrooms, and unequal access to higher education services.
  • Title III: Private entities like private colleges and universities, commercial facilities, and other places of public accommodations cannot discriminate based on disability. These entities must make reasonable modifications that give equal access to individuals with disabilities unless a fundamental alteration would result in the nature of the goods and services provided.

Unruh Civil Rights Act (California Civil Code Section 51)

  • All business establishments in California may not discriminate based on disability. This law also says if you violate the ADA, you are also violating this California law.

Disabled Persons Act (California Civil Code Section 54)

  • Individuals with disabilities or medical conditions must have equal access to streets, highways, sidewalks, walkways, public building, medical facilities, public facilities, and other public places. This law says that if you violate the ADA, you are also violating this California law.

California Government Code Section 11135

  • A program or activity that is conducted, operated, or administered by the state or by any state agency, or is funded directly by the state, or receives any state financial assistance, including the California State University, cannot deny full and equal access to the benefits of that program or activity, or discriminate, based on disability.

California Education Code Section 67302

  • Anyone that publishes or manufactures printed instructional materials for students attending the University of California, the California State University, or a California community college must provide an electronic format of the printed instructional materials at no additional cost, and provide them in a timely manner upon receipt of a written request and proof that the student purchased the printed instructional material.

California Education Code Section 67310, et. seq.

  • State-funded agencies such as California community colleges, the California State University, and the University of California must provide equal access to public postsecondary education in order to integrate persons with disabilities as much as possible.
  • Section 67311 lists examples of state funding costs associated with programs and services for students with disabilities such as reader services, interpreter services, transcription services, notetaker services, adaptive educational equipment, materials, and supplies.

Request Accommodations

Once you have been accepted into the college or university, to avail yourself of the protections of the law, you must register or apply to be a student with a disability. Typically, there will be a disability services office on campus or at least an ADA or 504 coordinator. You can begin asking questions about accommodations on campus tours, to admissions counselors who visit your area, or at your campus’s new student orientation. While initiating conversations with university staff can be intimidating at first, these staff are trained about their resources and are passionate about helping everyone transition to college life.


The next steps your college or university will want to take is to gather information about your disability and needs. This may be required, but you should gather documents that support your diagnosis or disability, such as a psycho-educational assessment report, a doctor’s letter, or an evaluation. Sometimes the college or university may require their own forms to be completed. An IEP document may help support the accommodations and services you have needed in the past in the high-school setting, but these may not necessarily apply in a higher education setting.

The college or university will also want to meet with you, the student, to review and discuss the accommodations you are requesting. Unless you are conserved by your parent or another adult, your college or university will generally prefer to speak with you directly. If your college or university determines that you are not eligible for accommodations, they will issue you a notice of their determination. If you disagree with their decision or feel that you are being discriminated against because of your disability, you may have options to further advocate for your position:

  • Internal Grievance/Appeal – check with your college or university for their internal process to formally appeal a decision or seek a mediation to resolve the issues informally.
  • Office of Civil Rights (Department of Education) – you can file a formal complaint that will be investigated to determine if your rights have been violated.
  • File a lawsuit in state or federal court.

You Are Not Alone

Understanding the process of how to seek out and obtain accommodations from your college or university is not as daunting as it seems. Your college or university will have staff available to help you. It helps to be prepared before heading to college by knowing your rights, knowing where to go for assistance, and understanding your options if you reach a disagreement or feel you have been discriminated against because of your disability. Part of the college experience is growing academically and socially, and reaching a new level of independence, including advocating for your needs. You should feel comfortable that with the right support on campus, you will have the opportunities to thrive and enjoy these next few years as a college student.

Your First 40 Days in College

Students who get off to a good start in college are more likely to graduate on time, make deep and meaningful connections to other students, faculty, and staff, get higher grades, and find a more satisfying career. You do not need to figure out everything overnight…this is a journey! However, here are a few things to consider when thinking about your first six weeks of school:

  • If you are living on campus, find your Resident Assistant (RA)! Almost every university has student leaders, faculty, and staff who live where they work. These staff are hired and trained to do one thing: support you. Many of them also have been trained to support diverse populations of students, and are familiar with campus resources you may need. Find them!
  • Most schools have a robust series of welcome programs before classes begin. These events are designed to introduce students to resources, to the campus, and to each other. If showing up to events like this are outside of your comfort zone, it’s okay – everyone is a little uncomfortable at the beginning. The more you are able to go outside your comfort zone, try new things, and meet new people, the more you are setting yourself up for success in the long run
  • Parents and families – there’s something for you too! Most campuses have vibrant and welcoming parent and family offices and parent councils. As parents, you have supported your student this far. In college, the environment is set up to move all responsibilities to the student. Student records are not openly available to parents and the bureaucracy can sometimes be a challenge. You may have a right to access student records if you obtain a power of attorney, a conservatorship, or a signed waiver of FERPA records, indicating your right to access to the student records. Check with the university’s registrar or admissions office for a possible waiver form. Parent and family groups also can help make sense of this new world, and provide a community of support.
  • Meet your professors! Introduce yourself to your professor, attend their office hours, and ask your friends if they have professors they recommend for future classes.
  • No major? No problem. Most students change their major several times in college. Having the same major from before classes begin until graduation is extremely rare. The most important thing is to be honest with yourself about what you are passionate about and to find ways to be challenged and to develop your skills. Getting involved outside the classroom in clubs or with a campus job will also help you discover what you love, what your strengths are, and will connect you to other students.

For additional information, or to schedule a consultation to discuss how we can help you navigate the college campus effectively, contact an attorney at Woodsmall Law Group at (626) 440-0028 today.

Brian MacDonald has 15 years of experience in public higher education. Throughout his career, he has specialized in leading organizational change that focuses on improving the experience for students and their families. Brian has extensive background and training in leadership development, organizational change, and building inclusive learning communities. He has presented at a variety of national education conferences, in addition to his work with the educational efforts of San Diego Comic Con. Brian possesses a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, an MA in Education from the University of Vermont, and has completed a number of trainings and certifications ranging from mental health first-aid to conflict mediation.

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