What Are College Disability Services?

Part of a good college experience for students with disabilities is to have the supports they need in place for when they begin classes. A key step toward this is to understand who they must speak with at their college to arrange for accommodations and other supportive services. Most colleges have a “disability office,” althought its title might vary across colleges. Some schools call it “student services” or by other names, but the key action here is to identify what office receives requests for accommodations and otherwise arranges for specialized supports.

The role of college level disability services can be very different from what students and parents have grown accustomed to in high school. Disability offices and directors are generally not learning support teachers that meet with the students to directly help them with their school work. The directors at a college disability office are typically administrators who essentially act as case managers. They receive requests for accommodations, review the student’s documentation, approve accommodations, and arrange for professors to be notified that the student has been approved for special considerations. There can a great deal of variability between the size of disability departments and the role of disability directors at colleges. Some may actually have a counseling background, and will want the student to stop by and “check in” with them so they can make sure that they are doing all right. At very small colleges, some directors may play a dual-role and offer some level of direct student help. In general, parents and students should expect college disability departments to be administrative in nature, and not to offer direct interventions to students. Disability departments can serve an important coordination function for services like tutoring or setting appointments at the health center for medication management visits, and may even give the student priority over others in some instances.

College level disability services are initiated and used 100% by the student. Disability offices typically do not proactively seek out students who are having problems, and may not even be alerted to the fact that a student is failing by faculty. College professors are not generally required to notify disability services if a student is not attending class, failing, or if they are otherwise not successful. I’ve worked with some colleges that do have “early warning” systems or whose professors will communicate more than most with the disability staff, but this isn’t the norm. It is up to the student to ask for help from the disability services office when needed, since colleges expect the student to assume responsibility over their education, disability or not. In college, a student is expected to ask for help, and invariably the first question a college will ask if the student did poorly is “why didn’t the student come to us?”

For students with disabilities, understanding how to gain access to disability services is a key step for a successful transition to college. Students with disabilities are expected to be proactive in seeking help from colleges for the supports they need to accommodate their disability, as well as for making any changes in that help. College disability directors are usually administrators that serve an important case managent function, but are not learning support teachers like the student may have had in high school. College disability offices can help a student arrange for what they need, but it is ultimately up to the student to secure and use those supports while on campus.