Up until now, the education system has ensured that you've received the same access to an education as students without a disability.

In fact, the law requires it. But now that you’re considering college, where regulations are different, you’ll have to be your own advocate for your needs.

Most colleges have a disability office and comply with Rehabilitation Act’s Section 504, but their resources can vary by campus. There are some schools that don’t offer disability services, and while you could get accepted, they most likely won’t be able to accommodate your needs. To make the most out of your college choice, you’ll have to do some careful research and seek out schools that will provide you with the resources and opportunities to succeed.

Assess Your Needs and Wants

Throughout your childhood, your parents have likely played a role in helping make decisions for you, but going forward, you may need to be prepared to advocate for yourself.

Linde D’Andrea, a school psychologist at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, works with her students to compile a portfolio that contains all of their post–high school needs and wants, starting with a list of basic academic requirements (e.g., areas of study, size, location, type of school, room and board, commute, extracurricular interests). She then recommends students use this list to compare it to their Individualized Education Program (IEP) since that plan covers kindergarten through 12th grade but won’t roll over to college.

“You have to determine a detailed understanding of what you need,” D’Andrea recommends. Colleges require proof of disability, and each institution will have a process for you to formerly request adjustments. “The earlier your school of choice has your request for accommodations, the better. If you need specialized learning tools, you may even have to know what classes you’ll be taking. It could take months for everything to be ready for you to start school,” D’Andrea said.

Evaluate the Disability Services and Resources

Look for schools that have a separate administration for accessibility and that have policies that are easy to access and understand. The materials they have available should leave you feeling confident about their ability to provide you with equal access.

“Your kind of disability matters a lot,” said Debby Webb, a Los Angeles, California–based school administrator and mother to Blair, a junior at UC Berkeley. Blair has cerebral palsy and difficulty being understood when she speaks. She needs assistance in class and on campus since she relies on a wheelchair. Webb cites Blair’s Internet research as the reason she successfully found the right school. If the school’s disability content isn’t clear and comprehensive, the institution may not be equipped to support you.

Once you have a shortlist of schools, contact administrators via e-mail or phone to ask preliminary questions about how they would accommodate your disability. Then, narrow your focus to places with a record of working with students whose needs are the same or close to yours.

D’Andrea also finds that many students use disability–specific social networking sites to connect with students at their favored schools. It’s a valuable way to meet peers who can share their experiences and get direct insight into the school’s support system. 

Visit Campuses to Determine the Best Fit 

To make the most informed choice, take the time to tour each campus. When Blair Webb visited schools, it wasn’t just to confirm wheelchair accessibility. An inclusive environment was important and she wanted to see how people reacted when she rolled by. Also, whether it’s a busy cafeteria or a complicated street crossing, visit places on-site for a better understanding of where there may be challenges with your needs.

Come prepared with a list of questions for when you meet with administrators. If you require tools, such as specialized technology, find out how long it will take for the adjustments to be ready. If you need an aide or volunteer assistance, ask if it’s included with your school accommodations and how it’s coordinated throughout your time on campus. It’s critical to find out if all your needs can be met before applying to the school or accepting an admissions offer.

“I can’t speak for everyone with a disability because we all have our own challenges,” Blair said, “but it’s important to be as prepared as possible. Not all schools can accommodate all disabilities, but,” she added, “we’re getting better support, and it’s making it easier to get to college.”