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Achieving inclusion for college students with special needs

Charmaine Thaner Special Education Advocate, Consultant, Public Speaker Visions and Voices Together Visions and Voices Together

College is a goal for many students, but what about students with disabilities? Should we encourage students with significant support needs to attend college? And should we focus on a “regular,” inclusive college?

Many young adults with significant disabilities are being denied the same post-secondary education opportunities to further their education, gain independence and create life-enriching experiences that are available to thousands of other students. Instead, they are directed toward “special” (usually segregated) post-secondary opportunities on some college campuses. Consequently, parents, educators and students must learn how to successfully advocate for more inclusive college opportunities.


Do talk to your child about college opportunities

Begin discussing your child’s possibilities of attending college when he or she is young. Depending on your child’s goals, she may want to attend a 4-year college, tech/trade school or community college. Set the tone and expectation early that your child is capable of attending college after high school. Students attending college not only have higher self-esteem, but they are more likely to have better jobs, earn higher wages and need fewer supports as adults.

Do take college tours and evaluate schools for inclusiveness

Check out college websites and note when there are tours for future students. Sign up for a tour, go with your teenager on a college visit, and evaluate if the college is inclusive or not. If possible, have your child sit in on a few classes, talk to current students and get a sense of the campus culture.

Do expect learning to continue

Young adults can continue to hone their academic skills while taking a variety of classes. They can learn to navigate around campus, hang out with college friends, try a volunteer job or paid employment, explore clubs and learn how to budget for expenses. Students will mature, learn important decision-making skills and practice asking for help when needed. This will be real life-learning--and not role-playing in a transition classroom. Students with disabilities will expect more of themselves and be proud of their accomplishments, just like other students.

Do find natural supports

There are many supports that already exist on the campus, so use these first. For example, check out tutoring services, ask professors for the names of previous students who may be able to offer support, use technology that was helpful in high school, try new devices (Smartpen, laptop or iPad), ask a classmate to be a study buddy or check bulletin boards for students looking for tutoring work. Natural supports are more preferable to mentors, who are paid or earn credit to provide supports.

Do help connect your child to college activities

Developing new friendships and being involved in social activities are important aspects of college life. Remind your student to pick up the campus newspaper and check bulletin boards for announcements. Help him discover what is available at the college’s recreation center, visit the college’s Facebook page to stay connected or join a club. Be sure your student gets a student ID, so he can access all campus activities.


Do not discount the possibility of college

Post-secondary education options vary. Students can audit classes (take classes for no credit), enroll in online classes, attend classes on campus or create a combination of these choices. Your young adult also can attend college classes as part of her 18- to 21-year-old transition services. Students don’t have to be performing close to grade level to attend college. There are inclusive colleges that support students with intellectual disabilities to be successful academically and socially on campus.

Do not accept “no” for an answer

More and more colleges are beginning to admit students with significant disabilities. If you come to a roadblock, remember to be persistent, keep moving up the ladder when talking to college officials, and be prepared to explain how your child will benefit from college and how his peers also will benefit. Connect the benefits of your child attending college with the college’s vision and mission. A goal of many colleges today is to meet the needs of students and the community, strengthen community partnerships, and model the values of diversity in the campus climate and educational programs.

Do not expect college to be very structured

College will not be as structured as high school in many ways. For example, because some college professors may cancel classes or let students out early, your student must develop an alternate plan for when this happens. Additionally, some professors do not take roll and expect students to make wise choices about attending classes. Students also may be expected to do more group work outside of class, and understand how to access online class bulletin boards to stay updated on assignments and class announcements. These are all skills students can learn with the help of natural supports.

Do not go from inclusion to segregation

Research shows the benefits of inclusive education. Don’t go backwards in time and settle for separate dorms, separate classes or required life skills classes. Be cautious if you are told there is a program on campus for students with disabilities. The college should encourage students to take classes based on personal choices and preferences--and not be expected to fit into a pre-designed program and a predetermined schedule. Just as in inclusive kindergarten through 12th grade classes, students should only receive individualized supports when needed. Professors need to see all students as capable and have high expectations for them to learn.

Do not assume professors will offer curriculum modifications

Colleges are not required to make modifications to courses or assignments. However, if the student is only auditing the class (no credits), you should have a conversation with the professor about modifying assignments when necessary. Students with disabilities are entitled to accommodations in college classes. Learn about accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and/or Section 504 of the Rehab Act. Check with the college’s student disabilities office on campus to help put such accommodations in place.

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Every student--with and without disability labels--deserves the opportunity to pursue higher education. We must move away from the subtle and not-so-subtle discouragement that prevents students with significant disabilities from considering post-secondary education as a possibility.

Many students are leaving high school after having experienced the richness of inclusive education for their K-12 school years. College communities need to continue this research-based best practice of inclusion and offer all students the benefit of learning side by side their peers. This practice will lead to not only an increased respect for diversity, but also a true appreciation of each person’s value in the larger community.

More expert advice about Caring for Teens and Adults with Disabilities

Photo Credits: Sterling College Students by via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Charmaine ThanerSpecial Education Advocate, Consultant, Public Speaker Visions and Voices Together

Everything Charmaine does is because she believes life can be better. She works with and learns from parents of school-age children with disabilities by providing tools and strategies so their children receive the education they deserve. Ch...

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