Candace Joles, Adult Topics Committee Co-Chair

Throughout the K-12 education of a student with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), s/he is under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) federal law with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which ceases to exist as soon as the student exits high school. However, if a student with LD and/or AD/HD does not qualify for an IEP, a 504 Plan (under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) may be initiated in the K-12 system. A 504 Plan follows the person throughout his/her life (i.e., postsecondary and work). See the Understood website for additional information at

Transitioning to a postsecondary institution includes a change in the federal law from IDEA to the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), which brings a new set of rules with which students with disabilities (SWD) and their parents are often unfamiliar.  First, classroom modifications, such as eliminating several answers on multiple choice questions or reducing the course requirements, will not follow the student to postsecondary education.  At the postsecondary level an academic program (e.g., nursing, law enforcement, special education) may not be altered because postsecondary institutions are not required to lower academic standards to accommodate a SWD. For information about this, you may visit the Office of Civil Rights website at  Another extremely important difference regards self-advocacy.

During K-12 education, the school and its staff are charged with child find and providing accommodations. However, transitioning to postsecondary education, the student must now self-advocate, which is often a new skill for the SWD. Self-advocacy skills would be a good goal to put into a Transition Plan. Role-playing various scenarios, such as speaking with a difficult professor, asserting oneself with a roommate, or advocating for accommodations with the institution’s Disability Service Office, would all be good scenarios to practice. Part of being able to self-advocate to the Disability Services Office includes the ability to express strengths and weaknesses, as well as the accommodations or strategies that have been successfully utilized in the past and those that did not work. Utilizing “I” statements, communicating only the facts, and noticing nonverbal communication will all assist the SWD with effectively and appropriately expressing his/her needs. This ability to self-advocate will benefit the SWD when negotiating accommodations at the postsecondary institution. Sometimes SWD feel a stigma related to going to the resource room at high school because they may feel that they are being ridiculed, which can cause them to choose not to self-advocate and request accommodations at the postsecondary institution. This stigma does not carry forward to postsecondary education because many nondisabled peers do not realize why students are not in class taking an exam (e.g., may have chosen to not come to class that day). Therefore, the SWD can feel more comfortable advocating for and utilizing accommodations at the postsecondary institution in order to demonstrate to their fullest extent possible the learned material.

While every postsecondary institution that receives federal funding is required to have an Office of Disability Services, many institutions have additional support for SWD. These services vary in terms of the provided services and the cost. Some institutions’ Office of Disability Services may provide more services than just writing a letter for professors with classroom accommodations such as assistive technology or testing accommodations. Additional services may be provided through the federal government’s TRIO grants, which support many two- and four-year colleges throughout the United States as Student Support Services (SSS) programs. The SSS programs focus on tutoring, retention, good academic standing, and graduating. The SSS programs are free for SWD due to being funded through the federal government.  See the link to determine which colleges house SSS programs However, these programs have a limited number of spaces, and a separate application and selection process than the institution; therefore, early application is recommended.

In addition, intensive fee-based programs are available for SWD and often have a limited number of students that may be served, as well as a separate application process. These fee-based services range in price as well as services. Some of these services may include testing accommodations, coaching/mentoring, intensive executive function strategies, social skills instruction, daily sessions with mentors, and foster independent living. Some of the fee-based programs have special courses and tutoring for their participants. These programs are diverse and provide a wide range of services varying from program to program. One suggestion is to visit the various programs and shadow a current student. Then complete a pro/con sheet of each institution and program so that the SWD has a record to help them find the “right fit.” There are many resources that can assist the SWD with this process, such as

Lastly, participation in a summer bridge program, freshman year orientation program, or learning community can benefit SWD in a number of ways. Summer bridge programs usually span the gap between when the SWD exits high school and begins at the postsecondary institution. These programs allow the SWD to live on campus while they complete coursework. The summer bridge programs give the SWD time to transition to the more complex and unpredictable nature of life on campus by providing examples of variable daily schedules, how courses are selected, what the expectations are and what resources are available on campus (University of Washington). The summer bridge allows SWD to become acquainted with the campus and postsecondary life and procedures while the campus has less students in attendance, as well as adjusting to living in a residence hall away from home.

Freshman year orientation programs allow students many opportunities which include  advising, creation of a social group, and assistance with orienting SWD to campus life. The students can be advised into appropriate classes and will learn how to stay on track with their degree plan. SWD can meet nondisabled and disabled peers that are in the program with them, which can help prevent feelings of isolation that can sometimes occur. These programs can be beneficial in assisting SWD who are unfamiliar with campus life and culture. The students can learn prosocial academic behavior and how the university processes work (Fowler & Boylan, 2010).

The opportunities provided through learning communities include increased engagement in courses and a sense of attachment and engagement with the university. Being engaged in the coursework allows a sense of commitment to the program and the community, which can allow students with opportunities to provide practical examples of their work. These opportunities can lead to more engagement in the program which makes students feel more at home and committed to the university (Tinto, 2012). SWD need to feel a sense of belonging and become engaged in campus activities in order to increase the likelihood of success at the postsecondary institution. Each postsecondary institution provides various services; however, it is up to the student with LD and/or AD/HD to find an institution and/or specialized program that is the “right fit” for him/her. These intensive programs offer additional supports that will benefit the college students with LD and/or AD/HD to demonstrate their knowledge to the utmost of their ability.




Goldhammer, R. & Brinckerhoff, L. C. (1993). Self-advocacy for college students. LD Online from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Fowler, P. R. & Boylan, H. R. (2010). Increasing student success and retention: A multidimensional approach. Journal of Developmental Education, 34 (2), pp.2-4, 6, 8-10 Retrieved from

Kravets, M., & Wax, I. F. (2016). The Princeton Review: The K&W guide to colleges for students with learning differences: 353 schools with programs or services for students with ADHD, ASD, or learning disabilities. 13th Edition. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Student Support Services Program. U.S. Department of Education

Tinto, V. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

University of Washington. Disability Resources for Students.



Wrightslaw. Self-advocacy.

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