College is tough for everyone, but students coping with physical or mental disabilities experience additional challenges that make getting an education harder than usual. Luckily, legislation has forced schools to make improvements over the years.
For example, part of the landmark Rehabilitation Act of 1973 established rights for those with disabilities and prompted higher education institutions to take a hard look at their environments and programs. This act paved the way for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which went even further in establishing laws requiring private entities to make public accommodations and services in an effort to prevent discrimination and promote accessibility.
Over the following decades, additional laws were added. While some colleges and universities only made minimal changes, like building a few ramps or installing powered doors, other schools have taken the issue to heart. These schools have put real thought and money into implementing progressive measures to go above and beyond.
Such devoted schools, which have demonstrated their commitment to ensuring enhanced convenience, fair accessibility, and equal opportunities, are sometimes called “disability-friendly colleges.” But what precisely qualifies a school to earn that distinction? And what does it mean specifically for students? Let’s dig in and explore before we move on to our list of Great Colleges for Students with Disabilities!
What Makes a College Disability-Friendly?
While K-12 students with disabilities benefit from protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the act doesn’t apply to post-secondary educational institutions. Colleges are instead beholden to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), in particular Titles II and III.
As the Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund defines it, Section 504 is “a civil rights law to prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability in programs and activities, public and private, that receive federal financial assistance.” Considering that the federal government gives billions to higher education institutions, those recipients are required to comply with Section 504.
ADA, meanwhile, focuses on preventing “discrimination solely on the basis of disability in employment, public services, and accommodations.” Between Section 504 and ADA, most colleges and universities are impacted — and when they take these mandates seriously and go above and beyond to implement their policies, we can say they’re disability-friendly!
How To Measure the Disability-Friendliness of a College
Title II of the ADA covers state and local government public services, applying the following rules for public entities (including “publicly-funded universities, community colleges, and vocational schools”) to adhere to:
Public schools must:
- Prohibit discrimination based on a person’s disability
- Make “programs, services and activities accessible to individuals with disabilities”
- Make “reasonable modifications to policies, practices, and procedures” to prevent discrimination
- Identify architecture that poses access obstacles
- Tailor communication strategies to meet the needs of those with hearing, vision, and speech disabilities
- Conduct self-evaluations to ensure compliance
Note, private colleges are also on the hook to comply with ADA, under Title III, which relates to “public accommodations and services operated by private entities.”
Private schools must:
- Prohibit “places of public accommodation [such as private college campuses and classrooms] from discriminating against individuals with disabilities”
- Remove physical barriers to access within existing buildings, when feasible
- Apply “standards for accessibility for alterations and new construction of commercial facilities and privately owned public accommodations”
- Make reasonable modifications to prevent discrimination when serving persons with disabilities
- Tailor communication strategies to meet the needs of those with hearing, vision, and speech disabilities
Note, the mandates listed under ADA Titles II and III are enforced by the Department of Justice. Fines can be extremely costly, up to $75,000 for a first violation. However, as you can see from the wording of the above ADA requirements, there is a fair amount of wiggle room for interpretation of some of these criteria.
For example, what is the threshold when assessing whether an accommodation or modification is reasonable or not?
Often that boils down to money, which makes that criteria subjective since larger schools have bigger budgets. A reasonable cost for Harvard to modify a facility to improve access might not be so reasonable for a local community college to do the same type of modification!
However, many accommodations, such as allowing extra time to submit assignments, don’t cost a dime and are simply a matter of choice on the schools’ part. Other free or low-cost accommodations include offering preferential seating, alternative textbook formats, alternative notetaking or testing methods, and allowing for the use of Assistive Technology.
Additional Disability-Friendly College Considerations
Students in college face far more obstacles than they did in grades K-12. They’re taking harder classes, are taught by busier professors, may no longer live at home with their parents, and may be attending school on a campus that’s vastly larger than their previous schools.
For all these reasons and more, it’s beneficial for a college to have a staffed office dedicated to providing support and assistance to students with disabilities. These staff members may include case managers and personal counselors who can assist students throughout the course of their academic journeys and through the transition to postgraduate life.
Not all students with disabilities opt to live on a college campus, but those who do need dorms suitable for their unique needs. These needs can range from automatic doors to wheelchair ramps (and applicable parking spaces) and sufficient privacy. Common room accommodations include offering ground-level housing or a lower bunk for bunk-bed situations.
Living quarters must also come with disability-friendly emergency evacuation protocols. As noted by ADA, “Building and life safety codes require that facilities provide accessible means of egress so that all people, including those with disabilities, can relocate and evacuate in a timely and safe manner.”
Many students face financial barriers that make it hard to attend college. However, most students who do not have disabilities have plenty of options to find full- or part-time work.
Students with disabilities may have a more difficult time finding suitable employment to help them pay for tuition, fees, and housing while attending college. Targeted scholarships and tuition discounts can make all the difference!
Many military and Veteran students struggle with service-connected disabilities. Sometimes these conditions force members out of the service on the grounds of medical disqualification.
The VA’s Yellow Ribbon Program partners with colleges willing to help cover the gap between what a student receives from Tuition Assistance or GI Bill benefits. The VA matches the schools’ contribution, enabling college attendance for students who might otherwise not be able to afford it. To find out if a school participates, check out the VA’s GI Bill Comparison Tool.
10 Disability-Friendly Colleges Around the Country
Below is our list highlighting popular disability-friendly colleges and universities around the nation. Please note, this isn’t your classic “top ten” ranking, and you can find many more options using the search bar on our website.
Founded in 1817, the University of Michigan is a highly ranked public research school with an incredible $12.48 billion endowment and a stunning roster of successful alumni. Its Services for Students with Disabilities office features helpful services and resources, including the new case management system Accommodate. Staff members work hard to resolve disability-related barriers and strive to “improve access to University programs, activities, and facilities” while promoting awareness around campus.
The University of Florida in Gainesville, the oldest member of the state’s university system, is widely acclaimed for its academics and public value. It’s also home to a supportive Disability Resource Center, which manages over 4,500 cases for Gators with disabilities, helping to remove obstacles and improve access across campus through proactive consulting, education, and accommodation provisions.
UC Berkeley has a long history of inclusive practices and points out that it was “one of the first campuses in the US to begin accommodating students with disabilities.” The Disabled Students’ Program, conceived of in 1962, today offers students a wide range of accommodations and services and works with the campus community at large to ensure fair and equitable treatment for all.
The University of Missouri at Columbia has a Disability Center staffed by a caring team devoted to providing equal access and opportunities to students with disabilities. From help with individual courses to “programs, services, facilities, and activities,” Mizzou’s Disability Center goals are to diminish the “effect of a disability on academic functioning” while maintaining students’ rights to confidentiality, respect, and courtesy.
Situated on 75 suburban acres in Garden City, New York, Adelphi University is a relatively small private school that has produced numerous notable alumni. In the recent past, Adelphi launched an action-based Universal Access Task Force aimed at “breaking down barriers to access inside and outside the classroom.” Meanwhile, its Student Access Office continues to be highly proactive in providing “equal access in the learning environment.”
Colorado’s University of Denver is home to a busy Disability Services Program (DSP) that aids in establishing no-cost accommodations for testing, alternate study materials, course substitutions, meal planning, housing issues, early registration, sign language, and several other services. Due to the area’s winter weather conditions, DSP’s role is especially critical for students who may need extra time getting around campus.
For nearly 200 years, Arkansas’ private University of the Ozarks has provided liberal arts education to a small but active student body averaging just 900 enrollees. Students with disabilities can take advantage of the resources at the Student Success Center (which houses Student Disability Services and the Department of Education-funded TRIO program) and the Jones Learning Center (which offers services for students with documented learning disabilities).
Featuring “the nation’s second-largest campus,” Texas Tech sprawls across 1,839 acres and has an undergraduate population of ~33,000. The school’s Student Disability Services is known as “one of the most comprehensive departments for students with disabilities in the state,” helping ~2,000 students achieve success through advocacy and engagement. There’s also a supplemental enhancement program for those with learning disabilities and a TECHniques Center offering specialized tutoring services.
Touted as a “national model for metropolitan universities,” the University of Tennessee – Chattanooga ensures access for students through its Disability Resource Center, which strives to raise disability awareness on campus. The Center makes it easy to access assistive technology and request accommodations. There’s also a campus-wide network of Disability Ambassadors and helpful related offices such as the Autism Center, Signal Centers, and Partnership for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Founded in rural Ashland in 1872, Southern Oregon University is a space-grant public university with a student population under 5,000. SOU features numerous Disability Resources on its inclusive campus, ensuring “equal access for students with disabilities to all of SOU’s great classes and programs.” The school’s listed Principles of ACCESS cover Accessibility, Communication, Confidentiality, Eligibility for Accommodations, Student Responsibility, and Support.
If you’re looking for other schools that prioritize accessibility, check out the Find Your Perfect “U” tool. You can search over 6,000 colleges and universities with 11 different filters to find the perfect school for you!
Resources for Students with Disabilities
- ADA National Network Events
- Assistive Technology Act
- Auxiliary Aids and Services for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities
- Department of Education – Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education: Know Your Rights and Responsibilities
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
- Office for Civil Rights
- Postsecondary Institutions and Students with Disabilities
- Taking a Service Animal to School
- Veterans Affairs – GI Bill Comparison Tool
Get all the Universities.com's college news, advice, updates, financial aid, and more straight to your inbox.