Removing Barriers for Students With Disabilities

A bill supported by Democrats and Republicans would eliminate the costs and burdens that students with disabilities face in accessing college accommodations.

August 26, 2021
 
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Students with disabilities often need accommodations to be successful in college, advocates say.

A bipartisan, bicameral bill introduced last month contains a proposal for a simple policy change that would make a considerable difference in how students with disabilities access postsecondary education.

The Respond, Innovate, Succeed and Empower Act, or RISE Act, would allow students with a disability to use documentation from their secondary education as proof that they have a disability and need accommodations while attending a college or university. It would also authorize an additional $10 million in funding for a resource center to provide students and families with information on college disability services and professional development for professors about disability.

The bill is led in the Senate by Senators Bob Casey, the Democrat from Pennsylvania, and Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, and in the House by Representatives Suzanne Bonamici, a Democrat from Oregon, and Larry Bucshon, a Republican from Indiana.

“No student with a documented disability should have to jump through extra hoops or incur extra costs to access the services and support that they need to thrive,” Casey said in a release. “All students deserve the opportunity to realize their full potential.”

Students with a disability typically have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan during their K-12 education to provide them with the supports and services they need. But colleges often don’t accept that documentation as proof that a student has a disability and needs accommodations during their postsecondary education, said Lindsay Jones, president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

Institutions may require that a student has had an evaluation establishing their disability within three to five years of enrolling. But re-evaluations aren’t required when a student reaches high school, so many students have evaluations that are older than five years. And those evaluations come at a high cost -- they’re usually done by a psychologist or psychiatrist and aren’t typically covered by insurance, so the price tag for them can be as high as $7,000, which students and their families have to pay for.

“When you’re a student already facing the cost of college, having to re-prove again at this great cost that you have a disability is extremely burdensome to you and your family,” Jones said. “If you have a disability, you will have that disability forever. It’s psychologically very traumatic to have to consistently prove that you have it, and there’s an element of, ‘Why don’t people believe it?’”

As a result, many students with disabilities often forgo receiving accommodations in college, which can be a detriment to their education, said Jones. Data from NCLD has shown that 94 percent of students with a learning disability received accommodations in high school, but only 17 percent received accommodations in college. And 43 percent of students who didn’t receive accommodations in college said they wished they had, according to the National Longitudinal Transition Study.

“The difference between having accommodations and not having accommodations would scare me enough that I probably wouldn’t be here,” said Madison Saunders, a student at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Okla.

Saunders has dyslexia and dysgraphia, learning disabilities that make it difficult for her to read and write. While her peers were focused on finding the perfect location and the academic programs that interested them most during their college searches, Saunders had additional things to consider -- what accommodations would be available? Would her college believe that she had a disability? Would she have to get re-evaluated, and what would that process look like?

The office of disability services at Southeastern told Saunders that all she needed was her 504 plan -- which was older than five years -- and diagnostic information to receive accommodations. She said she nearly cried when she found out.

But Saunders’s career goal is to investigate plane crashes, which she knows she’ll need a master’s degree to do. And she’s already thinking about the process she’ll have to undergo to find the right college and get the accommodations she needs.

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“I want the RISE Act to pass before I go in for my master’s because it would provide resources to professors and give people like me the ability to get the master’s of their dreams, because they’ve been waiting,” Saunders said.

The RISE Act would most likely be included in a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, and it’s unclear when Congress will take up that task. During his campaign, President Biden said he would direct the Department of Education to issue guidance “to all postsecondary programs to accept the accommodations students with disabilities have used in pre-K-12 settings for postsecondary settings.” And while Jones hopes the department takes that action, she feels the legislation is also necessary.

“Although it may seem like just a simple change in policy or a new law, to us, it would make a world of difference,” Saunders said.

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