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Supporting students with disabilities in higher education

Planning for post-secondary education for students with various disabilities raises complex questions about how to best prepare for next steps, but so much is possible. Stephanie Martin dispels three common myths.


Navigating the world of post-secondary education falls under the complex umbrella of Transition. We all experience transition at some point, and no one is exempt from its learning curves and the wealth of knowledge to be gained. For students with disabilities, the process of transitioning from secondary school to college or a career is one that is exciting and uncertain at the same time.

It can be difficult for students and parents to navigate the multitude of options, while keeping the student’s best interests and long-term goals at the forefront. I hope to explain some common myths that surround the transition process for students with disabilities and shed some light on how these students can find their own unique path after high school.


Myth 1: Independence is an all or nothing concept.

Reality: It can be difficult to anticipate how much help a child with a disability might need, but most parents expect to have ongoing engagement in their son or daughter’s adult life. Most teens (and older) eagerly await the time when they can start taking control of their own decisions and living independently. To manage this, there must be a balance of independence and support, tailored around the unique needs of each individual.

Fortunately, there are more available supports than ever for young adults with disabilities to be successful. To begin, identify the areas of their life in which they might need support, and who could provide those types of support. For example, if a student is not independent in paying bills or money matters, can he or she set-up automatic bill pay and work with a family member or professional on balancing their budget on a regular basis? If the student needs to take medication each day, what systems or plans can be put in place to set him or her up for success?

The truth is no one operates solely on their own, since we all have a network of family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and even paid professionals who assist us with our needs on an ongoing basis. A student with a disability can still be independent and effective, if he or she understands what kind of help they need and where that help can be found.

Myth 2:  Meaningful post-secondary educational programs can only be found in universities.

Reality: A primary goal of higher education institutions should ultimately be to provide a supportive, meaningful and stimulating educational environment. While a university setting is suitable for some students, others may find more success exploring higher education institutions such as community colleges (sometimes known in the US as junior colleges), trade schools or private programs that allow for greater flexibility and focus upon individual needs. These alternatives can also provide an opportunity to simply test the waters of higher education without a large financial commitment or the high-stakes pressure of a four-year university course.

At College Living Experience, we frequently suggest students pursuing an academic path at their college of choice initially take one core curriculum class alongside a high-interest or recreational class. Students can gradually increase their workload as appropriate and explore courses that meet their goals for a specific degree or certificate.

If they have their goals set on pursuing a degree from a four-year university then transfer support services can assist students with meeting the educational requirements of that university. We see many students use our support services for the first two years of college as they work to gain the skills necessary to be successful independently at a four-year university.

Myth 3: Students fully understand their disability and its impact within their pursuit of higher education.

Reality: While many students have been a part of a disability community, consider asking, “Has the student been given the opportunity to manage the responsibility of communicating their needs independently?”

A need to develop awareness of one’s strengths and areas for improvement is evolutionary in nature and changes depending on the setting. In a comfortable and familiar community, such as their high school classroom, a student may be able to communicate with a teacher about their needs. Looking ahead to higher education though, a student will need to discuss their learning styles and accommodations and seek help from professors, administrators and many other professionals. Independently accessing the disability support staff will also be important for students needing to navigate proper support.

Starting as early as possible, students should begin communicating their needs independently. It’s also important they receive support in honestly reflecting upon their learning style(s) while also being part of any educational planning meetings. Each of these strategies focuses on building awareness and problem solving through a team approach. It’s this awareness that ultimately will assist in student advocacy and self-determination serving them in higher education and beyond.

Enriching experience

Transitioning from secondary school to a post-secondary environment can be motivating, positive and enriching for students with disabilities.

With the right tools and preparation, each student can find his or her own unique path to success in higher education and adulthood.



Stephanie Martin

Stephanie Martin is President of College Living Experience. College Living Experience is a post-secondary support program, with six locations throughout the United States, which assists young adults with disabilities in their transition to independence.

The four domains of support are Academics, Independent Living Skills, Social Skills, and Career Development. Stephanie has spent her career working with students with varying disabilities of all ages. 

For more about the work of College Living Experience, see or email the CLE team at

Feature Image: Pixabay, the free image collection.


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