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If you have a disability, does it affect your grades? Data collected by the American College Health Association (2015) suggests that most students with ADHD, chronic illness, a learning disability, or one of several other diagnoses feel that their condition has negatively affected their academic performance.

In part, this is because many students who qualify for appropriate accommodations are not accessing them. For example, although most students with learning disabilities receive support in high school, in undergraduate and beyond they largely do not, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

This reflects a variety of barriers. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, some students with disabilities said they arrived at school wanting to make it on their own. Other students said they did not know what help was available or how to request it. Some were concerned about judgment and stigma. Others had encountered difficulties navigating the system at their school.

In our surveys, students commonly express regret that they waited too long to take advantage of resources. We asked students with disabilities what helped them access support. For resources, see Find out more today.

Which disabilities are most common in college?

Eleven percent of undergraduates in 2011–12 reported having a disability, according to the US Department of Education. Those numbers decrease slightly for those pursuing post-graduate degrees. Eight percent of master’s students and seven percent of doctoral students have some kind of disability, according to 2007–2008 data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Data published by the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment indicate the disabilities that are most prevalent among students.

Proportion of college students who reported any of the following:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): 7%
  • Psychiatric condition: 7%
  • Chronic illness (e.g., cancer, diabetes, autoimmune disorder): 5%
  • Learning disability: 4%
  • Deafness/hearing loss: 2%
  • Partial sightedness/blindness: 2%
  • Speech or language disorder: 1%
  • Mobility/dexterity disability: 1%
  • Other disability: 2%

Proportion of college students who felt their academics had been negatively affected by these conditions:

  • Depression: 14%
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): 5%
  • Chronic health problem or serious illness: 4%
  • Learning disability: 3%

Source: American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2015.


Reconsider your perspective

“My biggest struggle with self-advocacy was not receiving the necessary support from my school or work, but rather my own misplaced embarrassment over a learning disability. Getting over oneself is the first step in finding the assistance you need.” —First-year student in a certificate program, Durham College, Ontario

“I’m worried about being judged”

“What helped me was admitting that I had a problem that I could not conquer myself. Almost flunking out completely helped me realize this and get help.” —Second-year student, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

“I have ADHD and never wanted to be one of those students who gets extra time and help…So I’ve never gotten help that I probably need. I haven’t overcome it and it’s probably negatively affecting me.” —Third-year student, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

“Don’t worry about what anyone thinks. Everyone has something they work on, whether it be mental health, physical fitness, or learning disabilities. Nobody is the same.” —Second-year student, Rowan University, New Jersey

“When you need something from an administrator, remember that you are paying a lot of money for school services. Be sure to advocate for yourself and let that fact drive your willingness to reach out for what you need. Just be sure not to portray yourself as overly entitled or rude.” —Graduate student, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York


Get your paperwork in order

“Professional opinion: Have documentation, [a neuropsychological report], and doctors’ notes, etc., that state exactly what you need and how this will help you. Obtain an outside evaluation if necessary.” —Graduate student, Hofstra University, New York

“My cat moved in” and other paperwork tips and victories

“Making proper accommodations requires faculty to plan ahead, so it is important to communicate early and make sure you are on the same page.” —Dr. Rick Hanson, psychologist and associate vice president for Academic and Professional Success, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas

“An IEP [Individualized Education Program] does not transfer from high school to college. Students must go to Disability Services [or their equivalent office] to file paperwork.” —Amy Baldwin, director of University College, University of Central Arkansas

“I have diagnosed depression, anxiety disorder, and PTSD. I was going to counseling but still felt anxious most of the day and throughout the night. I tried to self-advocate for accommodations to have an emotional support animal. It was an irritating process, because my school did not have a policy on this. After three weeks of paperwork, my cat moved in.” —Second-year student, Indiana

“I am visually impaired, and one of my professors was supposed to provide me with a way to do an assignment. She didn’t, and when I asked, she became frustrated and angry with me. I filed a formal complaint with HR and informed the campus ombudsman. I met with the Dean of Student Affairs, I met with the Vice President of the university. I kept a paper trail of emails etc. so that I could make my case effectively. After weeks of working, we found a way to make it so I could do the assignment, though the professor continued to make it difficult. I used to love school, but the stress of that semester made me anxious and depressed.

“Even when administrators and faculty are well-intentioned, I think it’s important for colleges as well as for students that professors receive training about disability. This semester I’m going to continue talking with my college administrators and a disability advocacy organization. I’ll make clear that my advocacy is coming from a constructive place and will ultimately benefit everyone.” —Fourth-year student, Illinois


Take advantage of available support

“Professional opinion: Have documentation, [a neuropsychological report], and doctors’ notes, etc., that state exactly what you need and how this will help you. Obtain an outside evaluation if necessary.” —Graduate student, Hofstra University, New York

“Who and what helped me on campus”

“There is a critically important difference between telling your professors about your situation and actually filing with the disability services office for accommodations. Only when they receive a letter from the disability services offices are faculty supposed to make modifications or accommodations.”
—Dr. Rick Hanson, associate vice president for Academic and Professional Success, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas

Disability Services is known as Accessibility Services on some campuses.

“The university website is a valuable website, and student services [student affairs] can help guide students in the right direction if they need special accommodation. Every class I’ve ever taken [at this college] has a first class session on the section of the syllabus that has such information and where to find help if necessary.” —Second-year graduate student, University of North Dakota

“Go to the Disability Resource Center if you feel you are struggling. Do not wait until the last minute. Go to a counselor if you are overwhelmed; they are always there to help.” —Third-year undergraduate, Northern Illinois University

“Reach out to the office of students with disabilities and learn about your federal rights.” —First-year graduate student, University of California, Los Angeles

“Talk about it! Tell whoever will listen about your disability. Talking about it tends to make others uncomfortable, but I have found it increases the support you receive. I have even had friends research my disorders to help them understand them.” —Second-year student, Indiana Institute of Technology

“Communication by email helps the most as it leaves a paper trail.” —Doctoral student, Wayne State University, Michigan


Talk with your professors upfront

“Talk to your professors about your disability and how it affects you. [In my case,] there’s a lot that doesn’t necessarily merit accommodation but can still be viewed negatively. I have chronic fatigue due to my cerebral palsy, plus my CP affects my posture. So I may look like I’m not paying attention or I’m bored, but I’m still retaining the material.” —Recent graduate, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

“What I said (and should have said)”

“It can be frustrating for faculty to dedicate time and energy to modify assignments and tests only to have the student decide that they don’t want to use the accommodation (which is their right). If you don’t plan to use an accommodation make sure you communicate with your faculty. It will help your relationship with them in the long run.” —Dr. Rick Hanson, associate vice president for Academic and Professional Success, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas

“Don’t be afraid to ask for alternate assignments if you need to—before you turn in a weak piece of work. I always fooled myself into thinking ‘Oh, I can do this, my motor/perceptual impairment isn’t that bad!’ And then my professor would fail me and we’d do the whole song and dance as to why I physically can’t do those things.” —Recent graduate, Kutztown University of Pennsylvania

“I explain to teachers at the start of the semester that I struggle with depression and anxiety, and that there is a chance that it may affect my academic performance at some point in the future. So if something comes up they are not surprised.” —Third-year student, Humboldt State University, California


Keep asking—if necessary, go to the dean

“When I found out I had epilepsy I was able to get accommodations, but my professors were not very willing to use them. I had to miss a test due to being in the hospital and the professor would not let me make it up. He wouldn’t budge so I had to go to the Dean of Sciences and have him talk to the professor.” —First-year graduate student, Louisiana

“How persistence pays off”

“I supervise disability services. If there are instances of colleges not complying with the law, it is certainly unintentional. The law continues to evolve and we consult with campus legal counsel more quickly now than in the past, to ensure that we are appropriately meeting students’ needs.” —Dr. Rick Hanson, associate vice president for Academic and Professional Success, MidAmerica Nazarene University, Kansas

“As an orientation leader, I took responsibility to help a visually impaired woman get around. She told me that Housing was going to put her on the second floor of the residence hall. Her family didn’t want her up there. I was so passionate about getting her on the first floor that I contacted Disability Services and Housing to try to get her moved. We faced many challenges to prove that for her disability it would be best if she lived on the first floor. After a month or so, her family and I finally had her room changed to the first floor.” —Third-year student, Illinois

“Don’t give up, no matter what. If you need to, go above and beyond to show that you deserve respect and to be treated equally. If they do not listen, you may need to go above that person to a higher individual.” —First-year graduate student, University of New Orleans, Louisiana

“Disability law is complex. Students can reach out to disability advocacy organizations to understand their legal rights. If you encounter gaps in your school’s policies, this is likely unintentional; you can work constructively with your administration to address them.” —Recent graduate, Massachusetts

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