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How to Get Assistive Technology in College

Many students with learning disabilities rely on assistive technology (AT) to help improve functional abilities, and these tools have to be left behind at the school once students graduate, making the transition into college a challenge. Here is information on the laws that apply and what you should know to ensure you send your child off to campus in full preparation.

assistive learning in college for students with learning disabilities

Are you a high school student who uses assistive technology (AT) in school as a way of compensating for your learning disability? Do you have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that requires your school to provide you with a personal talking word processor, an electronic keyboard, or other useful devices to help you stay organized and complete work assignments? If so, beware! Once you graduate from high school, you will most likely need to leave behind any AT equipment your school provided.

Will you be able to arrange to use these same or similar resources in college? Might you need or want new or different AT tools? Is it the college's responsibility to provide and pay for your AT devices, or will you have to buy your own? As you prepare for college, it's important that you know your rights and options regarding accommodations, including assistive technology devices, as a student with a learning disability and/or AD/HD. In college, you'll be responsible to advocate for your needs and to take initiative to obtain accommodations.

Assistive Technology Defined - A Refresher

Assistive technology is defined as any item, piece of equipment, or product that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional abilities of people with disabilities. In other words, assistive technology is a term used to describe a device that helps you learn.

Assistive technology can range from a simple low-tech device, such as a tape recorder, to a high-tech device, such as a talking calculator. Some other examples of assistive technologies include screen readers that read aloud Internet articles and electronic text documents (even PDF files) posted by your professors, or Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) that can help you organize your daily activities and assignments.

The Laws: What Changes after High School?

Understanding how your rights to assistive technology as a college student differ from those that you had as a high school student will help you make the most of your postsecondary experience. Once you are familiar with the laws regarding AT in college, and what types of questions to ask, you can become your own assistive technology advocate.

If you received special education services while in high school, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was the law that provided you free instructional and support services (possibly including assistive technology tools) through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IDEA allows students to receive services until they graduate high school or, as older high school students, up through age 21.

Once you're in college, the Americans with Disabilities Act (the most recent version is the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act or ADAAA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act take over. These civil rights laws mandate that colleges provide access to accommodations to all "otherwise qualified" students and afford them an "equal opportunity" in the institution's programs, activities, and services. But what does that mean in terms of getting or using that talking word processor or other AT devices you used during your time in high school? 

Remember: Whether you already own and use a particular AT tool, or if you want your college to provide and pay for it, you may still need to qualify under the law in order to use the technology in college.

How the ADAAA and Section 504 Apply to Accommodations in College

Documentation and Identification

  • Students must self-identify as having a disability in order to receive accommodations. By law, once you graduate from high school, your parents are no longer allowed to advocate on your behalf, nor is the college required to be proactive in offering accommodations. (Note: The term often used to self-identify an LD is to "disclose.")

  • Students must present documentation of their disability. Requirements differ among schools, but are likely to include a recent evaluation (no older than 3 years), a current IEP or Section 504 plan, and a Summary of Performance (SOP). This documentation provides an overview of a student's academic achievement and performance at the end of his or her high school career. During your senior year in high school, your IEP team is required to provide you with a Summary of Performance, but it is not obligated to update your evaluation so that it includes the specific types of documentation that are often required by colleges to access disability support services.

  • If the college requires a more updated evaluation, find a well-qualified professional who can do the right kind of testing (not more than is needed, not less than is required by the school) at a reasonable cost. Every college has different requirements, so ask them lots of questions and start gathering this information as soon as you can. A letter from a medical provider and a summary of prior test scores might suffice for one college, while an entirely new evaluation that includes scores from adult learning scales might be required by another.

Determining Services

  • Requested accommodations must be "reasonable."

  • A university is not required to provide academic adjustments or additional aids and services if doing so:

    • gives students an unfair advantage;

    • requires significant alterations to the program or activity;

    • results in the lowering of academic or technical standards;

    • or causes the college to incur undue financial hardship.

Providing Auxiliary Aids

  • Students may request auxiliary aids and services such as assistive listening systems, audio recordings, recorders in classrooms, taped text, computer-aided transcription services, etc.

  • Colleges must give students "primary consideration" for the accommodations they request. If colleges can provide an "effective" alternative, they do not need to fulfill the student's exact request. (This means that your college can provide you with a different technology device than the one you request and still be in compliance with the law.)

  • Unlike what happens during the high school years, colleges are not required to provide personal devices and services such as personal readers. These services, however, may be available through the student services center for a fee.

Procedural Safeguards

  • If you aren't satisfied with the accommodations the college is willing to provide, you'll first need to file a complaint according to the college's grievance procedures for students. If you're still dissatisfied after using the school's grievance procedure process, you may file a discrimination complaint against the school with the federal Office of Civil Rights(OCR).

  • Colleges must have a Section 504 compliance officer and public institutions must have an ADAAA compliance officer. Each of these different types of post-secondary settings is required to conduct a self-evaluation to determine their compliance with the ADAAA.

Questions to Ask Colleges about Assistive Technology

If you rely on AT devices for learning, make sure you share information about the types of support you've used and found to be helpful, and explore what types of assistive technology different schools offer. You'll also need to find out each college's criteria and application process for the right to use AT accommodations due to your LD.

It's important to ask the college's disability services office specific questions that address the availability and accessibility of different types of AT resources on campus. For example, what documentation does the college require before granting you permission to use AT? And how will you coordinate your use of AT with your professors and disability services staff? Download our checklist of questions about AT and refer to it when talking to staff at the disability services center on campus. 

Also try to seek out students on campus who have learning disabilities to get an insider's perspective on a school's assistive technology programs and policies.

As you interview colleges about their assistive technology programs and advocate for your individual needs, you'll become more confident in your abilities - and you may even broaden your horizons as you access new and different AT devices.

Reposted with permission from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.


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