Disabilities 101: What Every New Student Affairs Professional Needs to Know | Courtney McGonagle

Many new Student Affairs professionals do not have extensive experience working with students with disabilities or how to provide appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities. Approximately 11 percent of college students have disabilities (United States Department of Education [USDOE], 2016), and while 94 percent of high school students with learning disabilities seek and receive appropriate accommodations, only 17 percent of college students seek accommodations (Krupnick, 2014, para. 10). In addition, “Learning disabled students are far more likely than others to drop out of four-year colleges” (Krupnick, 2014, para. 13). The eight-year graduation rate is 22% lower for students with learning disabilities (Krupnick, 2014). Given these statistics, it is important for Student Affairs professionals to increase their awareness of disabilities. The purpose of this article is to define student disabilities, explain how accommodations for students with disabilities work, and to provide specific tips for working with students with disabilities.

Written by Courtney McGonagle.

Defining Disabilities

Disability is defined as, “A condition that limits a person’s physical or mental abilities” (Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary, n.d.). However, it is also important to remember that disability is defined differently under the Americans with Disabilities Act, known as the ADA. Under the ADA, disability is defined as, “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity” (ADA National Network, n.d., para. 2). The ADA protects individuals with both visible and invisible disabilities.

How to Refer Students to the Disability Services Office

            Students often fear notifying professors or professional staff about their disability. Often, students do not want to self-identify as having a disability, so please do not expect students to volunteer this information right away. In fact, some students may choose not to disclose their disability, preferring to keep this information confidential. Each student can choose whether to register with the campus Disability Services Office. As a student affairs professional, if you see a student struggling with classes, breach the subject carefully by asking the student how obtaining assistance may help them perform better. For example, if a student keeps running out of time on exams, let the student know about the possibility of getting tested in the disability services office which may result in affording them extra time to take exams.  This may make students realize the ways in which services, such as testing accommodations, can help them. This avoids simply telling students they merely “Aren’t good at a specific subject.” Refer students to the disability office, the website address, and/or help them contact the department for an appointment to learn more about the services that are offered.

How to Handle Students Who Have Received Accommodations?

After a student has gone to the disabilities services office and received accommodations for their disability, you may receive a Letter of Notification from the office stating a student’s specific accommodations. Read the letter carefully to ensure that you understand the accommodations that the student is entitled to receive. If you have any questions about the Letter of Notification or are unsure of the best way to accommodate the student, please contact the disabilities services office for assistance. Once a Letter of Notification is received, do not just sign it. The best approach is to contact the student (in person or via email) letting them know that you would like to meet with them individually. This allows professionals and students to be on the same page as far as accommodations go. This way, the student is being properly accommodated, which avoids potential problems in the future. This also makes students feel as though you want to help them, which potentially could improve their overall performance.


            Given the increasing numbers of students with disabilities, it is important for student affairs professionals to understand that disability is so much more than what a student “cannot do.” Students with disabilities are often hardworking, dedicated, and compelled to make themselves succeed. Additionally, they are protected under laws such as the ADA, which grants them access to an equal education. Therefore, as professionals, seek to understand students, research the laws that protect them, and engage student in dialogues about the disability services that are available on campus.




ADA National Network (n.d.). What is the definition of disability under the ADA? Retrieved from  https://adata.org/faq/what-definition-disability-under-ada

Disability. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster learner’s dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disability

Krupnick, M. (2014, February 13). Colleges respond to growing ranks of disabled students, The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/colleges-respond-to-growing-ranks-of-learning-disabled/

United States Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2016). Fast facts: Students with disabilities. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60


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