The Big List: Resources for Grad Students with Disabilities

Graduate students with disabilities may need extra support navigating grad school online, but with the right tools and resources they can find success. This list of resources is a great place to start for students with a variety of disabilities.

When a student with a disability starts an online graduate degree or certificate program, it’s possible they may face more challenges than their peers. But with the right tools and resources, they can find success. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, nearly 12% of all grad students in the U.S. reported having some form of disability. Grad students with disabilities often require extra support from their schools and others. Fortunately, colleges and universities are getting better and better at providing grad students with the services, tools, and technologies they need to succeed.

This guide lays out our big list of great resources for students with a variety of disabilities. You’ll also find lots of useful information on the rights of students with special needs and the wide range of services provided by colleges and universities to meet those needs. We’ve also included an interview with a college disabilities services expert offering insight into how online grad students can make the most of the services provided by their online school and program.

Disability Rights and Grad Student Support

Federal disability laws are at the root of all services and accommodations for graduate students with disabilities. Keep reading for an overview of these foundational laws, which help students with disabilities overcome the challenges they face in both online and face-to-face education settings and ensure equal opportunity for all students. We’ve also included a brief look at some of the support services related to these laws that graduate students with disabilities can tap into.

Section 504

You may have heard of Section 504 but may not know exactly what it is. Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law that actually went into effect in 1977 after a disability rights sit-in. Generally speaking, Section 504 prohibits discrimination by any program or activity receiving federal funding against a qualified person with a disability. In terms of postsecondary education, Section 504 prohibits schools from:

  • Making inquiries about a student’s disabilities prior to admission.
  • Limiting the number of disabled students it admits.
  • Excluding a student from any course of study because of their disability.
  • Advising a student toward a more restrictive career because of their disability unless that advice is based on professional certification or licensing requirements.

Section 504 also requires colleges and universities to provide appropriate academic adjustments for students with disabilities to protect against discrimination. These adjustments are typically called “reasonable accommodations” (discussed below).

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Expanding on many of the concepts of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against individuals on the basis of their disabilities in all areas of public life. This includes employment, transportation, telecommunications, accommodations in public spaces, government services, and education. Title II of the ADA prohibits disability discrimination by all public entities including public colleges and universities. Title III prohibits disability discrimination by private postsecondary institutions except for those controlled by religious entities. However, private colleges controlled by a religious entity receiving any type of federal funding, including financial aid for its students, are prohibited from discriminating against students with disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Reasonable Accommodations

Under Section 504 and the ADA, postsecondary institutions are required to provide what are commonly referred to as “reasonable accommodations” to students with disabilities to prevent discrimination. These accommodations are tailored to meet a student’s unique needs. For online students these accommodations may include:

  • Adjusted class schedules.
  • Extended time to complete assignments, exams, and programs.
  • Asynchronous access to synchronous class sessions, discussion groups, etc.
  • Accessible course documents (articles, textbooks, etc.)
  • Closed captioning for video and transcribed audio.
  • Descriptive links.
  • Hierarchical headings for content structure.
  • Distraction-reduced testing.
  • Note-taking assistance.
  • Behavior management support.

Disability Disclosure and Documentation

Under Section 504 and the ADA, grad students intending to avail themselves of their school’s services or accommodations for disabilities are required to provide documentation of their disabilities. Documentation requirements vary from school to school; be sure you have a clear understanding of the specific requirements for your school and provide the required documentation early enough to allow for the accommodations you need.

Assistive Technology Act

The Assistive Technology Act, reauthorized in 2004, is a federal law that provides awareness of and access to assistive technologies to people with disabilities, allowing them to more fully participate in employment, education (at all levels), and other activities. This is accomplished by providing federal funding to a network of state assistive technology (AT) programs. All state residents with disabilities have access to the services of their state’s AT program, including both traditional and online grad students. Typical services include one-on-one assessments leading to AT device and services recommendations, aid in funding the purchase of AT devices, AT device loan banks, device demonstrations and training, and more.

Contact your state’s program or speak with someone at your school’s disability resource center for more information on Assistive Technology Act benefits.

Disability Resource Centers

At the heart of almost every postsecondary school’s disability services program is its disability resource center (DRC). A college’s DRC is responsible for overseeing the provision of all accommodations for students with disabilities, both on campus and online. Most likely this is where you will register for the accommodations you need. Your school’s DRC also will act as your primary contact for disability services throughout your graduate studies. Contact information for your school’s DRC (which may have a slightly different name, such as Accessibility Resources or Student Disability Services) can usually be found by visiting the DRC page on your college’s website.

The Big List: Grad Student Disability Resources

Disability resources are what this guide is all about, and for good reason. It’s practically impossible to overstate their importance to the success of students with disabilities in their online graduate programs. It’s also important to understand that the specific resources needed for those students depend on their particular disabilities. Keep reading to find several of the disabilities most common to grad students and helpful resources for each.

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Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are both terms used to describe a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by heightened levels of inattention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity. The term ADD is considered outdated, with ADHD the more appropriate term for the disorder today. Most often diagnosed in childhood, ADHD is a lifelong condition. Common services and accommodations provided to online college students with ADHD include assistance with program applications, extended time to complete assignments and exams, note-taking assistance, tutorial assistance, self-paced courses, and additional one-on-one instruction.


Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a neurological and developmental disorder affecting how a person behaves, communicates, learns, and interacts. The two major characteristics of individuals with ASD are restrictive and repetitive interests and behaviors (such as flapping their hands or lining up objects) and social and communication interaction challenges (such as delayed language skills, auditory processing issues, or understanding nonverbal communication). Online grad students on the autism spectrum will most likely have experience with online learning but may need assistance with mastering the use of computers and other equipment and programs or apps such as Canvas and Zoom. ASD online students also benefit greatly from having a quiet and undisturbed workspace dedicated to college work and study.


Chronic Health Disabilities

The terms “chronic health disabilities” and “chronic health diseases” encompass a wide range of health conditions lasting one year or more and limiting a person’s activities and/or requiring medical attention on a daily basis. These include AIDS, cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis, sickle cell anemia, and many others. Students with chronic health conditions often require ongoing services or accommodations to progress through their studies. Specific services and accommodations vary substantially depending on the chronic condition and its severity. Accommodations may include waiving penalties for late assignments and waiving attendance requirements.


Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive disabilities involve impaired intellectual functioning (learning, judgment, problem solving) and adaptive functioning (communication skills, social skills, performance of common daily tasks such as eating and dressing). Common causes of cognitive disabilities include complications during pregnancy such as hypoxia, premature birth, low weight at the time of birth, and traumatic brain injury. Memory is often impacted, requiring accommodations such as the use of mnemonics, flash cards, and unlabeled diagrams and flow charts. Providing more time for completion of assignments and exams and giving oral exams instead of written ones are also typical accommodations.


Deaf or Hard-of-Hearing

Hearing impairment refers to any level of impairment, whether it’s permanent or temporary. This includes those with minimal issues (hard of hearing) and those with hearing loss above 90 decibels (deafness). Hearing impairment is one of the most common disabilities, with an estimated 15% of all adults in the U.S. suffering some level of hearing loss. It’s also one with a tremendous range of technologies available to help. Accommodations for online students include assistive listening systems, speech-to-text software, captioned media, testing accommodations (sign language interpreters, scribe services, extended times for completion), and note-taking assistance.


General Disability Resources

The resources below include organizations, support services, technologies, and more that are applicable to online grad students with disabilities of any kind.


Learning Disabilities

The resources below include organizations, support services, technologies, and more that are applicable to online grad students with disabilities of any kind.


Mental Disabilities

The mental or psychiatric disabilities category encompasses a variety of conditions and levels of severity. Conditions include, among others, severe depression, general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometime mental disabilities are obvious to others, but other times these disabilities don’t include outwardly noticeable behavior, making them difficult to treat or support. Common accommodations for online grad students may include alternative testing requirements, adjusted attendance requirements and course substitutions, and assistive technologies such as time management and augmentative and alternative communication tools.


Neurological Disabilities

The terms “neurological disabilities” and “neurological disorders” encompass a wide range of impairments of the nervous system, including those impacting brain, spinal cord, muscles, and nerve function. Examples of neurological disorders include cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, brain tumors, stroke, and traumatic brain injury. A wide variety of accommodations are available to online students with neurological disorders. Common accommodations include special advising, strategic class scheduling, asynchronous alternatives to synchronous class sessions, books and reading assignments in alternate formats, note-taking services, testing accommodations, access to voice recognition software, and large screen monitors.


Physical Disabilities

Physical disabilities are conditions that substantially affect a person’s mobility or stamina, resulting in limitations to one or more basic physical activities. These may include walking, sitting, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, carrying, and even such things as swallowing and remaining upright. Physical disabilities might be present at birth or the result of an accident. Physical disabilities are highly individualized, which means accommodations must be highly individualized as well. Online graduate students most likely have an accessible physical space at home where they can complete their academic work but may need accommodations related to computer hardware and software.


Speech Impairment

Speech and language impairments are among the most common of all disabilities affecting students. There are three basic types of speech impairments: articulation disorders (errors in production of speech sounds), voice disorders (disorders of the larynx such as vocal cord paralysis), and fluency disorders (issues of rhythm and timing of speech including stuttering). The types of accommodations required for online grad students depend primarily on the severity of the speech impairment. Typical accommodations include synthesized speech, text-to-speech, extended time for tests and assignments, note-taking assistance, one-on-one instruction, and speech and language modification therapy.


Visual Disabilities

Like hearing and speech impairments, visual disabilities do not strictly impact a student’s ability to learn but instead create issues of accessibility to course materials and activities. Specific accommodations depend on the type and severity of the student’s visual impairment. Typical accommodations for online grad students include books and materials in large print or in an audio or digital format, magnifiers, text-to-speech programs, adaptive keyboards, Braille materials and printers, and testing accommodations (proctored and orally administered tests, extended time, etc.).


Interview with Natalie Burick

Natalie Burick

Natalie Burick is the director of Disability Services and Rock Life at Slippery Rock University (SRU) of Pennsylvania. She works with students with disabilities to ensure equitable access and removal of barriers throughout their college career. Burick is the recent winner of the SRU Breaking Barriers Award, which recognizes one staff member each year for demonstrating advocacy, leadership, and empowerment for students with disabilities.

Q. What are some of the advantages to online study for students with disabilities compared to traditional on-campus study? What are some of the disadvantages?

A: One of the advantages is that students can work at their own pace from the comfort of their home. This is especially important for students with physical disabilities or complex medical needs. Students with various learning disabilities or processing disorders may also benefit from being able to work at their own pace in an environment they are familiar with. I also see many advantages of online programs for students who are neuro-diverse and prefer the quiet environment of their own home.

One of the disadvantages is that students with disabilities may be lacking in social interaction due to feelings of isolation. They may find value in connecting with on-campus organizations, clubs, staff, and faculty. Students with disabilities who choose an on-campus education may also be able to better connect with other students who have disabilities or allies to the disability community.

Q. What’s the most important thing (resource, student service, technology, etc.) that a prospective grad student with a disability should look for in selecting an online graduate program?

A: The most important thing students with disabilities who choose an online education should immediately consider is the accessibility and quality of a school’s disability services office, campus advisor, and faculty who are teaching their courses. It’s important to discuss accommodations, learning styles, and/or challenges before making your decision.

It is also helpful to talk with disability services to ensure access to all eligible accommodations and assistive technology items such as transcription software, virtual testing accommodations, and/or electronic books/reading software systems.

Q. What are some of the biggest problems or challenges students with disabilities run into once they’ve started their online graduate programs?

A: In my experience, it’s the lack of structure. I think students tend to get too far behind because they lack structure in their own day, have issues with executive functioning, and/or lack of support at home. When taking classes on-campus, there is a support network for students with disabilities. We offer students the opportunity to come through our doors as often as needed to ensure they are on track for the semester.

There are also a lot of other resources on campus that disability services can connect students with such as success coaching, student support, health services, etc. Even if you’re an online student, it’s very important to stay as connected to your campus as possible. Through many conversations with students, I find that they often believe they are not eligible for services because they are an online student. That’s often not the case at all. At Slippery Rock University, we work with all students (virtual or in person) and connect them to campus resources.

Q. What are some of the biggest additions or changes colleges and universities have made over the last several years to improve online study for students with disabilities?

A: I can’t speak to the academic side of things, but within our Office of Disability Services and Rock Life, we have created online testing rooms for testing accommodations, offer Zoom meetings for virtual students or for students who wish to meet from the comfort of their home during a break in their work day, etc. There’s been much more of a focus to change how we work to make it more convenient for the students vs. the other way around.

Q. What’s the single most important piece of advice you have for a student with a disability on how to best prepare for and succeed in an online graduate program?

A: I want to make sure that students with disabilities understand that they’re not in this alone. Many universities have offices like ours specifically focused on ensuring student success, both on campus and off. My advice is to connect with your disability services office as quickly as possible, even if you don’t think you need them—you may be surprised at how they can help!