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Special Needs Students After High School: Dos and Don'ts

by Patrick J. Hoover, Special Education Attorney, HooverLaw, LLC; Rockville, MD
There's five minutes left in the exam and Andrew has barely made it through half the questions. It's not that he struggles with the concepts — it just takes longer for him to piece together the equations in his head because he "sees" the numbers backwards. Andrew has a learning disability, and his is not receiving any special services for it. Now, imagine today's exam is the SAT or ACT and the results will determine if Andrew gets into the college of his choice, or, into any college.

In most cases if your child or teen is not classified with a special education designation during elementary, middle or high school, he may never be. Not for lack of disability, but because it is much more difficult to begin the process after the primary and secondary school years. Most, if not all, universities and colleges will recognize and provide special accommodations for your undergraduate student if he/she informs the school of his/her disability. The process is often seamless where the documentation of need already exists in the student's records; unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

What about those students who are not formally identified early on — either due to a failure to recognize a problem or an issue impacting the school? Can they receive special services in post-secondary school if they weren't granted a designation in primary or secondary school?The short answer is yes, they can, but it is far better when the student's special needs have already been identified and service/accommodations have already been provided BEFORE college.

You may find it a far more difficult, lengthy and confusing process the longer you wait; especially if waiting beyond high school to seek help in school for special needs. Unlike primary and secondary school districts, universities and colleges are not required to identify a disability in its students. This means that the school will not provide a team to evaluate your son or daughter. Since colleges and other post secondary schools are not required to assess special needs students on its own dime, it's not likely that it will make an exception for your student. Therefore, the cost and burden of evaluating your student for special education eligibility and services will fall to you. It's just wiser to have your child's special needs identified before he/she leaves high school and enrolls in a post-secondary program.

As a father of college-age students, I know first-hand how hard it is to let your young ones go out on their own. But now that they are adults – maybe not in your eyes, but certainly under the law – you should let them take charge when dealing with their post-secondary education as you try and guide them in their choices. Here are a few tips for your son or daughter to review before speaking with a university or college about their disability…

First, federal law does not require you to reveal your disability. If your do not want to share – meaning you also do not want to receive special services from your school – you do not have to. It's completely up to you. Your disability – whether a learning disability or something more severe – is your personal information and you have the right to share, or not share, that disability with the school administration. If you do decide to share, any post-secondary college or university you apply to cannot reject your admission based on that disability alone. If you believe a school has discriminated against you based on your disability, it is definitely time to contact an education attorney.

If you do have a disability and would like to receive accommodation for it after high school, what schools call an "academic adjustment," the first step is to inform your new school. Larger post-secondary schools will have a center or office dedicated to helping students with disabilities. If no such department exists, the best course of action would be to start with your academic advisor who will help set up the academic adjustment, or get you in touch with the appropriate office.

Your school will most certainly require adequate and timely documentation to confirm your disability. A recent IEP or 504 plan from your high school will often serve to satisfy your college. After all, it was your high school special needs identification and those services and accommodations that very likely helped you to gain acceptance at your college.

Academic adjustments take many forms, whether it's a smaller course load, extra time on an exam, special help in a problem area of study such as math, or, in certain narrowly drawn cases, alternative course requirements within the curriculum. Your school is required to work with you to provide you with the accommodations that will effectively suit your disability while maintaining the school's diploma-granting authority. That being said, your school is not going to bend over backwards to cater to your needs. It is required to help you under federal law, though it will do it in a way that best suits its own needs as well (i.e. financial). Your school should work with you from here on out in a interactive process to ensure that your are receiving the services your disability requires. If you are unhappy with your services, talk to you school, and do so early on, rather than waiting — you're the one who needs to take charge if there an issue with your academic adjustment.

If you believe your school is not providing the appropriate services, it's best to talk to a Disability Services Coordinator (if your school has one on staff) or an education attorney to ensure that your school is complying with federal law. If your school is not, then it is time to take action into your own hands for the betterment of your education.

Patrick Hoover is a special education attorney in Rockville, MD. He advocates for an appropriate education for children with special needs. See his site at: See her site at:, on his special needs law listing on ISER, or contact him by phone at:(301) 424-5777 or email at:

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.
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