Living with a disability should never prohibit anyone from attending college. In fact, schools are required to provide certain accommodations, as 19.4% of undergraduate students experience disabilities. These requirements fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits discrimination based on a student’s disabilities.
While many colleges have a specific office or department to address these needs, sometimes, a student has to press harder to get their needs met, especially if the university is not making the proper accommodations. A student may need to go through a grievance process, where they address these concerns to the university. This is where a disability advocate can help.
“A lot of people don’t know that there are people that can help them navigate the grievance process and so they think they’re on their own. But you can have individuals represent you going into those meetings,” said Louis Geigerman, founder of College Disability Advocates.
Essentially a disability advocate is there to help you communicate your needs to the university during the grievance process. They are able to represent you unless the case goes to court. (Then, you will need legal council.) This alleviates a lot of pressure on the student, just knowing that they have someone in their corner. Additionally, a disability advocate can help diffuse contentious situations with their experience and knowledge of the grievance process.
“They also will help them understand how to articulate those issues, helping students put it in a way where the entity can understand what the concern is, because the advocate should have a knowledge of the individual’s specific challenge. They can assist in drafting OCR complaints, they can assist them in representing them with the university, and then if it needs to get litigated then that’s a different issue,” said Geigerman.
One important thing for students to understand is that the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 504 Section focus on accommodating the needs of the student.
“At the college level, it’s about getting the proper accommodations. One of the most frequent accommodations would be class substitutions. Other issues may be, there’s people on the autism spectrum for example, they may be having difficulty with residential living,” said Geigerman.
With class substitutions, a student may have dyslexia for example, and may have difficulty taking a foreign language class for this reason. As long as this course does not have a direct link to the student’s major, this can often be accommodated. It is important to keep in mind however that these cases are approached on an individual basis, and one accommodation may not work for all cases.
“Effectively what an advocate does is help you navigate the system. A lot of times for students it’s kind of daunting going into the university anyways. You’re on your own, you aren’t living at home, and you’re having to articulate a quasi-legal scenario and people may need help doing it. It’s enough to keep up with school and you’re daily affairs, but now you’ve got to deal with this. Advocates are not attorneys, but they can still help and navigate the grievance processes within the institution,” said Geigerman.
To find a disability advocate, note that many advocates work within the K-12 level, and university level advocates are more limited. However, there are a few ways to find an advocate. There are many online resources, including Geigerman’s company, College Disability Advocates. National programs like the National ARD/IEP Advocates program or the National Clearinghouse on Postsecondary Education for Individuals with Disabilities can also help you find an advocate in your area. Finally, your university’s disability service center may also be able to provide resources including contacts for local advocates.
Unfortunately, advocates can be a financial burden on the student, and the overall process is time consuming. In order to avoid a situation where you would need an advocate, Geigerman advised not only researching a university and what their track record is when it comes to disability accommodation, but also getting a feel for the culture of the university in terms of disability accommodation.
“When you’re thinking about a university and you’re looking through the brochures, I think the most important thing that someone can do is really get a feel for the culture at the campus. And you can tell when you go into the office of disability services and talk to them and walk around the campus. And, some universities have a list of parents or students that they can talk to,” said Geigerman.
Talking to current or former parents or students who have utilized the office of disability services or other campus disability services will give you a more honest perspective of what it’s like to be a student with disabilities on that particular campus.
Before deciding on a university, you should feel confident that the university will address your needs. But, if you are at a school where you do end up having to go through a grievance process, a disability advocate can help you navigate the process.