College: You Can Do It!

Sheryl Burgstahler

An increased awareness of the contributions and of rights of individuals with disabilities has expanded post-secondary and employment options for many people. However, there are still special challenges that people with disabilities face in pursuing academics and careers. Planning ahead can help assure success along the way.

If you are planning to attend college and pursue a career, it may be helpful for you to think of your transitions from high school to college to careers as three phases:

Technology can play a key role in your success though all phases.

Preparing for the Transition to College

Computer and network resources are essential tools in many college and work settings. Adaptive technologies make it possible for people with a variety of disabilities to make use of these powerful tools. Take advantage of opportunities in high school to learn about and use computers. Develop skills in word processing, file management, and spreadsheets. Learn to use the Internet for communication and information access.

Getting to college involves thoughtful preparation. Call the institutions that you hope to attend to find out about entrance requirements. Talk with teachers and school counselors. If you are not able to meet specific entrance requirements during high school, consider attending a local community college to obtain the course requirements you are lacking.

The grade point average (GPA) you obtain in high school may be an important entrance consideration at your college of choice. Work hard to earn grades that are as high as possible. Pre-college examination (e.g., SAT, PSAT) scores may also be important for acceptance into the college of your choice. Talk to a school counselor or teacher about disability-related test-taking accommodations ahead of time. Appropriate accommodations can help you maximize your efforts and demonstrate your abilities to their fullest when taking an exam. If you earn a lower score than you feel capable of, ask about the possibility of re-taking the exam.

When sending an application to a post-secondary institution, you are essentially sending a portrait of yourself-- your grades, coursework, recommendations, personal goals, and abilities. Take time to present a full, positive picture of yourself. Before you send it to a college, have someone proof-read a draft and give you constructive feedback. Consider using your computer to create an attractive format and print your final copy on a high-quality printer.

Life in college is full of expenses, expected and unexpected. There are resources to assist with and, in some cases, fully cover costs such as tuition, books, rent, lab fees, adaptive technology, and application fees. Start early and talk to teachers, counselors, offices of disabled student services, financial aid office, and undergraduate support programs at institutions you wish to attend.

Resources are not the same at each post-secondary institution. Knowing your needs and how they can be met is an important factor when selecting a college. Be sure to check out the availability of computer and Internet access at each school - make sure that access is from within facilities that are accessible to you and from workstations with the adaptive technology that you need.

Staying in College

Your computer skills will serve you well when it comes to being more independent and productive in college and beyond. Take advantage of the computer and Internet training opportunities at eh college or university you attend. Free or low-cost non-credit training can help you perform writing tasks, statistical operations, and research. If you need special accommodations, be sure to make specific requests in advance of the training session so that staff have enough time to make arrangements. The disabled student services office on campus may be able to help you get the accommodations you need if you have difficulties working out arrangements with the training staff.

Being in college means managing a demanding schedule. It is important to develop and utilize self-advocacy, self-management, and study skills. Self-advocacy skills include knowing how to skillfully initiate action and interact with faculty, staff, and other students to obtain support services necessary for your learning needs. If you require accommodations, you are the one who must recognize the need, make the initial contacts, follow up on these contacts, and maintain the necessary actions to receive the services needed.

Self-management skills include planning your academic and personal schedule and developing and maintaining academic and personal routines that are reasonable and manageable on a day-to-day basis. Take into account your abilities and strengths as well as your disabilities. For some individuals, strength and ability may vary daily -- flexibility may be an important factor. Use your computer to extend your strength and abilities. You may find it necessary to utilize assistance from campus offices as well as outside resources. There resources can be steady and continuous, or merely temporary. In many instances, a service that provides assistance requires ongoing attention. For example, to continue receiving some services updates on progress, status reports, and/or renewal requests may be required. Factoring these requirements into a regular schedule of activities will assure continuity of services. Try using your computer to help organize these management tasks.

Developing and employing effective and efficient study skill entail developing effective strategies for note taking during lectures and labs, accessing information, reading, studying, test-taking, and communicating with faculty. Development of each skill is important in order to have effective overall study habits. If your study skills are weak, ask a counselor if study skill courses are available on you campus. Consider using a laptop computer for note taking and for organizing your class notes. Try using the Internet for planning library research, obtaining information, and communicating with instructors.

Moving Beyond College

Working toward a career should begin early in your college life. Making prudent choices academically (e.g., choosing a major, selecting appropriate coursework, obtaining work experience) can assist you in making your career choices. Seek advice from family members, teachers, school counselors, and career guidance counselors when choosing a direction that is best for you.

Employers like to hire people with relevant job experiences. Yet, often people with disabilities who graduate from college do not have these experiences. The cooperative education or career placement office at the post-secondary institution you attend may have information about part-time employment opportunities. If job opportunities are not available through campus resources, look outside campus for positions. In addition, make efforts to obtain other relevant experiences, including volunteer work and self-study. Hers' an area where your computer skills may pay off financially. Setting up and supporting World Wide Web sites, performing word processing tasks, entering data, and using statistical programs are some of the many part-time opportunities that can be found on and off campus. Part time jobs using technology look great on your resume!

To begin building a resume, make a list of all relevant work experiences (paid and volunteer), academic experience, and relevant activities and skills. Don't forget to list your experiences in using technology -- everyone wants to hire someone with computer and networking experiences these days, regardless of career field. List the software packages you have used and the types of Internet experiences you have had. Seek advice from campus career advisors for selecting appropriate styles and formats of resumes depending on the type of fob for which you are applying. Produce it on a computer and print it on a high quality printer. When it comes to finding a job during college or after, make use of your contacts with individuals inside and outside of your area. Network through professional organizations, friends, family, and coworkers because ti is often who you know, as well as what you know, that will help you find employment. Let people know about your skills, interests, and career goals.

As you can see, the computer and networking skills you develop today will prove to be useful as you prepare for college, attend college, and seek employment after graduation. You'll probably find them helpful once you get settled into your new job, too! For more information: DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) at the University of Washington provides printed materials for free as well as a videotape, "College, You can do it!" for $20 (note: current price is $25). DO-IT, primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, can be reached at

Electronic materials are abundant on the Internet. A good starting point for finding resources electronically is the DO-IT World Wide Web home page at

Helpful Hints

The following helpful hints emerge from the personal experiences of participants in DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology.) Most have disabilities themselves and are in college or are pursuing careers.

  • Know yourself. Evaluate your strengths, abilities, skills, and values.
  • Prepare early for going to college and pursuing a career, at least by your Sophomore year of high school.
  • Research different options for colleges.
  • Before classes begin at the school you plan to attend, work with the disabled student services office to assure that appropriate accommodations will be available when school starts.
  • Learn to use technology to maximize your independence and productivity in communication, course participation, information access, research, and test taking.
  • Plan, organize, and evaluate your needs so that support service units can work together to make sure there are no gaps in necessary assistance.
  • Seek assistance from disabled student, career, and cooperative education services offices on your campus.
  • Request aid from your professors. Don't be intimidated by them, they are there to help.
  • Be reasonable about the number of credits you take, especially the first quarter. Sometimes, starting out by taking only a few credits will help make your first college experiences more positive and less stressful than they would be with a heavier class load.
  • Take some courses that look like fun to you as well as courses that meet your current academic goals.
  • Take some time to enjoy the social life on campus-it can be a good way to meet new people and make friends.