Recent advancements in computer technology, a changing global economy, and increased specialization in jobs have resulted in career opportunities for people with disabilities that were previously considered impractical, if not impossible. Many of these careers require skills and knowledge that must be obtained through postsecondary education.

Enrollment in Postsecondary Education

The number of students with disabilities attending higher education has increased. In a recent study, the number of postsecondary undergraduate students identified as having disabilities in the United States was found to represent 6% of the student body. The types of disabilities reported by these students were:

Specific Learning disabilities 31%
ADD or ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) 18%
Mental illness/psychological or psychiatric condition 15%
Health impairment/condition 11%
Mobility Limitation/orthopedic impairment 7%
Difficulty Hearing 4%
Difficulty Seeing
Cognitive difficulties or intellectual disability
Traumatic brain injury
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Difficulty speaking or language impairment
Other impairments 3%

The federal government has made it clear that institutions must provide reasonable accommodations to ensure that otherwise qualified students with disabilities have access to educational opportunities. With advancements in technology, state and federal mandates, and improved awareness about disability, students with a wide range of disabilities are now able to participate in every institution of higher learning.

Representation in Postsecondary Education

Although postsecondary enrollment for students with disabilities is increasing, individuals with disabilities continue to be underrepresented in postsecondary education when compared to their non-disabled peers. For example, two years after high school, 63% of students with disabilities were enrolled in postsecondary education compared to 72% of students without disabilities. Students with disabilities were also more likely to enroll in 2-year versus 4-year institutions. Of those enrolled in higher education, 42% of students with disabilities and 62 % of students without disabilities were enrolled in 4-year schools. In terms of degree attainment, students with disabilities were significantly less likely to earn bachelor's degrees than students without disabilities. Sixteen percent of students with disabilities earned a bachelor's degree, compared to 27% of students without disabilities, while both 25% of students with and without disabilities earned associate's degrees or vocational certificates (Horn & Berktold, 1999). Career outcomes for college graduates with disabilities are reported to be significantly higher for those who earn a bachelor's degree (Stodden, 1998).

Typical Accommodations

For students who are enrolled in postsecondary education, report their disability, and request accommodations, most schools provide support services. A 1996-97 and 1997-98 survey indicated that 98% of postsecondary institutions that enrolled students with disabilities provided at least one support service or accommodation to a student with a disability. The most frequent accommodations provided were:

  • Alternate exam formats or additional exam time (88%)
  • Tutors to assist with ongoing coursework (77%)
  • Readers, classroom notetakers, or scribes (69%)
  • Registration assistance or priority registration (62%)
  • Adaptive equipment or technology (58%)
  • Textbooks on tape (55%)
  • Sign language interpreters (45%)
  • Course substitutions or waivers (42%)

    (Source: National Center for Educational Statistics. [1999]. An institutional perspective on students with disabilities in postsecondary education. Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education.)

While most students report that instructors are generally willing to provide accommodations, there were certain accommodations that faculty were less willing to provide, such as alternative assignments, copies of lecture notes, tape recorded assignments, and proofreaders (Nelson, Dodd & Smith, 1990). Faculty attitudes and willingness to provide accommodation also varied by academic department. Education faculty were the most willing to accommodate, followed by business. Arts and sciences were the least willing to provide accommodations. Students with disabilities report that faculty attitudes are an important part of implementing successful academic accommodations in higher education (Burgstahler, 2000).

Burgstahler, S. (2000). Accommodating students with disabilities: Professional development needs of faculty. To Improve the Academy: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, 21, 181-183.

Horn, L. & Berktold, J. (1999). Students with disabilities in postsecondary education. A profile of preparation, participation, and outcomes. Educational Statistics Quarterly, 1(3), 59-64.

Nelson, J., Dodd, J. & Smith, D. (1990). Faculty willingness to accommodate students with learning disabilities: A comparison among academic divisions. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 23(3), 185-189

Stodden, R. A. (1998). School-to-work transition: Overview of disability legislation. In F. Rusch & J. Chadsey (Eds.), Beyond high school: Transition from school to work. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.