Commentary: Preparing College Students with Disabilities for Success

Going to college is by far one of the fondest time periods in my life. Meeting new friends, having fun on weekends after particularly busy weekdays and even the countless sleepless nights I spent preparing for final exams are some of the memories I will always cherish from my time at the University of Illinois. Looking back to these years, I also realize that attending college and obtaining my degree in journalism was one of my greatest challenges. College is difficult for anyone, and people like myself with disabilities have additional barriers to overcome.

A recent report highlights some of the difficulties perspective and current college students with disabilities face while pursuing higher education. Some of the challenges for these students include not having adequate time management, organization and advocacy skills. The statistics are especially alarming. Only about a third of students with disabilities obtain a college degree. It’s not that students with disabilities cannot handle rigorous college schedules or the academic assignments, but rather they are ill-equipped to take on these challenges. Often, students do not receive sufficient training or information about available resources while in high school.

As someone who is blind, I consider myself incredibly fortunate. During high school, my teacher of the visually impaired made sure I learned to advocate for my needs. By my junior and senior years, it was up to me to inform my mainstream teachers about how they could best help me. I would obtain the class handouts or other materials from them, and my vision teacher would then transcribe them into Braille. During this time period, I also began learning about resources that would assist me once I started college. These included the state’s department of rehabilitation services, as well as the office of disability services at the University of Illinois. This was in addition to learning about assistive technology, scholarships and transportation resources that could make my life easier in college.

Regardless of the disability, it is critical for all students who are about to graduate from high school to learn the important skills they will need to succeed in college. They should be taught – both in high school and at home – how to manage their time, advocate for their particular needs, and about other organizations or resources that will help them throughout college. In the case of students with vision loss, learning about such things as assistive technology and orientation and mobility is also vital. Services like the Youth Transition and College Scholarship programs at The Chicago Lighthouse are a wonderful resource for high school students with vision loss, their teachers and families. These programs help students learn important independent living skills and obtain other resources that will help them better prepare and succeed in college. Best of all, they allow them to network and get advice from fellow students with visual impairments.

College students with disabilities have the same dreams and aspirations as their non-disabled peers. Unfortunately, many of these students are ill-prepared to undertake higher education, and may even struggle to obtain a degree. It is extremely important for high schools and other individuals working with students with disabilities to teach them college readiness skills prior to them entering higher education. In the end, this will allow students to be better prepared for college and ultimately for their future careers. This will also ensure that their college experience will be something they cherish for the rest of their lives!


sandy speaking

Sandy Murillo works at The Chicago Lighthouse, an organization serving the blind and visually impaired. She is the author of Sandy’s View, a bi-weekly Lighthouse blog about blindness and low vision. The blog covers topics of interest to those living with blindness and vision impairments. Being a blind journalist and blogger herself, Sandy shares her unique perspective about ways to live and cope with vision loss.

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