Impact Feature Issue on Employment and Women With Disabilities

Postsecondary Education for Women With Disabilities:
What Families Should Know


Chris Bremer is Research Associate with the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis

Today, postsecondary education is an important part of improving employment outcomes for women with disabilities. Employment rates of women with disabilities rise from 32% for high school graduates, to nearly 42% for those with some college or an Associates degree, to over 52% for those women with disabilities who have a Bachelor's degree or higher (O'Day & Foley, 2008). For family members, educators, and others who have a role in guiding and encouraging young women who may wish to pursue postsecondary education, the information in the remainder of this article can provide some helpful background for the process of exploring postsecondary learning. 

The Power of Expectations

While parents of teens often wonder about how much influence their opinions really have on their children, research has found that parents' expectations are strongly related to student participation in postsecondary education (Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Garza & Levine, 2005). In a recent study on gender and transition, girls were more likely than boys to report that people expect less of them because of their gender and because of their disability (Hogansen, Powers, Geenen, Gil-Kashiwabara, & Powers, 2008). To help ensure that young women with disabilities aim high and explore the possibility of postsecondary education for themselves, parents and high school teachers and counselors can encourage girls with disabilities to take college preparatory coursework, research two-year and four-year college programs, visit college campuses and meet with the admissions office to ask questions and gather information, find out whether the colleges that interest them have supportive resources such as women's centers and organizations of students with disabilities, check out the accessibility of facilities, and if possible to talk with other students with disabilities (especially women with disabilities) who attend the school (they may be available through the school's office of disability support services or campus organizations for students with disabilities).  

Accommodation is the Law

In the U.S., access to postsecondary education by people with disabilities is mandated by federal legislation, specifically Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. These laws require postsecondary institutions to provide accessible space and appropriate academic accommodations and auxiliary aids to students with disabilities. The great majority of U.S. colleges and universities are subject to one or both of these laws (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). However, postsecondary institutions are not required by law to modify their admission standards, programs, course content, or grade point average requirements (Madaus, 2005). Students interested in college must, therefore, be prepared for academic challenge, and advocate for the appropriate accommodations they need to successfully meet that challenge.  

Self-Disclosure and Planning

To receive academic accommodations as required by these laws, a student must be willing to formally identify herself as a student with a disability to the school's office of disability support services, and must be willing and able to advocate for herself to obtain appropriate accommodations. A college's disability support services office can require the provision of specific accommodations by the school, such as priority registration, extended time on examinations, separate exam locations, recording devices, note-takers, interpreters, reduced credit load, substituting one course for another, and technology such as TTY in a dormitory or adaptive software or hardware on school computers (Madaus, 2005; U.S. Department of Education, 2007).

A college student with a disability should take the time to meet with someone in her college's disability support services office early on to find out what services are offered and how to access these services. Documentation of disability will be required to obtain services, and some schools require more documentation than others. An IEP or 504 plan from high school can help identify accommodations and auxiliary aids that may be helpful, but these documents are not sufficient to obtain services in college (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). However, diagnostic assessments done in high school that are less than three years old may be acceptable. Unlike K-12 schools, colleges are not required to conduct or pay for assessments, such as those required to document learning disabilities. A student and her parents may be able to reduce or avoid the cost of new assessments by keeping assessments up-to-date during high school, and by talking to her chosen college prior to high school graduation about required documentation.

Because students often see college as a "fresh start," an opportunity to escape the labels and roles of the past, some students with disabilities may avoid or delay contacting the disability support services office to request accommodations. For some, it will be possible to complete college without accommodations. For others, the need for services may not be apparent until they find themselves struggling to complete assignments or to do well on exams. Students encountering difficulties should contact the disability support services office to discuss their options, but colleges are not required to provide accommodations retroactively (Madaus, 2005).

Self-Advocacy Skills

All college students need self-advocacy skills, but for women with disabilities these skills may be even more critical. As a self-advocate, a student takes responsibility for understanding her disability; knowing her strengths and weaknesses, including those related to her disability; and being able to communicate requests for reasonable accommodations. Unfortunately, many students do not learn self-advocacy skills before they leave high school (Fiedler & Danneker, 2007).

Communication with college faculty is challenging for many students, but generally speaking students with disabilities are as willing and able to communicate with faculty as are students without disabilities. The exception is students with learning disabilities, who are more likely than others to report having communication difficulties with their instructors (Frymier & Wanzer, 2003). The most successful students with disabilities tend to use an assertive style of communication to request accommodations (Worley & Cornett-DeVito, 2007). However, male college students (with or without disabilities) report greater comfort in being assertive than female students, and students in two-year colleges are more comfortable being assertive than those in four-year colleges (Orr, 2004).

Parents and high school teachers can help young women with disabilities prepare for college by encouraging development of assertive communication skills. An example of an assertive approach to requesting academic accommodations is the following 17 steps (Palmer & Roessler, 2000, p. 39):  

  • Greet instructor
  • Introduce self by name
  • Refer to specific class
  • Identify disability status
  • Explain needs functionally
  • Mention previous accommodations
  • Explain benefits of past accommodations
  • Request use of accommodations
  • Identify resources and how they help
  • Explain what you will do
  • Ask for agreement
  • Affirm agreement
  • Restate accommodations
  • Clarify your role
  • Clarify your instructor's role
  • Close with positive statement
  • Express appreciation  

Campus Safety

Parental concerns for a daughter's safety can influence decisions about postsecondary life choices (Whitney-Thomas & Hanley-Maxwell, 1996; Hogansen, Powers, Geenan, Gil-Kashiwabara, & Powers, 2008). While students are typically safer on campuses than in the cities or communities surrounding them, parents and students may reasonably be concerned about campus safety. The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education has a Web site where it is possible to view the crime statistics for many U.S. campuses ( Many campuses also have women's centers that offer training in personal safety, as well as free escort services during evening hours.

Campus Accessibility

Many college and university Web sites provide accessibility maps showing ramps and elevators, as well as other information about building and room accessibility. Larger campuses may have bus or shuttle systems to help students get around campus quickly. During a campus visit, or at orientation, students can check out the transportation system and accessibility of buildings in order to know what to expect on the first day of classes. Students considering staying in dormitories should ask if they can see the rooms. In some cases, a college may be able to make changes, such as removing an interior door or changing a handle. Students with special dietary needs or technology needs should also ask about what may or may not be provided by the college.


Postsecondary education offers both challenge and opportunity to women with disabilities. With preparation, planning, and encouragement from their families, college can be a rewarding experience and a path to a fulfilling career.  

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