Navigating College with an Impairment

Student sitting on a wheelchair in library with schoolmates

All students worry about attending college, which makes sense because there are so many things to stress about — money, exams, balancing school and a social life; the list could go on. But students with physical and mental impairments will face these hurdles while also grappling with their own personal challenges.

About 11% of undergraduate students have an impairment, according to a 2013 survey from the U. S. Department of Education.

Having a disability is part of diversity in our culture, and colleges benefit from acknowledging, understanding and celebrating differences among our people.

Here are three tips to succeeding in college with an impairment from Jessica West, a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Masters of Public Health program, currently starting a PhD program in Sociology at Duke, who has successfully navigated education while having a hearing impairment.

Don’t be afraid to advocate (hard) for yourself.

In the early years of education, it’s common for parents/guardians/adults to advocate for the young student. But in college, students have to start advocating for themselves. Make sure you are getting the appropriate accommodations that will allow you to perform your best.

Go to office hours.

Advice about networking applies to all students, but particularly those with impairments. If possible, meet with your teachers and/or graduate student instructors so that they get to know you as a person rather than as a student with a disability. You can also talk to them about your impairment and how they can help you, but mostly just go so that they see you as an active and engaged student.

If your school has student groups related to disability, check them out.

I grew up avoiding other people with disabilities because I didn’t think that I needed to associate myself with them, but joining the hearing impaired student organization at my college allowed me to meet people who were a lot like me…smart, motivated, huge sports fans, fraternity/sorority members, etc…and who also just happened to have a hearing loss. It was nice to spend time with people who understood my hearing loss without me having to explain it, with whom I could talk about my hearing loss if I wanted to, but who also viewed themselves as just regular college students.

One excellent resource for students with impairments is the American Association of People with Disability’s (AAPD). AAPD provides information on applying, visiting, and choosing a college, scholarships and financial aid, accommodations, and college life for students with disabilities.


Having an impairment should not stop you from pursuing a college degree if it is your goal!  Do you have tips for how to succeed in college with an impairment? Please share below!

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