Guide your student to know their rights: IDEA and the ADA

Know how the laws change: Prepare for the differences between high school and college and career.

Part of the College Readiness Resource Center, by College Success @ Perkins

As an educator— be it a Teacher of Students with Visual Impairments (TVI), general educator, special educator, college counselor — you are sitting in one of the most influential seats of this college readiness vehicle. In addition to your day job, providing direct instruction in blindness skills, you can provide valuable guidance and direction to students and their parents. You are responsible for painting the big picture by delivering authentic feedback on your student’s skills, areas where they can improve, and demanding that teachers provide appropriate, challenging assignments. This will enable them to gain the same academically challenging high school experience as their typically sighted peers.

Your student may have many questions and you can be their sounding board. 

Differences between high school and college

Expectations and sources of support differ significantly between high school and college. At the elementary and secondary level, the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) demands significant support, allowing modified curriculum, direct instruction and paraprofessionals, if necessary. These supports are intended to reduce the strain on a student’s learning experience, but, at the same time, they can also shelter students from the rigor of academic work. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects college students and adults with disabilities, operates very differently. While it provides protections for students to receive accessible materials, the student must have the skills and capacity to request, attain and then use and manage the materials once received.  

Families may not be aware of the impact of these changes and the skills their student must develop in high school to manage these changes effectively. For many students with visual impairments, without having had full responsibility for managing their academic life independently, they do not know what they don’t know.

For many students with visual impairments who haven’t had full responsibility for managing their academic life independently – they don’t know what they don’t know.

For one reason or another, they may have fallen into a routine in which they may rely heavily on parents and teachers to manage the details of their academic life, from tracking homework assignments to making their materials accessible. Adapted materials, large print texts and braille texts that magically appeared on their desks before class in high school will now require the student’s active involvement. Even when asked direct questions about independence and work completion, many students may not have had any other experience other than supported access, and thus may not understand that there are varying levels of independence.  

When students find out their accustomed supports will no longer exist, the realization can create shock, dismay, panic and stress in the transition process.  Additionally, this realization may come very late in post secondary planning, making skill development very challenging.

However, with thoughtful planning, adequate coaching and practice, students can gain independence and skills in self-advocacy.

Students can learn to be proactive and practice how to communicate with a Disability Services Office (DSO) to acquire and work effectively with accessible materials. They can practice time management skills, such as scheduling exams in advance, to ensure the use of an extended time accommodation, per the policies of their DSO. 

Time to prepare!

So, while the transition from high school to college will be different for every student, there are several ways to prepare them for what’s to come:

  1. Introduce them to the laws: Students (and families) should know the difference between the supports and services they’ve received under the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) accommodations that will be available in college. Under ADA, colleges are only responsible for providing “reasonable accommodations” and it’s important to know what this means.
    • Start early (sophomore year!) and work together with your student to learn what this shift will entail. Research the laws together and then encourage them to document what they learned, possibly in a manageable, bite-size presentation. They can rely on organized resources like these charts. Their parents, on the other hand, may benefit from a more comprehensive description like this transition guide
  1. Support parents and guardians:  As parents grow in their own understanding of these differences between high school and college, you should help them understand the need to challenge their college aspiring student to prepare them for college-level expectations. This preparation can start in the IEP meeting early in high school, by contributing to relevant IEP goals, seeking reduction in paraprofessional support and ensuring adequate support for gaining technology skills on par with their peers.
    • This Technology Competencies Checklist can help guide your families in planning early for these skills.  These skills should include typing skills, and competency in a number of tools for access, including laptop use.
    • As their educator, you should also play a role in supporting their engagement with services from their Vocational Rehabilitation agency, encouraging your student to acquire additional critical blindness skills during summer and school break enrichment programs.
  1. Take advantage of daily routines: While you’re preparing your student for their larger transition journey, there are also ways to narrow your daily instruction or counseling to make sure you’re sharpening key skills.
    • Start in middle school to introduce your student to the many tasks of managing life and academics independently, by introducing this College Readiness Checklist. By working through this checklist with your student, you can launch critical conversations about the many skills that young adults are assumed to have acquired by high school graduation, to be ready for the independence that college and work assume, and that their sighted peers often gain from incidental learning.
    • Together, you can make a plan and set goals for high school, by defining where they should be with their skills by senior year, and then backwards plan, setting goals. With enough time, you can support your student in self-advocating when working with their classroom teachers, requesting equal treatment, assignments and grading as their sighted peers. The earlier in school you start, the more time they’ll have to sharpen these skills. These skills take time to develop, refine, and gain automaticity in.  
  1. Disability support office – practice role playing: Services and rights of students with disabilities in higher education are organized and addressed through the Disability Services Office (DSO, though these offices go by many different names) on a college campus. They require that the student be the lead (and usually only) advocate.  Role playing activities can be great learning opportunities. Help your student learn how to create a list of questions and practice describing their vision impairment and how it impacts their education. Help them practice introducing these issues as they encounter a representative from the DSO:
    • It’s May of your senior year. You’ve just decided where you will attend college. You have a meeting scheduled at the DSO to discuss your requests for accommodations. We’ve identified that you will request brailled textbooks and materials, notetakers for lectures, and extended time for assessments. You walk into the meeting:  
      • What do you say?
      • How do you describe your visual impairment? 
      • What materials do you need to bring with you for this meeting?
      • What accommodations are you requesting?
      • Have you considered learning about how you will find the rest of your college experience accessible?  The dining hall?  Signs on dorms or in the library?
      • What is your preferred format for your course materials?
      • What technology will you bring to campus to use?
      • If the DSO counselor says they’ve never worked with a student with visual impairments before, what do you tell them? 
    • Engaging in these role playing scenarios and working through effective communication skills and problem solving will sharpen your student’s approach to independently request services in college and build their confidence. They will begin to gain more self awareness, and understanding of the difference between the support you and others are providing in high school, and what they will encounter in college (or the workplace).  
  1. Accessing accommodations in and out of the classroom: Depending on your student’s needs and unique disability(ies), the DSO should help make the rest of a student’s campus experience accessible, though colleges vary in their experience providing holistic accommodations.
    • Check out all the ways that their needs — mandated by law — can be met on and around campus. 
    • Help your student and their family to anticipate the level of independence your student is capable of growing into by the end of high school. 
    • Help them authentically assess if additional time may be needed to gain additional skills or maturity before enrolling in college or tackling a full time job. 
    • Either way, planning and thoughtful reflection on how to gain as much independence across ECC skills in high school, will create greater opportunities, and possibilities for success moving forward.
  1. Resources for planning:  State vocational rehabilitation (VR) services, transition counselors, independent educational consultants (IEC), and college readiness programs. Each state has a Commission for the Blind, operating under many different names, and each student aged 14-22 (or through high school graduation) is assigned a Transition Counselor within their state Commission.
    • Transition counselors are responsible for providing the support and training necessary for a successful transition out of high school. They can be a very important resource in the college readiness process. 
    • While each state approaches transition counseling differently, in general, VR or Transition Counselors know a wide range of training programs which provide intensive, face-to-face skills training. These programs can be the equivalent of a gap year experience, which can provide critical blindness skill development that focus on skills many students simply do not have the time to learn (O&M is an excellent example of this), and which will benefit both college success and career readiness. These counselors have experience with a broad range of students, including neurodivergent students.
  2. Other resources: Beyond these state-funded services, there are other resources designed to help guide families in their decision making. Independent Educational Consultants (IECs) are professional counselors who, as Annie Tulkin of Accessible College, recommends in this piece, can serve as a crucial expert in the college readiness process. They can provide valuable information about engaging with DSOs, make key connections with college and university personnel to initiate dialogue around accommodations, and empower the student to practice self-advocacy. From their vantage point, IECs can help students view the college experience more holistically, addressing academics, work, health concerns, engagement in clubs and student organizations, as well as social life.

Educators make a difference

The IDEA and the ADA are impactful, important legislation. You can help your student understand that these laws exist to protect them and from there, you can encourage them to take responsibility. Feeling supported and knowledgeable about these parts of a college-aspiring student’s future, will provide a springboard for intentional, thoughtful growth in your student. Together, in collaboration with the Special Education contact in the school or district, work to further enhance the impact of this work in the student’s general education classrooms. By tackling some or all of the steps above, your student’s skills will translate into increased confidence, improved self-determination, and eventually, hard-earned, independent success.

Stay in the college readiness conversation.

Join our mailing list so we can keep you up to date about the latest insight, research and resources to continue this critical conversation.


Filling the gaps: How to plan a Gap Year

Classroom desk with scantron answer sheet, pencil and paper.

Things to know about disability accommodations

three people looking at a sign post with arrows pointing in different directions.

Eight things I’m glad my TVI taught me about transition