Transitioning to College with a Hidden Dis/ability: 4 Tips to Get Started


First, you may notice that I use dis/ability in the article. This is something I would like to bring to light after reading the work of Subini Ancy Annamma, especially in her work The Pedagogy of Pathologization (2018), and one of her descriptions of why:

“I deliberately use ‘dis/ability’ instead of ‘disability’ to call attention to ways in which the latter overwhelmingly signals a specific inability to perform culturally-defined expected tasks (such as learning or walking) that come to define the individual as primarily and generally ‘unable’ to navigate society. I believe the ‘/’ in disability disrupts misleading understandings of disability, as it simultaneously conveys the mixture of ability and disability.”

-S. Annamma, Pedagogy of Pathologization (2018)

Think of it from the perspective: People are not dis/abled, but the environment is disabling. People with disabilities are not unable to perform tasks, but the environment around them (physically and socially) limits them and their abilities to what can be accomplished. That is where we step in and make things better, including at the higher education level. In the last few decades we have significantly increased accessible pathways towards independence of people with dis/abilities, but we still have lots of room to learn and grow as a society. One of our growths is the increased use of neurodiverse or neurodiversity. Baumer & Frueh (2021) at Harvard medical School (2021) has an excellent definition (and article to read) that states:

“Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.”

-Baumer & Frueh, What is neurodiversity? (2021)

High School to Higher Education

Many students in higher education (college or technical training) with dis/abilities do not disclose their dis/ability, especially those with hidden dis/abilities such as ADHD, learning dis/abilities, traumatic brain injury (TBI), emotional disorders, and many more. However, there are some physical dis/abilities that students are unable to hide or that may be more obvious that you can see around campus such as those in a wheelchair, who may have a walking cane, hearing aid, or prosthetic. Note: See how the “/” really makes you think about the word “disabilities.”

After speaking with some young adults with dis/abilities, I have found that in addition to not disclosing their dis/ability, many students or young adults with dis/abilities believe that once they graduate from high school or turn 18 they lose all their supports and accommodations and will not be able to access them at the higher education level. This is just not true. There are many supports available to all students with varying types of dis/abilities. It is important to note that secondary special education and career planning teachers (any many others) hold the key to ensuring that these students and their families are prepared for the changes and the transition to college. This should be a part of their individualized education plan (IEP) within the transition planning section which is required under the Individuals with Education Disability Act (IDEA) for students ages 14+. As a prior secondary special education teacher, current doctoral student, and higher education instructor, in the past few years I have learned of a few things that may help make the transition to college smoother for you and/or students and young adults with dis/abilities to improve long-term outcomes and completion of their degree.

(1) Locate & Take an In-person Tour with the University Accommodation Center

Every university has an accommodation center, but they go by different names. At the University of Arkansas it is called the Center for Educational Access (CEA) in the Division of Student Affairs. You can check ours out at The CEA, and other similar accommodation centers across the country, offers assistance for students in requesting accommodation letters, document conversions, testing center access, and accessible course materials from their individual course instructors. Some students find they need accommodations in some courses, but not others. It is all dependent on the content, dis/ability, and sometimes the instructor. These university system accommodation centers typically designed to support content or course material and testing, but they also have all the information and contacts specific to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in regards to transportation, handicap access, parking, and other environmental adoptions. They are also the go to to ensure confidentiality and communication between the student and instructor as well as providing written documentation of student need. However, it is important to note that modification of content, or making work less rigorous or at a lower academic level than what is required of other students is not available due to accreditation requirements and meeting specific levels of standards to obtain a degree in any field. However, accommodations such as additional time for assignments and testing could be provided to accommodate for more difficult material. This is sometimes the hardest transition and difference between high school and post-secondary education. There is no such thing as a “resource” higher education classroom, hence one of the many reasons for the push for inclusive environments of students with dis/abilities to ensure they are getting the same educational content as their same age peers.

University of Arkansas EMPOWER Program at

(2) Identify Which Higher Education Institutions Have Programs for Students with Higher Levels of Need

Did you know there are many higher education programs for students with more specific support needs including autism? For example, the University of Arkansas has the EMPOWER program that was developed in 2017 and according their website,

…offers a four-year, non-degree college experience program for students with cognitive disabilities that incorporates functional academics, independent living, employment, social/leisure skills, and health/wellness skills in a public university setting with the goal of producing self-sufficient young adults.

The University of Arkansas program is offered for students who demonstrate the ability to safely live independently, sustain employment, and socially integrate during their enrollment. The program progresses with an emphasis on workplace experience, community integration, and independent living with transitionally reduced supports. Students who successfully complete the program will receive a certificate of program completion.”

This program offers 1-1 mentors year round, the ability to stay in university housing/dorms, and additional individualized support allowing for both an educational and fun college experience.

Honorable Mention

There are other institutions that offer similar programs, but they are hard to come by. It may do some digging, but they are out there! There are also a few universities such as Landmark University in Putney, Vermont that is specifically for students with dis/abilities such as dyslexia, ADHD, Autism, and Executive Functioning Challenges. Landmark University is a private university with a 6:1 faculty ratio and was tied for #1 in Best Colleges in the U.S. News and World Report for 2022 in undergraduate teaching and most innovative in the northern region. According to their website,

“Landmark College is a community designed exclusively for students who learn differently, including students with a learning disability (such as dyslexia), ADHD, autism, or executive function challenges. We champion a strengths-based model for education, giving students the skills and strategies they need to succeed in life.”

It is also important to note that they also have summer programs for high school and college students.

(3) Apply for Work-Study or Internal Student Jobs

Once you choose the university or program that is right for you (or the student you are working with), it is important that the student applies for work-study or internal student jobs in an university office, the bookstore, coffee shop, or library. There are so many life skills, experiences, and important networking connections you can make by getting these early on. Many freshman also make the mistake of trying to take on a job and a heavy load of classes leading to drop out. There is no rush. Take the minimum hours needed for your degree or scholarship and spend the rest of the time learning real job skills at the university with trained professionals. Although jobs outside the university are important and can offer many life skills dependent on the position, the university can give you so many internal perks to your graduation plan and future career opportunities that will pay off more in the long run. Plus, students with dis/abilities in this internal university-based working environment may have more access to appropriate workplace accommodations with more flexibility and understanding. It is a great initial learning environment and opportunity to prepare for full-time employment, learn about self-disclosure, and what ADA requirements in the workplace.

(4) Most Importantly, Get Involved Early & Socialize.

Socialization and building relationships is so important in college, but it is important to find good positive and reputable outlets that are of interest to you or the student you are working with. To this day (now almost 20 years later) I still meet one time every month with a few of my friends from college for dinner, lunch, coffee, or Zoom, even if we are in different positions or went our separate ways post-college. In college and professional higher education training programs, you not only build long term relationships but immediate networking contacts that may be able to support you later in life or you or career. My friends that I met through classes and organizations were all in education of some form, but went in different ways based on our employment and work-based opportunities. I work in special education and technology, my friend Rebecca works in public virtual schools, my friend Amanda works in inclusive secondary mathematics and banking, and my friend Samantha works in gifted and talented with an emphasis in robotics. We all have something to bring to the table, including different perspectives. In my doctoral research I have been working in financial literacy, twice-exceptional, and special education virtual schools in which all of my collegiate friends have been a huge support and direct contact for information.

Within the first few weeks, most students go straight to joining a sorority or fraternity, which can be very fun and provide lots of leadership opportunities, however, if you are wanting to stay a little more low-key, each university is different, varies in size, and offers different programs or Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) . At the University of Arkansas, there are currently 414 RSOs you can choose to get involved in that vary in size from about 10 members and into the hundreds. You can view a list of our RSOs at I recommend all students, with and without dis/abilities to join at least 2-3 prior to the start of the first semester or when the enrollment becomes available, but high school counselors, special education teachers, and families have to search, plan, and prepare with the student to ensure that everything is in place to build confidence. Most of these organizations offer tours, introductions to campus meetings, or 1-1 informal meetings to tell you about their RSO. Getting involved early and socializing early on can make a significant difference in student acceptance and outlook on the college experience the first year, possibly decreasing the likelihood of dropping out and increasing the number of academic supports.

No matter what dis/ability you have or what secondary or post-secondary student or family member you may be working with, be sure that all supports are in place (they do exist). If you have questions, just ask! There are lots of staff at every campus or institution that are willing to support students with dis/abilities to obtain a degree and improve long-term independent outcomes.

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