Citation: Fichten, C.S. & Schipper, F. (1996). Preparing students with disabilities for the college experience. Applying Research to the Classroom, 14(3), 7-11.

Preparing Students with Disabilities For the College Experience

Catherine S. Fichten, Ph.D. and Fay Schipper, M.Ed.
Dawson College and MacKay Center

Transition to postsecondary education is problematic for many high school students. The college and university experiences are different from high school in so many ways! Most high school teachers are acutely aware of the differences and educate their students in effective ways of adapting and coping. Teachers are generally not as well versed, however, in preparing students with disabilities for the college experience.

Many of the issues faced by freshmen with and without disabilities are the same - coping with lack of structure, extensive selection of courses and options, no "homework," etc. All of these are important to students with disabilities too. However, these students need to be made aware of other issues as well. Our goal here is to inform and sensitize teachers, guidance counsellors, and student services professionals who are involved in helping students with disabilities deal with the transition to postsecondary education.

We bring a variety of experiences to this endeavour. We are both researchers who have studied the college experiences of students with disabilities. One of us is a college professor of psychology who teaches students both with and without disabilities. The other is a guidance counsellor who is involved with the concerns of students with disabilities. Of course, both of us are former university students - one of us with and the other without a disability.

It is important to note that only relatively recently have "average" students with disabilities attended regular, non-specialized schools and gone on to college or university. To date, few of these students have graduated; it often takes people with disabilities longer to complete their postsecondary studies than their non disabled peers because of reduced course loads, hospitalization, etc. Thus, there are relatively few college and university graduates with disabilities in the labour force to serve as role models and to show students, teachers, counsellors, advisors, and the world at large that, "It can be done!"

"How can it be done?" is one of the areas we have researched in the past. Here, our goal is to share some of our findings, which are based on suggestions made by college and university students with disabilities and their professors.

We stress that, "It can be done," because people almost universally underestimate the abilities and ingenuity of students who have disabilities to pursue objectives that most of us simply think are impossible. Mechanics who are blind, nurses who are wheelchair users, teachers who are hard of hearing, painters without arms, and chemists with shaky limbs - it's all been done!

As teachers and advisors, we often feel that it is our job to help students make realistic educational and occupational choices. In the case of students with disabilities, many of us feel that suggesting a "good bet" course of action is the most useful strategy, as it will help students to succeed and promote self esteem by averting failure. This "sensible" strategy is, however, often inappropriate because most of us are unaware of the potential and abilities of people with disabilities; after all, disabilities are defined in terms of constraints and limitations. The students themselves are often equally unaware of what they can accomplish. Like their nondisabled peers, they need the opportunity to discover and determine for themselves if they "can make it" at the postsecondary level.

In discussing educational and occupational choices with students who have disabilities, it is important to be aware of the tendency to aim for what we believe the student can be reasonably expected to accomplish. Our plea here is to moderate this tendency. In many cases, teachers and guidance counsellors can best advise their students by listening to them as they explore their objectives and ambitions and by allowing the student to make decisions for himself or herself, the same way we would if the student had no disability.

Once the student has articulated his or her goals and objectives, teachers and guidance counsellors must think hard about how these can be realized, and how to best prepare students to meet their goals relatively painlessly. To help teachers and guidance counsellors with this process, we offer the following description of some "realities" concerning what students can expect to encounter in postsecondary education.

Community colleges and universities differ in many ways, including in the aptitudes and interests of the students who choose to attend them. In general, community colleges have had more experience educating students with disabilities, and are probably more likely to provide an easy transition for those with special needs. Universities and junior colleges with an academic approach are less likely to "spoon feed" and more likely to adopt a "sink or swim" approach.

This is not to suggest that students with disabilities should be encouraged to aim for community colleges rather than universities. All economic indicators show that people with disabilities who have a university education are more likely to be employed than people with college diplomas (Government of Canada, 1993). Instead, students with disabilities need to be informed by their teachers and guidance counsellors about the resources - financial, equipment, services - available from postsecondary educational institutions as well as about those that exist in the community (e.g., taping service, volunteers, equipment, etc.).

Most Canadian colleges and universities now employ a student development specialist who works as a coordinator of services for students with disabilities. When in doubt, high school teachers and guidance counsellors can call this student services professional to obtain relevant information about the institution as well as about specialty topics, such as scholarships and loans. Although we are in favour of students doing as much of the background research on their choice of colleges as possible, we think that a first contact with the postsecondary educational institution concerning disability related services may best be made by a "third party," as it provides the student anonymity before being admitted.

It is also important to make students aware of the biases they are likely to encounter in institutions, departments and faculties which are not "student centered" and have little experience teaching people with disabilities. To succeed in this environment, students need to know the essentials about organizational constraints, service providers, resources, professors, and, most important, their own objectives as well as their learning and personal needs.

Organizational constraints. Some postsecondary organizations welcome students with disabilities. Others, however, are daunted by what they believe will be costly services and accommodations. The Canada-wide student group NEADS (National Educational Association of Disabled Students) has several excellent publications on finances and accessibility of postsecondary educational institutions (e.g., NEADS, 1995).

In Canada, there are only minimal legal safeguards against discriminatory admissions policies. In essence, these forbid institutions from asking about the presence of a disability prior to admission. However, many students who have a disability contact the college prior to application, and a number of departments and faculties have pre-admission interviews. To ensure that limiting assumptions made by colleges and universities play no role in the admission process, we recommend that students discuss any special needs only after they have been accepted to the program.

Service providers. Most postsecondary institutions employ a student services professional to assist students with disabilities and the professors who teach them. These tend to be decent, hard working people who are devoted to promoting the welfare of students. Well informed about organisational as well as community supports, service providers can be a valuable resource for students with disabilities as well as for the high school teachers and guidance counsellors who advise them.

Some service providers, of course, are not supportive. Whether this is due to ideological or other reasons, students who encounter service providers who do too little must learn to fend for themselves. Not an easy task! This involves becoming aware of legislation and advances in technology which help students with disabilities to surmount environmental and physical barriers and getting more active in all aspects of community life, both on and off campus. It also involves self-advocacy skills, such as educating the educators and challenging negative attitudes, mistaken beliefs, unrealistic thoughts, troublesome feelings, and hurtful, disempowering, and discriminatory actions - hidden barriers that can be vital in the success or failure of the student who has a disability.

In addition to paid staff, service providers in most colleges and universities have a bank of volunteers who are prepared to assist students with disabilities. Often, volunteers serving as scribes assist with note-taking and exams for those who have difficulty writing. Volunteers also serve as readers who read books onto audiotape for students who have difficulty dealing with print. In particular, volunteers in postsecondary education play a vitally important role in assisting students with learning disabilities; this is due to government policies which limit, and sometimes totally deny, support services for students with learning disabilities. Indeed, in some provinces, students with learning disabilities are not seen as having a disability. The implication is that government programs do not provide financial assistance to postsecondary educational institutions for equipment or for scribes and readers.

Community supports. There are numerous national, provincial, and local organizations for people with disabilities. Many of these, both public and private, provide financial assistance, equipment, information, and other services. College service providers can be very helpful in furnishing relevant information about such organizations.

The community also has organizations which provide volunteer services in addition to those available from groups for people with specific disabilities or from colleges and universities. We are living in a period of recession where government support is increasingly being curtailed. Every other day we hear about different programs for people with disabilities which are being closed. Are governments going to cut back on educational support programs for this population? Are there going to be fewer people hired to assist those with disabilities by the year 2000? We fervently hope not! But should this happen, postsecondary education institutions will have to make more creative use of volunteers, both from within the college as well as from the larger community.

Professors. Because professors are members of the larger community, they have the same attitudes as the rest of society. Our research shows that like others, when they first encounter a student who has a disability, many experience discomfort and anxiety (Amsel & Fichten, 1990; Fichten, Goodrich, Tagalakis, Amsel, & Libman, 1990).

Often, they don't know what to do. They don't know what are effective teaching strategies. They don't know whether to use words like look, walk, and hear with the student. In many cases, they are afraid to offer both too little as well as too much help. They also experience role conflict - expert teachers who do not know how to best adapt their courses and teaching styles to their students. Some have problems adjusting to being audiotaped or to having an interpreter in class. Others feel pity, and agonize over failing a student who has a disability.

Not surprisingly, some professors communicate negative messages which serve to discourage and dismay students. They may not believe the student and they may suggest that the student is using the disability as an excuse. This is especially common for students with invisible disabilities, such as a learning disability and non-visible medical conditions such as head injuries, diabetes, and epilepsy .

The solution to problems with professors is, of course, to educate the educators. Our research shows that both students and professors believe that the most appropriate course of action is for the student to approach the professor in order to discuss concerns and accommodations which can help them to succeed. In general, our findings show that concerns should be discussed well before problems arise, that vague requests get vague responses, and that the more specific and detailed the request, the more likely that both professors and students are satisfied.

One product of our research on disabled student - professor relations is a guide for students with disabilities (Fichten, Goodrick, Amsel, & Libman, 1989). Single copies of this manual are available from us free of charge in regular or large print, on audiotape, or on IBM or Macintosh diskette.

iOneself. Last but not least, students with disabilities also need to know themselves. Some students so very much want to "be like everyone else," to not stand out, to fit in at all costs, that they expend a great deal of energy and effort in trying to make it without any special accommodations. Some students succeed admirably - although usually at considerable costs in time and energy. Others simply fail. What is important to stress is that this is their choice! As educators and advisors, we can merely point out the options and the possibilities.

Some students - and these are usually the exceptionally good ones - spend lots of time worrying whether their high marks are deserved or whether they are being graded overly generously. They want to make it in spite of their disability, not because of it! While not using one's disability as an excuse for poor performance is one thing, second guessing professors' grading practices is another. Inadvertently, these students are setting themselves up never to feel good about their achievements.

Some students come from settings where many things were done for them. When they arrive in college or university, they have many unfulfilled expectations, and can be angry and bitter about the perceived lack of support. Some take considerable time to adjust to the new realities and, of course, some students never do. By helping students who come from such sheltered environments become more aware of what to expect in postsecondary education and about how to cope, teachers can go a long way in helping to ease the transition.

Most students who have difficulties in postsecondary education do not fall into any of these categories. They experience difficulties because they are not good at letting others know what they need in order to succeed. In today's jargon, these students have poor self advocacy skills. Here, too, teachers and guidance counsellors can help by preparing their students to appreciate and cope with what's "out there."

There are many reasons why students may not be good communicators about their needs. Some are simply shy about approaching professors, other students, or authority figures. Others are reluctant to ask for needed accommodations because they do not want to be a burden or because they do not want to be treated differently. Some don't know what to say and what not to say to professors. Others fear that they will not be believed. In the final analysis, for many students with disabilities, asking for accommodations means being "treated differently."

Many of these students fail to recognize that all students occasionally need help. Indeed our studies show that students with disabilities had more negative views about asking professors for help than did their non disabled classmates - or their professors, for that matter.

What emerges clearly from our research is that students with and without disabilities often find themselves in similar predicaments. Students with disabilities may, however, feel different and believe that it is only they who are confused and troubled by needing special consideration from professors. Both our research and experiences as students, teachers, advisors and therapists converge on one theme - all students need special consideration at some time in their academic careers. When this happens, students, whether they have a disability or not, feel tense and uncomfortable. What is also abundantly clear is that when students need assistance from their professors, they feel more positive about themselves, their professors, and their chances of doing well after discussing problems with the professor. High school teachers and guidance counsellors can help students with disabilities become better informed about their learning needs and better able to approach their professors.

Some students, whether they have a disability or not, are simply poor students. Academics is not a high priority for them. They are not brilliant, they are poorly prepared, and they have miserable work habits. Simply put, they do not have an academic bent. Often, they have agendas other than academic - socializing, making friends, and having fun. Members of Generation X, they are in college because there is little else for them to do. Poor work skills and study habits, coupled with a lack of motivation to achieve in academe, can doom students to failure in college or university. Eventually these students, whether they have a disability or not, will drop out or flunk out. And that is, as it should be. As our research shows, both students and professors believe that even students with disabilities should be allowed to fail!

Higher education has enhanced the status and economic opportunities of many minority groups, including people with disabilities. Preparing students with disabilities to enter postsecondary education is seen by many as an urgent priority and, indeed, as a key component of the integration process. It is in this endeavour that sensitive and caring high school teachers and counsellors can help to ease the transition and facilitate success.


Amsel, R., & Fichten, C.S. (1990). Interaction between disabled and non disabled college students and their professors: A comparison. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 8(1), 125-140.

Fichten, C.S., Goodrick, G., Amsel, R., & Libman, E. (1989). Students and their professors: A guide for the college student with a disability. (36 pages). (ISBN 2-920901-10-9).Montreal: Dawson College. (Available in regular and large print, on audiotape, and on IBM and Macintosh diskette.)

Fichten, C.S., Goodrick, G., Tagalakis, V., Amsel, R., & Libman, E. (1990). Getting along in college: Recommendations for students with disabilities and their professors. Rehabilitation Counselling Bulletin, 34(2), 103-125.

Government of Canada. (1993). Persons with disabilities in Canada, 1986: Statistics and bibliography. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada.

NEADS (National Educational Association of Disabled Students). (1995, January). Reflections and actions for an accessible post-secondary environment. Ottawa: Author. (4th level Unicenter, Carleton University, Ottawa, K1S 5BG, tel: 614-233-5963).


Catherine Fichten, Ph.D. is a psychologist. She teaches Psychology at Dawson College, where she also carries out research on the social integration of people with disabilities. She also works as a researcher and clinical psychologist at the Behaviour and Sex Therapy Service of the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.

Fay Schipper, M.Ed. is a counsellor. She works at the Mackay Center in Montreal, where her duties involve counselling children with disabilities, advising teachers, coordinating the volunteer program, and conducting research on the social integration of people with disabilities.