Graduate School Success for Students with Disabilities

Scholarships, Support Resources, and Expert Insight for Achieving an Advanced Degree

The NCES reports that graduate students with disabilities make up just eight percent of the student body. Disabilities -- defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act as a physical or mental disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities – don’t have to act as a barrier for prospective graduate students aspiring to further education.

This guide offers information on how to best understand your rights in college, receive academic accommodations and tips to succeed in graduate school. There is also specific information for grad students with visual and hearing disabilities, and an expert interview discussing how to excel in graduate school as a student with a disability.

Navigating Grad School with a Disability

Attending graduate school with a disability doesn’t have to be a source of stress or anxiety, as many institutions now offer exceptional services to help students on every step on their journey. According to data supplied by the National Center for Education Statistics, graduate students with disabilities currently make up eight percent of master’s students and seven percent of doctoral candidates.

Applying to Graduate School and Self-Identification

Because it is illegal for schools to inquire about any disabilities of a student applicant, it is critical for those who need special assistance during this process to self-identify their disability. While all students will be evaluated against the same rubric, regardless of their health, school administrators can accommodate special needs such as providing large-format applications or providing a tour of the campus highlighting special services and accommodations.

Academic Accommodations for Grad Student with Disabilities

Students with disabilities must often navigate multiple scenarios each day requiring extra time or forethought to ensure they are able to get around campus and have any specific learning tools they need for classes.

Because postsecondary students must self-identify disabilities to their institution to receive accommodations or modifications, it’s important for students to have proper documentation that they can easily present to the disability services office on arrival. Some of the frequent accommodations students receive include:

  • Exam accommodations: Special exam rooms, extra time, audio exams or a scribe
  • Classroom accommodations: Scribe or note taker, accessible seating
  • Communication accommodations: ASL interpreter, FM systems, CART providers
  • Alternative & Assistive Technology Accommodations: Braille, large format text, subtitles, electronic text.
  • Other accommodations: accessible parking, housing, and dining areas, special parking permits

Aside from a raft of services offered by individual colleges and universities, students with disabilities also have numerous resources available through local and national organizations. Some of the best places to seek information on navigating graduate school include:

Think College. This website provides information for college students with intellectual disabilities, including many resources and a state-by-state breakdown of helpful services.

American Foundation for the Blind. Although their guide is focused on undergraduate students, AFB provides a list of questions students should consider before picking an institution, such as accessibility, location, and resources offered by the disability services department.

Association for Assistive Technology Act Programs. In addition to providing legislative advocacy for issues of relevance to students who use assistive technology, the ATAP also provides a helpful database of all assistive technology programs in each state.

Center for Hearing and Communication. Based in both Florida and New York, CHC is leading the charge in developing new hearing technologies to help individuals with hearing disabilities find an instrument suited to their needs.

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. CHADD is a one-stop national resource for support, advocacy, and education about ADHD and what can be done to lessen the effects.

National Center for Learning Disabilities. NCLD has an exhaustive library of reports and studies about how learning disabilities affect students, along with many programs designed to help students achieve their best.

National Educational Association of Disabled Students. With a focus on enriching the lives of students with disabilities in every facet, NEADS offers valuable resources on enhancing accessibility, creating inclusive extra-curricular activities, and providing needed accommodations.

The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. In an article titled “Working the System So It Works for You,” the director of Yale’s Resource Office on Disability provides advice for college students affected by dyslexia.

Students with Vision & Hearing Disabilities

Navigating graduate school can be difficult for all students, but for those with visual or hearing disabilities, the challenges can seem doubled at times. The National Foundation for the Blind reports that 13.7 percent of individuals with a visual disability hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, while a study by Hands & Voices found that approximately 2.1 percent of all students with hearing disabilities currently hold a master’s degree. The section that follows was designed to create awareness about the technologies and resources available to help students with these disabilities excel at the graduate level.



Grad students with vision disabilities have access to multiple assistive technologies these days, including Braille printers, translators and displays, personal data assistants, screen readers and magnifiers, CCTV, large-format keyboards and software converting text to speech.


Hearing assistive technology systems, or HATS, are wide-ranging and include items such as hearing aids, cochlear implants, audio loops, infrared systems, FM systems, alerting devices, speech-to-text devices, and personal amplifiers.

Resources and services

Today’s campuses offer numerous resources and accommodations for students, while an institution’s Disability Services office will be able to offer extended individualized services.


Services for students with visual disabilities are numerous, ranging from scribes and readers, modifications or additional time for projects or exams. Other services students should look for in any prospective graduate school include well-lit spaces, railings down all hallways and stairwells, and seeing-eye dogs having full access to all spaces.


Aside from assistive technologies, schools offer a variety of services for students with hearing disabilities. Some of the most common include ensuring all classrooms, dining rooms and housing areas include written notifications, providing amplified listening devices, ensuring real-time captioning or notes are available for every class, and modifying assignments or exams.

Online learning tips and examples

Whether undertaking a single online class or a full degree, creating an inclusive online learning environment for students with vision and hearing disabilities is of paramount importance. Some of the ways educators are ensuring all students can take advantage of this method of learning include:


As technology continues to play a larger role in the learning landscape, one area where schools are focusing their efforts is web accessibility. This emerging area is focused on making online learning accessible by ensuring websites, applications and other content are formatted properly for students with visual disabilities.


With so many students taking advantage of online classes and degrees, numerous colleges are stepping up to the plate by offering programs that cater to students with hearing disabilities. Because so many classes use webcams and video chat technology to stream lectures, students can take advantage of live captions or sign language communication to interact with their peers and professors.

Expert Advice: Attending Grad School with a Disability

Jennifer Nicodem has been the Director of Academic and Disability Services at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, where she has worked for six years. Her background is in social work and she received her master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago and is currently pursuing a PhD in higher education at Azusa Pacific University.

How is attending graduate school as a student with disabilities different from a student without disabilities?

A student with a disability who attends graduate school is likely to experience many of the same feelings upon entering graduate school as a student without a disability: excitement, hope, anticipation and potentially fear. A major difference is that a student with a disability may have additional decisions to make in terms of what type of environment will best meet their needs, the level of accessibility the environment requires – both physically and in regards to learning – and if there are any additional resources necessary.

The student will also need to consider whether or not he or she would like to disclose the disability officially and request accommodations and services or not, and the potential impact of either course of action. One of the helpful aspects of graduate school is that students will likely have completed an undergraduate degree and can build on what worked best in that environment to help inform their graduate experience.

What types of assistance do schools offer for students with disabilities?

Schools vary widely in what they offer for students with disabilities. Common accommodations include: note-takers; sign language interpreters or CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) services; the ability to record lectures; extended time on exams or the ability to take an exam in a separate, quiet area; readers; scribes; assistive technology; and changing classrooms to a physically accessible location. In addition, colleges may provide different levels of learning support services like tutoring, academic improvement seminars, and Writing Centers.

How have these services changed in the last decade?

Access to higher education has increased in the past decade largely due to legislation in both the K-12 and higher education sectors. Although there continues to be significant variation among schools, in general, services and resources for students have increased. As colleges and universities have become more accustomed to providing reasonable accommodations, most schools have a clear system and procedures for students to disclose a disability and receive accommodations, which includes designated staff members whose role is to provide support, information and resources for students.

A current goal for many in the disability services field is to move beyond a perspective that focuses solely on accommodating to one that recognizes the significant benefit to the whole campus of creating environments that are broadly accessible to as many people as possible.

The term ‘universal design’ speaks to the concept of creating highly accessible environments. For example, a curb cut at a grocery store allows a wheelchair user to enter the store but also is helpful to those using shopping carts or pushing strollers. In addition, most schools provide some level of training to faculty, staff and other members of the campus so they are aware both of legal requirements and, hopefully, of the campus commitment to allow all students to equally access the educational environment.

What recommendations/suggestions do you have for selecting programs/schools for students with disabilities?

I recommend that students start planning for graduate school early and really research the schools they hope to attend. Once students have narrowed down their options, it is helpful to communicate directly with Disability Services staff to determine in advance what kind of support is available. Prospective students may benefit from connecting with other students on campus both with and without disabilities to hear about their experiences. Whenever possible, I would encourage visiting the campus in person to get a better sense of the overall campus experience. To get a true understanding of the school and whether or not it is a good fit may mean seeking information beyond what is conveyed on the school’s website, and asking specific questions about individual circumstances. The effort to find a graduate program will be worthwhile.