April 26th, 2022

Statistics on the Issue: Why the Department of Education must issue Guidance

In this blog series, you will hear from members of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC) about the importance of college accommodations and what we are doing to make it easier for disabled students across the country to get the accommodations they are entitled to under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Here we start with a review of some background information and statistics on higher education for students with learning disabilities. Then several members of the YALC share their own stories on the accommodation approval process in higher education and why Secretary Miguel Cardona, President Joseph Biden, and others in the administration should support students with disabilities.

NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council is made up of 24 young adults with learning disabilities and attention issues from around the country, acting as disability activists for the 1 in 5 people in this country with learning disabilities and attention issues like us. We represent the diverse community of people with learning disabilities and attention issues. Learning disabilities impact how people learn and process information, how we read and write, and more. A few of the learning and attention-related disabilities represented on the council include; dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, nonverbal learning disability, ADHD, and specific learning disability. In being learning disabled, basically, all of us have experienced some barriers in life due to our access needs not being adequately supported.

In January 2022, we met with the US Department of Education to specifically talk about the access barriers we have experienced in higher education, and request that they take action to dismantle some of the systemic barriers keeping disabled people out of higher education. Specifically, we urged the Department of Education to issue guidance that would require institutions of higher education to accept the documentation of receiving special education services or accommodations in K-12 settings as evidence enough of a disability when seeking accommodations in postsecondary settings. We are hopeful the department will take action on this issue soon.

When he was still a presidential candidate, President Biden shared his Plan for Full Participation and Equality for People With Disabilities. Biden pledged to ensure that all disabled students would have the access and the support they need to succeed in educational settings. This included a pledge to support the post-secondary education of students with disabilities. The campaign plan stated that Biden would: “direct the Department of Education to provide guidance to all postsecondary programs to accept the accommodations students with disabilities have used in pre-K-12 settings for postsecondary settings”. We urge the Department of Education to follow through on that campaign promise. 

Many disabled students receive accommodations in K-12 education, usually laid out in the form of a 504 plan or an IEP (Individualized Education Program). In fact, according to a National Longitudinal Transition Study, as many as 94% of students with learning disabilities received accommodations in high school [1]. However, many students with disabilities experience barriers in receiving the same accommodations once they transition to higher education, with many receiving fewer, or in some cases, no accommodations at all. In fact, that same study found that only 17% of students with learning disabilities received accommodations in higher education settings[1]. Further, in a report by the National Center for Special Education Research, 43% of those with learning disabilities who did not receive accommodations wish that they had[1].

Many universities require that students have a diagnosis no more than 3 years old, and they do not accept K-12 IEPs or 504 plans as sufficient documentation of a disability. When you go to request accommodations at institutions of higher education, you are put in a position of needing to PROVE you are STILL disabled even after having gone through the comprehensive evaluation process in K-12 and receiving accommodations for years. Getting a new diagnosis is not only unnecessary, but it is burdensome, costly, and stigmatizing. This process of getting accommodations at institutions of higher education is unnecessarily confusing and requires exorbitant documentation that is difficult to get and expensive. About 50% of parents of students in high school and recent graduates report that they felt the process was unnecessarily unclear and difficult [3]. A new diagnosis of a learning disability costs on average between $500 and $2500 [2], further pushing a classist divide in who gets an education and support and who doesn’t. Even if you can afford a new diagnosis it can be hard to find an evaluator depending on where you live in the country and it can take months to get through the waiting list to be evaluated.

These barriers result in students not receiving needed accommodations. We know from research on learning disabilities that learning disabilities do not go away. Students’ learning disabilities and need for support does not disappear when they start their post-secondary education. We are concerned for the number of students with disabilities who are not receiving their needed accommodations. These numbers indicate there are significant systemic barriers to students with disabilities receiving accommodations. For several years, NCLD has championed the RISE Act, which would enshrine in law that colleges and universities must accept an IEP or 504 plan as evidence of a disability. While RISE has bipartisan support, Congress has not yet passed this legislation, requiring that the Department of Education take action to address these barriers. This is bigger than just learning disabled students not receiving accommodations. A National Longitudinal Transition Study showed that young adults with disabilities had a post-secondary completion rate of 38%, which was lower than non-disabled students[1].

With all I have said on the struggles learning disabled students are facing, we call to attention the presence of these inequities in our current system. We request the Department of Education to help in ensuring institutions of higher education fully adhere to the requirements of the ADA in providing reasonable accommodations to disabled individuals in order to create equitable access to education and future employment, by issuing guidance to institutions of higher education that they accept K-12 accommodations plans as proof enough of disability.



[1] Sanford, C., Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., Knokey, A.-M., and Shaver, D. (2011). The PostHigh School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities up to 6 Years After High School. Key Findings From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3004). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.

[2] LDA America. Adult learning disability assessment process. Retrieved from https://ldaamerica.org/info/adult-learning-disability-assessment-process/

[3] NCLD May 2016 survey of over 800 parents on Understood.org merging Issues. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities, 2014

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