Background Information

Important Legislation​ - A Refresher on Disability Laws

  • IDEA

    • You are probably very familiar with IDEA, since this is the law that has protected you and provided you with certain rights since you qualified for Special Education and related services. 

    • One thing you might not know is that once you graduate from high school and receive your diploma, your IEP, and all the services included in it, becomes obsolete.

    • According to Wrightslaw, a student is only eligible to receive special education and related services until he/she graduates from high school with a diploma, OR ages out at 22.

      • One thing to keep in mind though is that if you aren't graduating with a high school diploma, that can change post-secondary outcomes.  Even if you stay enrolled in special education until age 22, your goal should be to work towards receiving your high school diploma, because a certificate of completion is meaningless when it comes to post-secondary education.​

    • IDEA 2004 placed more emphasis on improving the transition process for students with disabilities by trying to align goals with grade-level standards, and by adding more guidelines for what the transition process should include.​

      • according to IDEA 2004, transition services should be "a coordinated set of activities" that:​

        • are results oriented​focus on improving academic and functional achievement and performance, and help facilitate moving from high school to adulthood; which may include attending college, vocational school, integrated/supported employment, continuing/adult education, adult services, independent living, and community engagement

        • are individualized to the student, based on needs, strengths, interests, and preferences

        • include instruction and the opportunity for first hand experience in the development of employment and independent living skills (Wrightslaw).

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)

    • anti-discrimination law, enforced by the Office for Civil Rights, that provides protections to students with disabilities in K-12 institutions as well as in higher education

    • According to the U.S. Department of Education, Section 504 protects the rights of students with disabilities enrolled in programs and activities that receive federal funding/assistance, which is all K-12 schools and the vast majority of post-secondary institutions.

    • Section 504 defines disability differently than IDEA, and therefore has a wider range of students with disabilities it protects. While students protected under IDEA are also covered under Section 504, you are not guaranteed protections under 504 automatically. Families are strongly encouraged to request consideration for moving from an IEP to a 504 plan before graduating from high school, as part of their transition process

  • ADA

    • anti-discrimination law, active since 1990, enforced by the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education

    • provides rights and protections once IDEA is no longer available

    • will have most impact on students with disabilities along with Section 504​

    • focusing mostly on protections and rights in public places, government entities, and places of employment.


Additionally, the responsibilities of higher education institutions differ from those of K-12 schools. For example, post-secondary institutions are not bound by child find or FAPE mandates (in IDEA and Section 504) that K-12 schools are held accountable for. It is important for you to know your rights and responsibilities as you prepare to leave high school.

Accommodations vs. Modifications


  • supports and services provided to the student with a disability to help him/her access the material/information better.

  • changes how a student learns the material


  • alterations to the material to assist

  • changes what is taught or what a student is expected to learn (typically due to more significant disabilities or learning needs)

What Happens in Post-secondary institutions?

  • modifications to curriculum are not commonplace in college

  • you are held to same admissions and retention policies as peers without disabilities -- you can be put on academic probation, or even dismissed from the college if you don't meet requirements

  • accommodations provided in college are meant to "level the playing field"; modifications aren't typically given!!

Types of Post-Secondary Education

  • Community College (2 yr degree & certificate programs)

  • Private College (4 yr degree programs, usually smaller)

  • Public College (4 yr degree programs, size varies)

  • State University (4 yr degree programs, larger institution)

  • Vocational/Trade School (program length varies by type of certification being pursued)

Types of High School Diploma and Impact on post-secondary education options

  • certificate of completion - typically provided as an alternate to a regular high school diploma when a student is unable to meet all graduation requirements. Students who receive a certificate of completion typically qualify for additional special education services until age 22.

  • high school diploma - what is received when all graduation requirements have been met.

  • GED - this is a high school equivalency exam that students can take in lieu of a diploma.

**If at all possible, aim for the regular diploma. Research has shown that students who earn their diploma has higher success rates in maintaining a job, earning a college degree, and living an independent adult life.

Understanding the Transition Process

Transition is meant to be a results-oriented process -- what will student need to know to successfully transition to college and adulthood, and future employment

  • The Transition Plan​ (ITP) -->Once you enter high school, your IEP will have a section labeled "Transition Plan", which is meant to do the following:​​​

    • reflect on and highlight strengths, interests, preferences, and skills​

    • include post-secondary goals in education/training, employment, and independent living skills (when deemed appropriate).

    • be a guide for the on-going process of preparing you for your post-secondary pathway of choice

  • High School's Role/Responsibilities

    • IDEA requires transition planning​ - ITP and Summary of Performance

      • transfer management of disability from parent to student​

        • Student should be invited to attend their IEP and be an active participant​

      • work experience programs

    • 504 does not completion of a transition plan or Summary of Performance

  • Parent's Role/Responsibilities

    • educate your child about their disability, their learning needs, strengths, and services received

    • encourage involvement in IEP and educational planning

    • help child be more comfortable with their disability --> increase involvement in IEP meetings and decision making regarding future planning

    • start the conversation earlier than high school

  • Student's Role/Responsibilities

    • Being involved in education and disability related issues is important to build self-awareness

    • be involved and attend IEP meetings, learn to self-advocate

    • know your disability and your strengths and challenges​- become an expert on your disability and be able to describe it and its impact accurately and with ease

    • need to know and understand what works and what doesn't 

    • be aware of the fact that post-secondary institutions are not obligated to ask you about your disability, nor will they seek you out. If you do not disclose, they will not know that you need support


*frequently students aren't involved in the educational planning process because they don't want to talk about their disability and how it impacts them; they depend on their parents to be involved and advocate for them. The problem with this is that then they aren't aware of their needs or challenges, and often aren't even aware of their specific disability. In addition, parents try to shelter their children from the label of "disability" and therefore don't tell or encourage participation or awareness. This is a huge disservice because the student needs to learn how to make these decisions for themselves in order to be ready for whatever pathway they choose after high school graduation.

Data on Transition to Post-secondary Education

Many young adults with disabilities transition from high school directly into employment opportunities instead of going to school. However, this pattern is starting to change as more students with disabilities are showing interest in post-secondary education and are choosing that pathway over employment first. Most students with disabilities choose to attend a two-year college first and then transfer to a four-year institution to complete their degree.

College Programs for Students with Disabilities

Over the last ten to twenty years, there have been a lot of changes to supports and services offered to students with disabilities at higher education institutions. In addition, the types of supports offered to students varies widely by institution, making it challenging to know what you can expect. The best thing you can do is research each institution, and talk to students and faculty about the supports that are available and how to access them.

While students have rights and protections, their responsibilities expand greatly once they enroll in higher education. If they want support, they have to be willing to disclose, self-advocate, and be self-determined individuals.


Navigating the Waters to Post-Secondary Education:
A Guide for Students with Disabilities & Parents about How to Prepare for Transition to Post-Secondary Education

by Rachel Z. Roth, M.Ed.