Advancing disability rights and leadership globally®

Which U.S. School or University is Best to Place a Student with a Disability?

Low slope ramp with double handrails and tactile surface
Low slope ramp with double handrails and tactile surface

The vast majority of U.S. high schools, colleges and universities are subject to U.S. non-discrimination and equal access laws.

A qualified student, regardless of where the student is living when applying, cannot be refused admissions based on disability or anticipated accommodation needs.

Most disability service staff on campus or in the school district and disability organizations in the community can locate and provide what is needed for the student though it may take time, funds, and energy to find a good match for the student in regards to accommodation needs. The student may want to choose schools based on what is already available on campus and in the community.

While there remain some schools and a handful of universities that focus on only students with a specific disability (e.g. learning or sensory disability) and allow for additional skill or language training, the majority of educational institutions in the U.S. are for students with and without disabilities to learn together. Resources at the school or in the community support this inclusion.

High School Exchanges

The same reason that U.S. school districts choose to host high school exchange students in general – cross-cultural experience for their students, talents exchange students contribute to the school, belief in sharing U.S. opportunities with students from other nations – should be the focus of reasons to host exchange students with disabilities.

To allay cost concerns that may come with disability-related accommodations, an accurate understanding of the student’s needs would be best so assumptions are avoided. As a general rule, if a student does need Braille, accessible transportation, sign language interpreters or other typically more expensive accommodations, areas that are already set up to provide these services may be the most receptive or a better match.

Even if a school doesn’t have anyone with a disability, the school can still be a positive placement for an exchange student with a disability. If the student is on a federally funded exchange program, the student may have a stipend as part of her scholarship and some funding support for disability-related accommodations if needed, such as for a laptop computer and adaptive software on loan. Community resources and donations may also be found.

U.S. school districts need to be aware of U.S. federal discrimination laws that help ensure the educational rights of international students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) policy advises that a school cannot outright refuse to provide special education services to a foreign exchange student that has been accepted into the program.

Equally important, and before that point is even reached, no school can simply state that foreign students with disabilities are ineligible for placement at the school.

While no high school or school district can be forced to take part in a foreign exchange program, once the decision to participate has been made, the high school or district cannot use discriminatory criteria or operate the program in a discriminatory manner.

Learn more about high school placements for Deaf or blind students, and about the laws supporting the education of youth with disabilities by reading the resources in the Table of Contents.

College and University Level

All U.S. colleges and universities provide disability-related services regardless of citizenship, so choose a university based on the student with a disability’s educational and other interests (e.g. geographic, size of institution, cost). There are no restrictions on what degrees individuals with disabilities can study. Many will choose business, engineering and other popular subjects. Some may have an interest in degrees to work in disability-related fields.

Because inclusive education is emphasized, there are very few colleges and universities in the United States specifically for people with disabilities. For example, Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. specifically serves people who are Deaf and Landmark College in Vermont serves students who have learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.

Besides these schools, some schools may be more attractive to people with disabilities, for example, by having excellent physical accessibility, a large community of people with a specific disability, or a reputation for having exceptional services for people with disabilities on campus or in the community. For example, a small campus on flat terrain may be more accessible to someone who uses a wheelchair or a white cane or for those with reduced stamina or increased pain levels than a large campus spread out over many square miles on hilly terrain. Climate may also be a consideration. 

Whatever university a student chooses, encourage him or her to ask detailed questions about disability services and accessibility on campus to make an informed choice.

Although all U.S. colleges and universities provide disability-related accommodations and services, there are many colleges and universities that go beyond the minimum requirements and provide a variety of programs and services to better serve students with disabilities. Examples include:

  • Academic advising and tutoring services for students with learning disabilities
  • Assistive technology training and loan programs
  • Adaptive computer labs
  • Adapted sports programs
  • Disabled student clubs

Students with disabilities also may find a wider array of services and support at a U.S. college or university that has a full disability support services (DSS) office on campus and/or enrolls many students with disabilities. DSS office contact information can usually be found on the college or university website.

Learn more in the Table of Contents resources on this page about high school placements for Deaf, harding of hearing, blind and low vision students, and share with students with disabilities you are advising on coming to study in the United States.

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