Disability-office counselor talks about finding services at college

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The transition from high school to college is difficult for any student. But for special needs students, who often depend on tailored instruction and targeted resources at the high school level, the move to higher education can seem even more daunting.

About a third of District graduates who attend college enroll at the Community College of Philadelphia. We posed some questions to Theresa Tsai, who has been a counselor at CCP’s Center on Disability (COD) for 20 years, about the transition to college life for special education students.

What should special needs students work on in high school to make their transition to college smooth?

"One of the things we try to do [at COD] is help students advocate for themselves," said Tsai. She encouraged high school students to learn about their disability through their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a report that details a student’s disability and educational goals and strategies.

Tsai said the biggest problems arise in college when students don’t yet understand what works and doesn’t work for them.

Students should contact the District’s Office of Specialized Services for advice and attend college fairs targeting special needs students.

What is the role of CCP’s Center on Disability? Do similar offices exist at other colleges?

At COD, Tsai said, "We look at the documentation of students and make a determination on what would help them mitigate their disability."

By law, colleges and universities require evidence that a student is special needs or disabled. This could be an IEP or a full psychoeducational evaluation.

Colleges are also required to have an office or resources for these students. The offices provide support and accommodations for students, but not individualized curricula.

"We are not interested in dumbing down" instruction, Tsai said. "We don’t want to change the integrity of any courses … we want students to have the full college experience."

Tsai recommends researching the website of a potential college or university for disability resources and services.

What are the accommodations and supports?

Things that will "level the playing field," Tsai said. This includes digital recorders so students can record their classes, tutors with a background in learning disabilities, software programs, and electronic textbooks, all which are accessible through the COD.

"We are allowing them to demonstrate that they can master the content, and if a student is qualified and can do the assignment, if they require extra time for a test, it is something we can do for them," she said.

Do students have to visit a college’s office for disabilities?

Federal privacy laws prevent colleges and universities from asking students if they have a disability. The offices do not reach out to students individually. Disability offices rely on schools and districts to encourage students to contact counselors if needed.

"Once students go to a college, they never have to disclose that they have a disability," Tsai said. "It is optional."

Students who take advantage of resources made available at their college are ensured privacy.

"It is never placed on the student’s record that they were registered in the COD," Tsai added. "I think that [disclosure] is a misconception students have because it is on their record in K-12."