The Jonathan Foundation

Taking On The Nation’s Educational System To Benefit Children With Special Needs

Written by Higher Education Team, Interviews with Raja Marhaba

Updated on August 17, 2023

According to the University of New Hampshire’s Institute on Disability, over 20 million Americans ages 18-64 live with a disability. Individuals in this population seeking college degrees can face various challenges, including paying for their program.

The good news is that many financial resources are available, including scholarships, grants, insurance, student loans, and more. This guide will detail these resources and provide an overview of common financial challenges and how students with disabilities can overcome them. Additionally, special education advocate, Raja Marhaba, provides insights into accessing education and accommodations for students with disabilities.

What Students With Disabilities Should Know About Attending College

Students with disabilities must understand their rights when applying to colleges. “Familiarize yourself with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act,” Marhaba says. This knowledge will help students advocate for themselves to ensure they receive the accommodations and assistance they’re entitled to.

Additionally, Marhaba says, “Students should make sure the campus has accessibility to facilities, including classrooms, dormitories, libraries, and recreational areas. They should also inquire about accessible transportation and any available college support services for their particular needs.” If students plan on attending school in person, they should visit the campus if possible to get familiar with the environment and confirm accessibility.

Marhaba also notes that it’s the student’s responsibility to disclose their disability so that the necessary steps can be taken to ensure accommodations. “Don’t be afraid to have a voice and state your requests,” she says. “Parents and legal guardians won’t be attending college with you, so if you don’t advocate for yourself, nobody will. It’s important to become independent and self-advocate so that you can become successful.

Students must also consider common factors of researching and applying to colleges, including confirming that their intended institution is accredited, exploring scholarships and financial aid options, and adhering to application deadlines and requirements.

Common Financial Challenges for Students with Disabilities

According to Marhaba, some of the most common financial challenges students with disabilities face when attending college include medical expenses, assistive technology, transportation, reduced work opportunities, and a lack of financial literacy and resources. These costs, in addition to challenges all students face, include rising tuition and fees at higher education institutions.

Luckily, some resources can help students with disabilities overcome these hardships. To help with medical expenses, students can explore Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), an Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) savings account, and the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Many students with disabilities need assistive technology such as speech-to-text software, alternative keyboards and mice, electronic Braille displays, and communication devices. Several organizations offer grants and other financial resources for assistive technology, including:

The ADA provides accommodations to make public transportation available to individuals with disabilities, including reduced fares, paratransit services for individuals unable to use fixed-route public transit due to functional limitations, and ride-share partnerships to provide on-demand accessible transportation to college students with disabilities. Students should check with their college and state and local transportation agencies to find out what public transportation discounts and accommodations are available to them.

While students with disabilities may be limited in the types of jobs they can hold while enrolled in school, Marhaba says that there are more opportunities than ever for individuals seeking employment. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion have become a requirement for most employers, who are also struggling to find good, ethical employees,” she says. To find job opportunities, Marhaba recommends students inquire about on-campus jobs, visit the school’s career service center, check online job boards like LinkedIn, Indeed, Handshake, and Glassdoor, and research local businesses that hire college students.

Another hurdle for some students with disabilities may be a lack of financial literacy and resources. According to the most recent data from the Institute on Disability, 25.9% of American adults with disabilities live below the poverty line. This lack of income, coupled with gaps in knowledge about budgeting, loans, and managing personal finances, can create barriers to accessing education. Marhaba encourages students to use resources like and the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) to learn about healthy financial practices.

Important Documents for Students with Disabilities

As students go through the application and enrollment process, they should know the documentation needed to access accommodations and financial aid. These include:

  • Accommodations Request Forms: Individual schools use these forms, which may be available electronically or in hard copy form, to process requests for accommodations from students with disabilities. The ADA requires that schools provide reasonable accommodations to students with disabilities. The specific process for requesting these accommodations will vary by school, so students should consult with their college’s disability services office to confirm what forms and other documentation are required.
  • Disability Diagnostic Forms: As part of the accommodations request process, schools often ask for proof of a student’s disability. Typically, a student’s medical or mental health care provider will complete any required disability diagnostic paperwork, explaining the student’s diagnosis and what accommodations they may need.
  • Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): This free online application is the key document students need to apply for financial aid, including federal student loans, grants, and work-study. Most schools also use the financial information collected in the FAFSA to determine institutional aid, like scholarships and grants.

Federal and State Financial Aid Benefits for Students with Disabilities

Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans

The U.S. Department of Education offers two types of federal student loans. Direct Subsidized Loans are available to undergraduate students with financial need. The Department of Education “subsidizes” these loans by paying them interest while students are enrolled at least half-time and for the first six months after they leave school. Direct Unsubsidized Loans are available to all undergraduate and graduate students, regardless of financial need. However, students are always responsible for paying the interest on these loans. Schools determine what loan types and amounts students can receive each year using information gathered through the FAFSA. Annual and total limits exist on how much students can borrow through the Direct Loan Program.

Federal Pell Grants

Another resource from the Department of Education is a Federal Pell Grant available to undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional financial need and have yet to earn a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree. Unlike federal student loans, Pell Grants don’t need to be repaid, except in certain circumstances, like withdrawing early from the program for which the grant was awarded. Eligibility for a Pell Grant is determined through the FAFSA, and award amounts typically change each year. As part of changes to the federal student loan program in 2021, the Pell Grant program was expanded, with more students eligible to receive the maximum annual Pell Grant amount.

Vocational Rehabilitation

This program is also funded by the Department of Education and is designed for disabled individuals who need assistance preparing for, obtaining, and maintaining a job. To qualify for vocational rehabilitation (VR) services, students must have a physical or mental impairment that presents a substantial barrier to employment. While this is a federal program, students must apply through their state’s VR agency. Eligibility requirements may vary by state. For example, some states provide specialized services for legally blind individuals through a separate program called State Services for the Blind.

Social Security benefits

Disabled individuals may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is the monthly income paid to individuals to help cover expenses, including education costs. Students interested in applying for Social Security benefits should carefully review the eligibility requirements.

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