101: Transitioning from Secondary School

Module 1: Transitioning from Secondary School

High school students with disabilities are entering vocational and career schools, two- and four- year colleges, and universities in increasing numbers (USDoE, 2007). Yet many of them find the transition from high school to a postsecondary institution to be particularly difficult, in part because of the withdrawal of, or radical change in the support services they enjoyed in high school.

Transitioning from Secondary School
Transitioning from Secondary School

The Right Mindset

Surprisingly, a key factor in successfully accommodating a student with a disability lies with you rather than the university or the student. The graphic below illustrates the kind of attitudinal factors that you as an instructor should have at the outset if your students are to succeed. Chances are, if you are reading this, you are probably already convinced of the need for, and importance of accommodating students with disabilities and learning disorders.

At the center are the words “an accommodating philosophy,” representing the desirable attitudes of the instructor. Surrounding this central image are the phrases “compassion and understanding,” “student-focused,” “Patience and flexibility,” “desire to help students reach their full potential,” “capitalizing on student strengths,” “recognizing intelligence in its many forms,” and “minimizing barriers.” Adopting these attitudes may encourage success in the more practical aspects of making accommodations for your disabled students.


The Legal Basis for Accommodating Students

A major difference between secondary institutions and universities, even publicly funded universities, is the level and extent of services provided for disabled students. At the secondary level, not only do students with disabilities have the support of laws promoting equal educational rights, but they also have staff working with them to administer these laws and create individualized programs. At the university level, students are less likely to receive as much personal attention from the administration, and usually on their own to “declare” their disability to the administration and seek help.

One reason for this has to do (in the U.S.) with differences in national law. Under federal anti-discrimination laws, public high schools are required to provide free and appropriate education to everyone, and this has been interpreted to include those people with disabilities. Colleges and universities, in contrast, are merely mandated to provide equal access to students with disabilities. The more-rigorous academic requirements of the university are not compromised in order to accommodate students with disabilities.

An issue that will have to be laid aside, for now, is the difficulty that high school students with certain disabilities encounter in getting the secondary education that makes them academically competitive at the university level. But those who are matriculated face not only heightened academic rigor in college but also a vastly different set of support services. One difference is that in college, students must take more personal responsibility for seeking accommodations for themselves.

While there are disability service offices at most institutions, the service providers in these offices are not required to track students’ academic progress. Students are encouraged to advocate for themselves. In other words, colleges simply ensure that students with disabilities are not discriminated against due to their disabilities. They ensure that classrooms are modified, equipment purchased, and instructors informed, but they do not typically “hand-hold” students. Instead, these students find their own way academically, alongside their non-disabled colleagues.


It is very important that students with disabilities declare their disability (or disabilities) to the appropriate college administrators. Only then can the students be eligible for major accommodations such as physical modifications to classroom space. It is possible that you may encounter a student who, for one reason or another, has not self-declared, and you should use your own judgment as to whether such student should be advised of the need to take this step.

Broaching the issue with a student demands a high degree of sensitivity. In some cases, students simply don’t want to self-declare out of embarrassment or fear. It is your responsibility to convince them that their academic success may depend on taking advantage of the available institutional services.


One key illustration of the differences between high school and college for the disabled student is the so-called IEP. An individualized education program (IEP) is a document that contains educational goals for the student, objectives for achieving these goals, and specific modifications that must be used to help the student in obtaining the goals. (Madaus, 2005) Typically used in high school, IEPs are rarely, if ever, used in the postsecondary setting. In lieu of IEPs, students must themselves utilize the resources available to them on their particular campus to both keep organized and remain accountable to themselves for their progress.

In Declaring

When students declare their disabilities and provide documentation in preparation for college, the appropriate accommodations will need to be made by the instructors and/or the college disability office. As a student progresses through college, disability service providers work with them towards the goal of self-accommodating and independence.

To instructors, this process will largely be invisible, but there are several key points to keep in mind. When students struggle with academics because they have not self-identified or provided documentation for disability accommodation, there is little recourse for them if they later change their minds. Grades earned in courses taken before the student’s self-disclosure will not be deleted or modified. Instructors are under no legal obligation to somehow retroactively accommodate such students.

Nevertheless, it is better for students to declare their disabilities late than not at all, especially if they are in danger of failing. Students must learn to self-advocate and learn to hold themselves accountable.

Minimum GPA

Just like any other college student, a student with a disability must meet the academic requirements of the college. This, again, is a key but subtle difference between the U.S. laws as they apply to universities. Just as universities are not required to admit academically underqualified applicants, they are not required to compromise academic standards on behalf of students with disabilities. If students do not maintain GPA requirements, they risk probation or dismissal, and these students will no longer be eligible for protections, services and accommodations from their university (Madaus, 2005).

A Student’s Personal Responsibility

In general, the instructor’s role in all this is minimal, although it is important to be aware of it. More important are the qualities that you can encourage in students with disabilities through your teaching. These are qualities that you should encourage in every student, but it is especially important to do so for your students with disabilities.

Fig. 1: A number of independent factors contribute to the successful transition to university level study. Perseverance, self-awareness, the student’s pro-activity, goal-setting, emotional coping strategies, and use of support systems provided by the institution all play important parts.

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