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Going to college can be confusing and scary for anyone. But when a disability is factored in, the new educational experience can be even more intimidating.

To offset feelings of fear and confusion, many colleges offer a disability services and counseling department to make sure students with disabilities have resources, according to Mary Jo Levand, director of the academic support center at Notre Dame College in South Euclid; Eboni Porter, assistant dean for disability services at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; and Kate Vodicka, assistant dean of counseling at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.

At Cuyahoga Community College, Vodicka said students who need disability services have to self-identify since programs are volunteer-based. Students get information while at orientation. Counselors then work with students to understand the support they’ll get while in college. The services offer support to students with a variety of challenges.

“From there, it is understanding what will make the student most successful in the classroom,” she said. “At Tri-C, we work with students on their self-advocacy for their disability. We have groups related to that and we have our students meet with disability services advisers and campus psychologists to empower students and move them forward from there.”

For students at Case Western Reserve University, Porter said the disability resources office works to ensure students are given all mandated legal rights and protections.

“We are committed to assisting all students with disabilities by creating opportunities to take full advantage of the university’s educational, academic and residential programs,” she noted. “Also, disability resources offer support to students through advocacy, individual consultations and weekly peer groups.”

Levand said Notre Dame College also has many opportunities for students with learning barriers to succeed in the college’s community. Offering accommodations for students with learning disabilities, Levand said advisers also do progress counseling, where professionals meet with the students every week to go over the work they have and plan how the student will accomplish those tasks. They also play a role in their social engagements as well as any work they might be doing.

“What we try to do is make students self-advocates,” she explained. “Typically, what we see is they come in and they’re nervous like any college student, but their anxiety is just a little bit higher. So, we try to empower students to talk to their professors and to be open about their needs and things like that. And as they progress through our program, that’s exactly what happens.”

It is important to personalize the process, so students can find the exact service they need.

“We personalize the experience from the day they walk in and say they’re interested,” Levand stated. “What we do is we do a personal intake meeting with each student. After they’ve gone through the process of application acceptance, we sit down and ask them for their documentation. After that, they look at accommodations that the college provides. It’s about giving them the same access to education that every other student has. We go through every bit of that with them and help them register and advise them all the way through.”

Vodicka added, “A level of personalization is so important because every student comes to us with their own unique goals and we’re going to make sure they’re successful and make it to graduation. We also work with such a diverse population, and when I think about that, whether that is within race, ability, age or economic standing, that is where that level of personalization is key. What are you bringing to the table? What do you need from us?”

At the end of the day, offering these services at the higher education level can have a positive impact on a student’s experience.

“These services are important because they act to level the playing field in higher education and ensure equal access,” Porter noted. “Having access to disability services allow students with disabilities to show their full potential.”

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