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.

General Scholarships and Grants for Students with Disabilities

  • AAHD Frederick J. Klause Scholarship on Health and Disability: This scholarship is awarded annually to students with a disability who are pursuing undergraduate or graduate studies in a field related to health and disability, such as public health, special education, disability research, or audiology, at an accredited university.
  • Microsoft Disability Scholarship: This renewable scholarship is awarded to high school seniors with disabilities who plan to attend a vocational or academic college and aspire to have a career in the technology industry.
  • Foundation for Science and Disability Grant: This grant is available to fourth-year undergraduate students accepted to graduate or professional school and graduate students who have a disability and are pursuing degrees in any field of Mathematics, Science, Medicine, Engineering, or Computer Science.
  • Incight Scholarship: Undergraduate and graduate students who are current California, Oregon, or Washington State residents and have a documented disability are eligible for this grant.
  • Joe Cleres and Don Sage Scholarship Program: Designed for students with mental or physical disabilities pursuing education at an institution that requires tuition.
  • Google Lime Scholarship: Offered through a partnership between Google and the non-profit Lime Connect, this scholarship is designed to help American and Canadian students with disabilities work towards their academic goals in computer science.

Scholarships for Students with Hearing Loss/Deafness

  • Cochlear Scholarships: Open to undergraduate or graduate students who are U.S. or Canadian citizens and recipients of Cochlear Nucleus, Baha, or Osia hearing devices.
  • Sertoma International Hard of Hearing and Deaf Scholarship: U.S. citizens with clinically significant bilateral hearing loss, graduating from high school, or undergraduate students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in any discipline are eligible for the scholarship.
  • American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation Scholarship: The ASH Foundation offers a scholarship to disabled undergraduate seniors accepted into a master’s program or students currently pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree in communication sciences and disorders.
  • Graduate Fellowship Fund at Gallaudet University: The Graduate Fellowship Fund (GFF) provides financial assistance to deaf and hard-of-hearing graduates of accredited colleges and universities studying full-time in terminal degree programs.
  • George H. Nofer Scholarship for Law and Public Policy: This scholarship is for full-time graduate students with moderate to profound hearing loss who are attending full-time an accredited law school or graduate school and working towards a master’s or doctoral degree in public policy or public administration.

Scholarships for Students with Visual Impairments

  • American Council for the Blind Scholarship: The American Council of the Blind (ACB), in partnership with other organizations and individuals, offers educational scholarships for legally blind students at the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as those attending technical college.
  • National Federation of the Blind Scholarship Program: The Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement awards are presented to Learning Ally members who are completing undergraduate or graduate degrees and who are blind or visually impaired in recognition of academic achievement, outstanding leadership, and service to others.
  • Fred Scheigert Scholarship Program: Each year, The Fred Scheigert Scholarship Program awards four scholarships to full-time college students with low vision, chosen from among those who meet the visual acuity and academic guidelines.
  • AER William and Dorothy Ferrell Scholarship: The William and Dorothy Ferrell Scholarship is awarded every other year in even years to two selected applicants who are legally blind and are studying for a career in services to persons who are blind or visually impaired.
  • Lighthouse Guild Scholarships: Each year, the Lighthouse Guild offers up to 20 unrestricted scholarships to outstanding U.S. high school students who are legally blind and one scholarship for a qualifying graduate student.

Scholarships for Students with Physical/Mobility Impairments

  • 1800 Wheelchair: Established in 2006, the 1800wheelchair Scholarship Fund bestows one to two yearly awards to qualified undergraduate or graduate students who can speak to mobility issues on campus, how to overcome personal challenges, and more.
  • 180 Medical Scholarship: The 180 Medical Scholarship Program is open to full-time college students with specific medical conditions, including spinal cord injuries, spina bifida, transverse myelitis, neurogenic bladder, or an ostomy.
  • Elaine Chapin Fund MS Scholarship: This scholarship supports the post-secondary education of St. Louis, MO-area students impacted by multiple sclerosis, directly or as a family member.
  • Brighter Tomorrow Grant: This grant is available to individuals with multiple sclerosis to help them pay for goods and services, which can include educational supplies.
  • Little People of America Scholarship: LPA offers scholarships to undergraduate students who are members of LPA who have a medically diagnosed form of dwarfism, immediate family members of dwarfs who are also paid members of LPA, or people with dwarfism who are not members of LPA.
  • AbbVie CF Scholarship: The AbbVie CF Scholarship recognizes exceptional students with Cystic Fibrosis who demonstrate academic excellence, community involvement, creativity, and the ability to serve as a positive role model for the Cystic Fibrosis community.
  • Elizabeth Nash Foundation Scholarship: The Elizabeth Nash Foundation Scholarship program is open to U.S. citizens with cystic fibrosis who are in-going or current undergraduate or graduate students at an accredited US-based college or university.

Scholarships for Students with Chronic Illnesses/Health Impairments

  • Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation Scholarships: These scholarships are available to U.S. students in undergraduate, graduate, or technical degree programs, who were diagnosed with a brain or spinal cord tumor before the age of 21.
  • Diabetes Scholars Program: Diabetes Scholars awards scholarships to students entering college and living with type 1 diabetes.
  • Eric Marder Scholarship Program: The Eric Marder Scholarship Program is open to patients with a primary immunodeficiency as classified by the World Health Organization and is for undergraduate students attending or entering college or a technical training school.
  • Hemophilia Federation of America Scholarships: These scholarships are available to students with a bleeding disorder seeking a post-secondary education from a college, university, or trade school.
  • National Collegiate Cancer Foundation Scholarships: The National Collegiate Cancer Foundation offers this scholarship to students who are cancer survivors or current cancer patients and are attending or planning to attend an accredited college, university, or vocational institution in pursuit of an associate, bachelor, master’s, doctorate, or certificate.
  • PAF Scholarships for Survivors: This scholarship program was designed to support individuals who are U.S. citizens pursuing undergraduate or graduate studies and have been diagnosed with or treated for cancer or chronic disease.
  • UCB Family Epilepsy Scholarship Program: This program offers educational scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students living with epilepsy and family members and caregivers of those with epilepsy.

Scholarships for Students with Learning Disabilities

  • Hydrocephalus Association’s Scholarship Program: This program offers multiple scholarships to provide financial assistance to capable and promising young adults who live with the ongoing challenges and complexities of hydrocephalus.
  • Katie MacDonald Memorial Scholarship: This scholarship is for individuals with Down syndrome pursuing educational or job training opportunities beyond high school.
  • Marion Huber Learning Through Listening Awards: Each year, they are presented to Learning Ally high school senior members with learning disabilities who plan to continue their education after graduation to recognize their academic achievement, outstanding leadership, and service to others.
  • NCLD Anne Ford and Allegra Ford Scholarship: Students with a documented learning disability or ADHD can apply for these scholarships, one of which is awarded to graduating high school seniors pursuing a bachelor’s degree, and the other which is awarded to graduating high school seniors enrolling in a two-year community college, vocational program, or specialized program.
  • Organization for Autism Research Scholarships: Students on the autism spectrum pursuing full-time, post-secondary education at a four-year undergraduate college or university, two-year undergraduate college, trade school, technical school, vocational school, or cooperative life skills program can apply for this scholarship.

Other Resources to Help Pay for College

  • Medical Tax Deductions: If a student’s education includes elements specifically designed to help them overcome their disability, the student or their family may be able to claim some of their education as a medical tax deduction. Students and families should consult a tax advisor to help them learn more about this resource.
  • Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) Discharge: Individuals who become totally and permanently disabled post-graduation may be eligible to have their student loans and any TEACH grant teaching obligations discharged by the federal government.
  • Transition and Postsecondary Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities: This U.S. Department of Education program provides grants to higher education to help them create or expand high-quality, inclusive model comprehensive transition and postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities.
  • Federal Work-Study Programs: Another Department of Education program, federal work-study jobs are on-campus employment opportunities open to all students, with eligibility determined by the FAFSA.

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