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Learners living with disabilities require additional support to ensure that they receive fair and equal educational opportunities.
The financial aspect of higher education affects all students, but those with disabilities may face greater challenges and require additional support. Across the country, more than 61 million people live with a disability, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These include physical impairments, such as mobility and hearing issues, and learning disabilities, like dyslexia and language disorders.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, students with disabilities complete bachelor's degrees at less than half the rate of students without disabilities. While these numbers result from many factors, finances are a considerable portion of the issue. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, people with disabilities over 16 years old find employment at a third of the national rate. Lack of financial support, lower educational attainment, and increased medical spending lead to a much greater risk of falling into poverty.
To combat these trends, schools, organizations, and governments offer specialized funding designed for these students. This guide offers a starting point for funding research, providing information on disabilities, discussing the financial aid process, and highlighting some of the best scholarships available for students with various types of disabilities.
Types of Student Disabilities
The following list examines the common types of disabilities students face. Learners who wish to learn more about specific impairments and whether they are recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and higher education institutions should visit the ADA homepage or consult their prospective schools.
Learning and Intellectual Disabilities: Students with learning and intellectual disabilities may face unique academic and professional challenges. The National Center for Learning Disabilities states that students with learning disabilities receive more disciplinary actions and drop out close to three times more often than the average student. Common learning disabilities include dyslexia, language disorders, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Physical Disabilities: While the ADA requires schools to provide equal learning experiences for students with physical disabilities, many learners with physical ailments struggle with traditional learning environments. Most notably, degree-seekers with mobility or travel limitations or neurological conditions often require extra accommodations, support services, and assistive technologies, which creates additional expenditures.
Speech or Language Disorders: Communication plays a large role in education, so students with speech and language disorders often have more difficulty than other students. According to LD Online, speech disorders affect 10% of people in the country. They can stem from neurological issues, brain injuries, or physical impairments, like cleft lips.
Chronic Health Conditions: Chronic health conditions can have a big effect on a person's daily life. These conditions often cause pain and discomfort, which can limit how much studying or work a person can do on a given day, thereby limiting their educational opportunities. According to the CDC, more than 60% of American adults suffer from at least one chronic condition, such as asthma, diabetes, Crohn's disease, or fibromyalgia.
Mental Health Disorders: While awareness of mental health disorders and the impact they can have grows, school support and accommodations have likewise increased, but learners with mental health concerns still need more support. According to the World Health Organization, disorders like depression, PTSD, anxiety, and bipolar disorder affect 1 in 4 people worldwide.
Autism and Other Developmental Disorders: For degree-seekers on the autism spectrum, pursuing higher education presents unique challenges. According to the CDC, approximately 1 in 6 Americans have at least one developmental disorder, like autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or social anxiety. It's important for educational institutions and government organizations to create support services and programs to help improve access to education for students with developmental disabilities.
Challenges for Students with Disabilities
Legal regulations around providing equitable education for all students have steadily progressed, largely due to the continued work of local, state, and national advocacy organizations. However, students with disabilities still face unique obstacles in the pursuit of education, including a lack of resources, academic challenges, and social factors.
Lack of Resources
Lack of accommodations and resources available to students with disabilities remains one of the biggest obstacles to higher education for them. While the number of students with disabilities in higher education has increased, largely due to improved accommodations, not all schools have kept pace, despite ADA regulations. Without proper accommodations, schools can become inaccessible to learners with disabilities.
According to a report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, students with disabilities are more likely to receive inadequate support when compared with the general population, which may lead to lower grades in high school. This can have a ripple effect, leading to poor preparation for the academic rigor of postsecondary education. This disparity often stems from faculty members and their lack of awareness about their responsibility to provide support and resources specifically for students with disabilities.
College can mean stress and anxiety for any student, but learners with disabilities may experience these feelings more acutely. Without proper support, these students often feel isolated or unengaged, and it can be difficult to build relationships with peers. Anxiety about being part of an active classroom, meeting new people, and using school facilities and services may be heightened for them.
The Importance of Grants and Scholarships
The financial element of higher education affects all students, and students with disabilities are no exception. Scholarships and grants help relieve some of the financial stress involved in higher education, allowing degree-seekers to focus on their studies and the college experience. A lower-cost education involves less risk and provides greater access.
Scholarships are especially important for graduate students, who also have to manage their student loans from undergrad. Because scholarships do not require repayment, they help minimize the student loan debt that many Americans face. This allows graduates to save more and spend their money on other things, like buying houses.
All types of students can access scholarships. Some awards recognize academic merits, while others target those in need. Students should always complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and apply for as many scholarships as possible. According to a NerdWallet study, American students left $2.9 billion in federal grants unused in 2015.
Finding and Applying to Scholarships
Where to Look
With so many available scholarships and grants, students may become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information. To help sort through all that information, degree-seekers should start with online resources and databases, such as Scholarships.com, Fastweb.com, or Finaid.org.
Learners should also explore regional scholarships. Many state pages and local government websites offer links to public scholarships, which incentivize students to attend school closer to home. Local organizations also offer scholarship programs, typically focusing on learners in industry-specific disciplines. For students with disabilities, specific scholarships offered through national and local associations that support their disabilities are also an option.
After narrowing their school search to a manageable number, students should also look into available scholarships at each school. Many colleges and universities offer scholarship databases of internal awards. They may also post links to external scholarships and grants.
How to Apply
When applying for scholarships, students should take time to prepare and plan well in advance. They should begin with thorough research, finding all the scholarships for which they qualify. Creating a calendar of the deadlines for each award helps keep applicants on track.
Many awards recognize academic merit and community involvement, so applicants should aim to improve their marks — particularly during their junior year in high school — and look for local volunteering opportunities. Before they begin applying, candidates should collect materials ahead of time, such as transcripts, letters of recommendation, and personal essays.
With these steps completed beforehand, students can spend time focusing on each application, ultimately applying for more awards overall. This will also allow them to focus on scholarships that require extra effort. Every award differs, but the application process usually takes place in the fall or spring. For best results, candidates should apply to a manageable number of awards and avoid wasting time on longshot applications.
While students should perform their own research to find the scholarships that suit their individual situation and circumstances, the following list is a great place to start. We highlight some of the best scholarships for students with disabilities and provide application details.
Microsoft Disability Scholarship
Established by Microsoft, this scholarship supports technology students with disabilities who are pursuing degrees and careers in the technology industry. Each applicant needs a minimum 3.0 GPA and must submit letters of recommendation, three essays, and transcripts. Candidates also need to demonstrate leadership in their communities.
National Scholarship for College Students with Disabilities
This scholarship was developed in support of students with disabilities. It rewards applicants who submit exemplary personal essays and demonstrate educational and professional promise. Each candidate must maintain current enrollment in a two- or four-year program, provide proof of their disability, and submit a personal essay.
As a part of the New Outlook Pioneers Memorial Scholarships, this award program recognizes high-achieving students with disabilities. Applicants need to be graduating high school seniors with physical or learning impairments. They must also submit transcripts, letters of recommendation, and personal essays.
Run by the American Association of People with Disabilities and funded by NBCUniversal, this scholarship rewards promising students with disabilities. Candidates must be currently enrolled in a higher education program and have a professional interest in communications or the entertainment industry. Each applicant submits three essays, proof of their disability, transcripts, and a letter of recommendation.
This scholarship supports students with disabilities in their pursuit of higher education. Applicants need to demonstrate a high level of community involvement and be currently enrolled in colleges or universities in Oregon, Washington, or California. INCIGHT chooses winners based on academic merit and community service. Once chosen, each recipient must commit to 30 hours of additional community service.
Established in 2014, this scholarship provides funding for students with disabilities or injuries. Each applicant needs a disability diagnosis and must have completed a minimum of one college or university semester. Candidates also need to submit transcripts and professional letters of recommendation.
Run by the Scura Law Firm, this scholarship program recognizes students with disabilities who hold an important place in their communities. Applicants must have a documented disability, a minimum 3.2 GPA, and a strong resume. They also need to pursue programs at New Jersey colleges and universities. Candidates must submit letters of recommendation and an essay.
Established by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Foundation, this program provides funding for promising students who have disabilities and are pursuing two- or four-year degrees. They may also need to demonstrate community involvement, leadership qualities, and financial need.
Google offers this scholarship for college or university students with disabilities, aiming to support the innovators of the future. Applicants must pursue full-time computer science or computer engineering degrees. Judges evaluate candidates on academic merit and their passion for technology. Winners also receive invitations to the Google Scholars' Retreat.
Aiming to promote health and wellness and to support people living with disabilities, the American Association on Health and Disability offers scholarships for students with physical or learning impairments. Each applicant must attend either a full-time undergraduate program or a part- or full-time graduate program. They also need to provide proof of disability, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.
Scholarships for Students with Learning and Intellectual Disabilities
RISE Scholarship Foundation
The RISE Scholarship Foundation has supported students with disabilities in their pursuit of higher education since 2010. High school seniors planning to enroll in college or university in the next year may apply. Each applicant must have a diagnosed learning disability and a minimum 2.5 GPA. Candidates must also submit letters of recommendation and personal essays.
Established by Learning Ally to provide funding for students with learning disabilities, this award recognizes promising students currently attending college. Each candidate submits transcripts, a letter of recommendation, and a personal narrative that they must be willing to share publicly. Learning Ally offers awards based on academic merit, community involvement, and the strength of applicants' stories.
Offered through the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Anne Ford Scholarship rewards promising students who have learning disabilities. Each applicant must maintain current enrollment in a four-year bachelor's degree and have a diagnosed disability. Candidates submit letters of recommendation and transcripts, and winners receive $2,500 each year for four years.
The Allegra Ford Thomas Scholarship from the National Center for Learning Disabilities offers financial support for students with learning disabilities pursuing education through two-year colleges, trade schools, and specialty programs. Each candidate must submit proof of their diagnosis, a letter of recommendation, and transcripts.
This scholarship provides funding for young adults with learning disabilities who are pursuing a STEM-related discipline in college. Each applicant must be enrolled or accepted in a college or trade school and have a diagnosed learning disability. They also need to submit a letter of recommendation and transcripts.
Karina Eide Memorial College Scholarships for Students with Dyslexia
This scholarship provides financial support for undergraduate students with dyslexia. Freshmen in colleges or trade schools with documented diagnoses may apply. Each candidate must provide proof of financial need, transcripts, a letter of recommendation, and a short personal essay.
Gemm Learning recognizes promising students who have dyslexia or an auditory processing disorder. Each candidate submits a personal essay documenting how they live with and overcome their learning challenges. Applicants must be currently enrolled in a college program and provide proof of their learning disorder.
Scholarships for Students with Physical Disabilities
180 Medical College Scholarship Program
This scholarship supports education for college students living with physical disabilities. Applicants must provide proof of ongoing medical care for a condition, such as a spinal cord injury, neurogenic bladder, or an ostomy. They also need to be currently enrolled in a two-year, four-year, or graduate program.
Karman provides financial support for high-achieving students in college and university programs who have mobility issues. Each candidate must submit proof of disability, transcripts with a minimum 2.0 GPA, and an essay addressing the year's theme. Karman awards this scholarship based on candidates' academic achievements and their commitment to disability awareness.
Established in 1994, the Hydrocephalus Association's Scholarship Program offers 11 scholarships for students who live with hydrocephalus. Applicants must apply the funds toward two- or four-year college programs. For consideration, each candidate submits transcripts, proof of diagnosis, letters of recommendation, and a personal statement.
The Hemophilia Federation of America offers several scholarships for students and families of those living with bleeding disorders. Applicants need to provide proof of their medical condition, enrollment in a two- or four-year program, reference letters, and an essay addressing their condition and the challenges they face.
This scholarship provides funding for promising applicants living with cystic fibrosis. Candidates must be enrolled in or accepted into a college or university program. CFSF awards scholarships based on financial need, academic merit, and overall leadership qualities.
LPA offers scholarships for undergraduate or graduate students with dwarfism and other medical conditions. Applicants must submit transcripts, proof of their condition, reference letters, and a personal essay. Candidates who volunteer with LPA may receive preference.
This scholarship rewards applicants who have overcome mobility issues to pursue higher education. Candidates must hold a minimum 3.0 GPA and be currently enrolled or have received acceptance into a college or university. Graduate students can also apply. Applicants must also submit a visual poem that addresses their personal story and challenges.
Scholarships for the Visually and Hearing Impaired
Lighthouse Guild Scholarships
Lighthouse Guild created these scholarships to support people with vision loss. Entering freshmen or current graduate students may apply. Each candidate must provide proof of blindness, school transcripts, letters of recommendation, and a personal essay. Lighthouse Guild chooses recipients based on academic merit.
The National Federation of the Blind established this award to support high-achieving students with vision impairments. For eligibility, candidates need to submit transcripts or diplomas, standardized test scores, personal essays, and letters of recommendation. Judges evaluate applicants based on academic merit, community involvement, and leadership abilities.
These scholarships recognize promising students with visual impairments and those with visually impaired parents. Eligible candidates must be attending or accepted into university. Applicants submit an essay on the provided topic, plus high school transcripts and letters of recommendation.
This award, created by Learning Ally to support promising students with visual impairments, recognizes undergraduate and graduate students. Each applicant must submit a personal narrative, share their story as an advocate for Learning Ally, submit letters of recommendation, and provide transcripts. Learning Ally provides awards based on academic merit, community involvement, and leadership potential.
Cochlear offers several scholarships for promising students who received in-ear implants. Graduating seniors with minimum 3.0 GPAs may apply. Winners can also renew their awards for up to four years if they maintain a 3.0 GPA. Cochlear offers awards based on academic merit, leadership, and community involvement.
Established by the United States Association of Blind Athletes, this program rewards promising students who are legally blind and pursuing higher education. For eligibility, a candidate must be a student-athlete with a minimum 2.5 GPA and hold USABA membership. Each applicant submits a personal essay and a biography.
Offered by Help America Hear, these scholarships recognize high-achieving students with hearing impairments. Each applicant must be a graduating high school senior or current higher education student. Judges base their decisions on academic proficiency, community involvement, and leadership. Winners also receive brand new hearing aids.
Established in 1994, these awards from Sertoma recognize high-achieving students with hearing loss who are pursuing four-year bachelor's degrees. An applicant must have a minimum bilateral hearing loss of 40dB and provide proof of their audiogram results. They also need a minimum 3.2 GPA in their senior year of high school.
Established by the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, this scholarship recognizes students with legally blind status. The scholarship is awarded every other year and considers applicants with academic proficiency, leadership qualities, and community involvement. Candidates must be currently pursuin degrees related to servicing visually impaired persons.
Established in 1989, this scholarship from the Christian Record Services for the Blind recognizes high-achieving blind students pursuing a college degree. Candidates must submit transcripts, verification of blindness, professional recommendations, and personal essays. Christian Record Services selects winners based on academic merit and provides awards in two parts each year.
Offered by the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Council of the Blind, this scholarship rewards promising students who are legally blind. Applicants need a minimum 3.0 GPA and must be full-time students or work at least 32 hours each week. Candidates also need to demonstrate community involvement.
Scholarships for Individuals with Speech and Language Disorders
Funded by CleftProud, this scholarship recognizes promising students affected by cleft lips and palates. Eligible applicants must submit high school diplomas or transcripts. Judges evaluate candidates based on academic merit and personal essays.
Supported by the Sertoma Annual Fund, an organization that supports learners studying communication disorders, this scholarship recognizes promising graduate students pursuing degrees in speech pathology or audiology. Applicants need a minimum 3.5 GPA. Winners can apply the funds toward any school-related costs.
Scholarships for Individuals with Mental Health Disorders
Jared Monroe Foundation Scholarship
Created by the Jared Moore Foundation, this award recognizes promising students who received a bipolar disorder diagnosis. Applicants must be enrolled or accepted into university full time and currently receiving treatment for their diagnoses. They must also submit an essay on a provided topic. Winners can apply their funding toward their education as they see fit.
JC Runyon Foundation developed this scholarship to support students with mental health concerns. Eligible candidates have completed one successful stay at an inpatient clinic for a psychiatric disorder. Applicants must also have received acceptance into undergraduate or trade school programs. They need to submit transcripts or diplomas, proof of a successful psychiatric facility stay, and letters of recommendation.
This scholarship aims to improve care and support for students undergoing treatment for mental illness. Candidates must maintain current enrollment in a university program at the undergraduate or graduate level. Quell awards these scholarships to applicants with the highest academic proficiency and levels of community involvement, with a separate award for student-athletes. Winners can renew their awards.
Created to help destigmatize mental illness and shine a light on effective treatment, this scholarship supports current or aspiring undergraduate students who lost caregivers to suicide. Applicants must already be accepted into college. Judges evaluate candidates based on academic merit and commitment to their studies and careers. Recipients can renew their scholarships.
Created by the Center for Reintegration in support of people suffering from mental illness, this award provides funding for students with mental health issues. Candidates must have a bipolar or schizoaffective disorder diagnosis and be actively pursuing rehabilitative efforts. Candidates are judged on academic merit, submitted essays, and rehabilitation involvement.
Scholarships for Individuals with Autism and Other Developmental Disorders
Avonte Oquendo Memorial Scholarship
Established by the Perecman Firm, P.L.L.C., in honor of Avonte Oquendo, a young man who lived with autism, this scholarship recognizes promising degree-seekers with autism or who help care for loved ones with autism. Candidates need strong grades and current enrollment in an undergraduate program, and they must submit a winning essay on a given topic.
The Organization for Autism Research provides this award to support promising students with autism pursuing undergraduate degrees. Applicants must attend a full-time undergraduate program and submit proof and date of diagnosis, three essays on given topics, and a letter of recommendation.
Created in 2013 by the Organization for Autism Research, this award offers financial support to students with autism at two-year colleges and trade schools. Each candidate must submit proof of enrollment and diagnosis, along with three personal essays and a letter of recommendation. An applicant with limited written communication skills may submit two letters of recommendation in place of the essays.
Created in honor of Ruby Plachta, the Ruby's Rainbow Scholarship awards current or aspiring undergraduate students who live with Down syndrome. Applicants must submit transcripts or a high school diploma, along with pictures or a video that provides judges with more personal information. Judges evaluate candidates based on academic achievements and community involvement.
Created by John's Crazy Socks, an organization dedicated to supporting young people diagnosed with developmental conditions, this scholarship rewards the applicant who pitches the best sock design. Each applicant must be on the autism spectrum and submit a fun, creative design. Winners can apply the funds toward any project, including school tuition.
Much like scholarships, grants provide students with funding that does not require repayment. However, while scholarships usually reward academic merit, grants are typically more concerned with financial need and community involvement.
To qualify for most grants, students need to complete their FAFSA. The following list highlights some of the most significant grant programs available to American students.
Federal Pell Grants: These grants offer one of the major sources of funding for low-income students in the U.S. For eligibility, applicants must complete a FAFSA and demonstrate financial need. The amount of funding they receive depends on enrollment status and their determined family contribution rate.
State Grants: State-level incentives aim to keep high-achieving learners in their home states. Qualifying candidates typically need to demonstrate financial need, satisfy residency status, and attend a state school.
Private Grants: Private grants can come from many types of people and organizations. Often, these grants are tied to a specific field, incentivizing promising students to pursue that career. As a result, many grants also require internship or employment commitments from winners.
The list below is a helpful starting place for students with disabilities who are looking for grants. However, learners should still do their own research to find programs that meet their unique circumstances to maximize their funding opportunities.
Ben's Fund provides financial support for young people with autism and their families. The grants are available to Washington students for educational purposes or for therapies or equipment, and recipients can renew funding each year. Each applicant must have an autism diagnosis and demonstrate financial need.
Established to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including those with disabilities, this program provides funding for learners on a variety of educational pathways. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and that they have experienced hardships. WiseGeek considers all majors and GPAs.
Funded by the Foundation for Science and Disability, this grant program recognizes graduate students with disabilities. Eligible applicants need to pursue STEM-related programs and must be at least in their final undergraduate year. They also need to submit transcripts, professional letters of recommendation, and an essay outlining their professional objectives.
What Percentage of College Students Have Disabilities?
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students with disabilities represented 19.4% of all undergraduate-level college students in 2015. That number dropped to 11.9% for postgraduate students.
Where Can Students with Disabilities Find Scholarships for College?
Students with disabilities can find scholarships using large online award databases, such as Scholarships.com and Collegescholarships.org. They can also explore local or state organizations and government programs, which often post scholarship link roundups, or consult their individual schools for more local opportunities.
What Disabilities Are Recognized by Colleges?
While the ADA does not provide a comprehensive list of recognized disabilities, the organization defines a disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities." The ADA also states that an individual with a disability needs a record of their impairment to be acknowledged as having a disability.
What Kinds of Scholarships Can You Get with a Disability?
Students with disabilities have access to a variety of awards. Some awards provide relatively open access for specialized disability groups, while others require academic achievements, memberships with certain groups or organizations, or entry into a specific school. Scholarship amounts also vary widely.
Header Image Credit: Michael Puche | Getty Images
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