Florida Colleges Aim to Better Support Students with Disabilities

America has a long history of championing for its underprivileged and mistreated minorities, like African Americans and women, and now that effort is turning toward those with disabilities at many Florida colleges.

When a police officer wounded a caregiver who was protecting a frightened autism client a few months ago, it brought the issue of disabilities to the national stage. The term “disability” encompasses many different conditions, including traumatic brain injuries, physical impairments, visual and hearing impairments, and autism. Florida’s 28 colleges need to be prepared to serve and accommodate students with disabilities, and their efforts to do so continue to grow.

Sarah Stephens is a 19-year-old Tallahassee Community College student who is also disabled. “I would not be where I am today without taking advantage of the disability services offered, from advisory to emotional support. Sometimes I just don’t know what is appropriate to say to a professor or another student,” Stephens explained at a law enforcement gathering.

The state of Florida recognizes the needs of Stephens and other disabled students, and is now providing funding for the Florida Center for Students with Unique Abilities at the University of Central Florida. The center essentially works as a clearinghouse and a resource of programs for students and parents at colleges and universities throughout Florida.

Gulf Coast State College in Panama City, for example, just started a new program to assist autistic students with peer mentorship. A third-semester student studying social work, psychology, or education can volunteer to partner with a freshman student on the autism spectrum. This type of mentorship provides autistic students with vital assistance regarding social skills, executive functioning, and other behavior needed to succeed in college. “We have found that transitioning periods are often difficult for students on the autism spectrum who may not always be prepared to enter mainstream classes. For example, they may need extra support to learn how to work in groups or even make friends in the larger college setting,” explained the coordinator of Disability Support Services.

But it isn’t just autism that needs attention on college campuses. Students with traumatic brain injuries might be coping with physical, emotional, and behavioral challenges that require careful support, especially in the classroom. As one university Chancellor explained, “We are providing students with an environment where they may learn skills for the workplace but just as important, we are creating opportunities for lifelong success stories.”