Changes to academic accommodations and university experiences for students with disabilities

University accommodations

A study in managing the needs of students transitioning from high school to post-secondary study

Most students who I supported as a university accessibility services advisor transitioned successfully to university. However, a good many did not. The less successful students (and frequently their parents) required considerable advising and counselling as they navigated university in distress and disappointment. A recurring theme for them was the sharp difference between their university and high school academic accommodations.
My work with these students piqued my curiosity about changes to academic accommodations and university experiences for students with disabilities. The following summarizes the doctoral research I completed on this topic at Queen’s University.

Transitions and Changing Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

The percentage of students with disabilities entering Canadian universities jumped from 9 to 22 per cent from 2010 to 2019. During roughly the same period, the number of students registered with Ontario university accessibility offices increased from 21,643 to 42,000, a growth of nearly 50 per cent. Despite attendance growth, a gap in successful outcomes for students with disabilities at university remains. University students with disabilities are less likely to persist in their studies from year one to two, have lower grades, and are less likely than their peers without disabilities to graduate.

Various factors contribute to this gap, including disability severity, inadequate adult learning skills, and challenges navigating access needs in an unfamiliar environment. Differences in academic accommodations between high school and university is also receiving attention. However, research to date has not identified the precise changes that academic accommodations undergo for students as they transition from high school to university, or how these changes relate to their university academic performance. This research seeks to address this gap.


The first step was to develop an academic accommodation comparator tool (AACT) for extracting and comparing accommodation data from student Individual Educational Plans (IEP) and their accommodation file at university. The AACT contains a comprehensive list of academic accommodations types and label equivalences used in high school and university which enables comparing accommodations across the education systems.

Using a retrospective design to look back in time, accommodation data was collected from Grade 12 Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and university accommodation files for a cohort of 71 participants with disabilities who transitioned to university directly from high school. Other data collected included disability label, gender, high school average upon admission to university, first year grade point average (GPA), and the number of courses failed and dropped in the first year.

Changing Accommodations

Chi-squares, which are a statistical test that assesses the difference between observed and expected frequencies of a set of variables, and regression analyses were used to identify how accommodations changed as students transitioned from high school to university. The key results are:

  • Over one-third (34 per cent) of participants presented with a disability label at university that was different from the one listed on their Grade 12 IEP. This serendipitous finding revealed that more than three times as many participants identified with a mental health disability in university than they did in high school, some of whom were previously identified has having a learning disability.
  • Participants received fewer accommodations at university than they had in high school.
  • Participants received less extra time for exams, dropping from an average of 50 minutes per one-hour exam in high school to an average of 15 minutes extra time per one-hour exam at university.
  • At university, participants were more likely to lose academic accommodations involving teacher-delivered individualized instruction or supplemental supports (i.e., paraphrasing information, supporting word retrieval, chunking information, checking for understanding, or providing advanced notice of tasks due).
  • At university, participants were more likely to lose accommodations involving exemptions from work requirements (i.e., complete only a portion of assigned work to demonstrate mastery) and using memory aids during exams.

Changing Accommodations and Academic Performance

Regression and logistic regression were used to examine the relationship between changes to academic accommodations and academic outcomes in first year university, controlling for gender, high school average upon university admission, and program of study. The main findings were:

The more accommodations participants had in high school, the lower their GPA at university.

The more accommodations participants lost once they arrived at university, the lower their first-year GPA and the more likely they were to fail a course in first year.

Losing the following accommodations was associated with a significantly lower GPA and a greater likelihood of failing a course in first year:

  • Individualized instruction or supplemental supports
  • Permission to use a computer for writing exams
  • Permission to use a memory aid while writing exams


This research identified changes to academic accommodations as students with disabilities transitioned from high school to university and examined the relationship between these changes and their academic performance in first-year university. This discussion highlights the main findings.

Changing Accommodations

Disability labels for more than one-third of participants differed between high school and university. This may have resulted for some students when they had updated assessments, perhaps through bursary and other financial supports after they left high school. The change in labels for students with mental health disabilities may reflect greater reluctance by health care practitioners to assign mental health labels to grade-school youth but less so for adults in university.

Differences in how high schools grant accommodations compared to university may partially explain some of the changes that academic accommodations undergo during transition. Accommodations for students with disabilities in high-school have a two-fold purpose: prevent discrimination and help students reach their full potential. In university, accommodations are intended solely to enable equitable access to the learning environment. Approved accommodations are linked directly to a student’s functional limitations and are chosen because they remove tangible access barriers. With much focus on academic integrity and competition at university, using accommodations to boost student academic performance is discouraged.

Adult learning theory underlies most university teaching, which assumes that students are independent, autonomous, and self-directed individuals who are responsible for their own learning. In a context like this, combined with large classes and condensed 12-week terms, it is not surprising that most participants lost the accommodations they had in high school involving teacher-delivered individualized instructional supports.

Changing Accommodations and Academic Performance

The relationship between the loss of accommodations as participants transitioned from high school to university and poor university academic performance may have resulted from their inability to replicate performance once supports were removed. Supports like individualized instruction and supplemental support may hinder skill development or independence, leaving some participants ill-prepared for university, especially those whose disability needs do not warrant these supports.

The same is true for memory aids. This accommodation is recommended only for students with documented neurologically based memory retrieval impairments. It is not intended for students with stress-induced memory challenges or those with poor working memory scores—working memory is not an actual store of information. It refers to temporarily holding information for a few seconds while performing another function (e.g., listening and recalling menu options as spoken by a voice-answering system). Students with intact memory retrieval functioning permitted to use memory aids during exams outperform other students writing the same exam without such cues

Students granted this accommodation absent of a verified disability may come to rely on it for recalling information they should have learned, diminishing their motivation for developing memorization and recall strategies.

Recommendations for Better Transitions

Based on these findings, I recommend the following for high schools, universities, and their relevant Ministries seeking to improve transitions and academic outcomes for students with disabilities:

  • Enhance government funding for comprehensive disability assessments in Grade 11 or 12 so students have updated information about their disability and current functional limitations before leaving high school.
  • Increase awareness about the Bursary for Students with Disabilities, a bursary linked to the Ontario Student Assistant Program that funds new or updated assessments completed during the summer between high school and university for eligible students.
  • Require assessors to recommend academic accommodations for university-bound students with disabilities in Grade 11 and 12 that are rationally linked to their functional limitations and needed specifically to support their equitable access to the learning environment.
  • Although students with disabilities often perform better when access barriers are removed, high schools should avoid using accommodations to boost grades, especially for students aspiring to attend university. For example, the use of memory aids during exams should be permitted only with documented evidence of a memory retrieval impairment verified by proper memory testing.
  • Granting more time for exams than is warranted by their disability may result in overestimating a student’s readiness for university, making it difficult for them to replicate their performance when this support is reduced or removed at university. Where possible, grant only the amount of extra time for exams needed to achieve equitable access. For example, instead of granting all students with disabilities double time, try granting time and a half or time and a quarter time to achieve the same purpose.
  • Teach students how to talk with university accessibility personnel about their disability and to describe how their associated functional limitations affect them at school. For example, how it impacts them in the classroom, taking notes, while studying or completing assignments, during exams, or participating in group work.
  • Teach students about the links between their lived experience of their disability at school, disability documentation, and accommodations.


This research examined changes to academic accommodations for students with disabilities as they transitioned from high school to university. It also assessed the relationship between these changes and their academic performance in first year-year university. Results showed that high school students receive fewer accommodations overall and less extra time for exams once they arrive at university. They are also more likely to lose specific types of accommodations, such teacher-directed instructional supports and memory aids for exams. Receiving fewer accommodations at university and the loss of certain types of accommodations was associated with poor academic performance in first-year university.


Jeanette Parsons, PhD, is the Director of Accessible Learning at Wilfrid Laurier University.

1. Canadian University Survey Consortium (2019). Survey of first year students.
2. R. Dyck, personal communication, Ministry of Colleges and Universities, November 2019
3. Finnie, R., Childs, S., & Qiu, H. (2012). Patters of persistence in postsecondary education: new evidence for Ontario. Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
4. Ontario Ministry of Education. (2017). Special Education in Ontario: Kindergarten to Grade 12.
5. Fry, H. Ketteridge, s., & Marshall, S. (2003). A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education. Enhancing academic practice. (2nd. Ed.). Kogan Page.
6. Duchnick, J.J., Vanderploeg, R.D., Curtiss, G. (2002). Identifying retrieval problems using the California verbal learning test. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 24 (6), 840-851.
7. Lovett, B.J., & Lewandowski, L.J., (2014). Testing accommodations for students with disabilities: Research-based practice. American Psychological Association

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