Tips for Student-Athletes With Learning Disabilities

If you're a college-bound athlete with a "hidden" disability, there are accommodations and support available on and off the field. Here's what you should know.

Student-athletes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. We know this because we see it every time we go to a school sporting event. But what we don’t see, and often don’t know, is that student-athletes also come in all abilities. Many athletes live with what are referred to as invisible or hidden disabilities. These are disabilities that aren’t easily identifiable at first glance, such as autism, deafness, ADHD, and chronic conditions. Compared to Down syndrome, for example, there is no particular “look” to invisible disabilities, and as such, they are harder to identify.

People with invisible disabilities can and do compete in athletic events designed for able-bodied and able-minded people. But accommodations and support are available, and student-athletes shouldn’t feel hindered because of a disability, whether it’s hidden or not. Here’s what students with learning differences should know about playing sports in college and beyond.

Playing your sport in college

In elementary, middle, and high school, intellectually disabled students (usually in special education) are given the opportunity to participate in Special Olympics, an event with an array of sports made accessible to disabled people. There may also be special programs offered by schools to encourage involvement and integration with typical students in general education. However, opportunities like these seem to decrease when these athletes enter college.

In college, athletes with disabilities are mostly involved with school-sponsored sports, whether at the varsity, club, or intramural level. The National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics estimates that 2.7% of college athletes have a learning disability, though the actual number is thought to be higher due in part to disabled athletes failing to self-report their disability due to fear of stigma, or because many athletes with disabilities have not yet been diagnosed.

Related: Learning Disabilities in College: 7 Things to Know and Do 

Accommodations for student-athletes with disabilities

There are a variety of laws requiring colleges to give necessary and appropriate accommodations to students with disabilities. The most all-encompassing of those laws is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Passed in 1990, the ADA is a civil rights law that prevents discrimination based on disability. A section of the ADA says that “school, university, and community sports programs all must comply with ADA provisions,” meaning student-athletes with disabilities do have the opportunity to participate in college-level athletics, from recreational to varsity level. For serious student-athletes, the NCAA provides championship opportunities to students with “educating-impacting” disabilities as well as reasonable modifications and accommodations of playing rules that don’t provide unfair advantages in competition.

Finding your best-fit school

There are many colleges that provide opportunities for student-athletes with disabilities and learning differences to compete in their sport of choice at every level. You can start your college search with these lists of schools for Students With Learning and Physical Challenges. Be sure to inquire about any extracurricular opportunities that are specific to and inclusive of disabled athletes at your prospective schools, such as club teams, student groups like the Special Olympics College Club Program, or other athletic events and competitions.

Opportunities beyond campus

To take your play even further, the International Paralympic Games provide physically and mentally disabled athletes the opportunity to showcase their talent to the world. The Paralympics occur every four years alongside the Olympics and, much like their counterpart for people without disabilities, are only available to disabled athletes at the top of their game. One other limit to competing in the Paralympics is age; while requirements differ by country, the minimum age requirement in America is 13. You can check the age requirement for your country on the official Olympics website.

Related: Top Tips to Help Students With Disabilities Find Supportive Colleges 

If you’re a student-athlete with a disability, don’t be afraid to pursue your athletic passions in college. There are many schools that support student-athletes with learning disabilities and physical challenges, as well as accommodations that put everyone on a level playing field. The key is finding a school that will nurture your differences and helps you be the best student and athlete you can be. Good luck, and may the best athlete win!

Looking for the perfect school to play your sport that offers the support you need? Check out these College Search and Scholarship Resources for Students With Learning Disabilities.

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now


Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
Sierra Carranza

Sierra Carranza

High School Class of 2022

I had absolutely no idea where I wanted to go to school; I was considering colleges in almost every state. CollegeXpress was an amazing resource and helped me compare all of my top schools. Without the help of CollegeXpress, I probably wouldn't have made such an informed and confident decision.

Abhishek Kumar

Abhishek Kumar

High School Class of 2022

As a high schooler, I know how hard it is to plan for college. You have to consider a lot of factors: SAT/ACT scores, college searches, scholarships, and more. CollegeXpress has been a helpful resource that solves all these problems. One can easily create a free account and search away. They help you search for scholarships and colleges, they have graduate program search, they have lists and rankings, and so much more. CX also has a lot of articles and advice to read—whether it’s financial aid, test prep, campus visits, internships/careers, or anything. Not only that, CX gives out free scholarship money to students who sign up and create a free CX account. I love CX and will continue to use it! Thank you CollegeXpress for making my college journey easier!

Nikole Dixon

Nikole Dixon

$500 Refer-a-Friend Scholarship Winner

Toward the beginning of last year, I was searching for scholarships to apply to through my school, town, websites online, and anything else I could find. I asked tons of questions [online] about scholarships and the best places to find them because I was desperate and needed as many as I could find. I came across a ton of bogus websites, but as soon as I found CollegeXpress, I knew I had to tell other people about it. It was definitely the most helpful site I came across, so I told my friends about it. CollegeXpress is definitely a website worth giving as a source.

Sonny Harris

Sonny Harris

College Student

For the entire year before college, I spent a lot of time deeply considering what major I wanted to go into and how to fund my higher education. After a lot of research, I came across CollegeXpress, which helped me ultimately find a ton of scholarships for which I could apply—and some of which I received! If it weren’t for CollegeXpress, I may not have found those scholarships as they didn't appear on any other scholarship search forum. Additionally, I learned more about the options I had been considering for my major through CollegeXpress’s resources. In the end, I chose to major in Computer Science, as it seemed best suited to me and the careers in the field seemed enjoyable, and I've never been more excited to move into my future! Ultimately, I want to thank CollegeXpress for offering their services. I received enough financial aid in scholarships to fund my entire freshman year of college and even got some money refunded which I used to purchase a new laptop, and I bought all of the books I needed for the semester!

Laura Wallace

Laura Wallace

High School Class of 2019

My favorite part of CollegeXpress is that it features student writers so I get an inside perspective from students slightly older and farther along than me. I realize that other college websites also utilize student writers; however, I relate the most to the college writers that I read articles from on CollegeXpress.

College Matches

Colleges You May Be Interested In

Moody Bible Institute

Chicago, IL

High Point University

High Point, NC

Drew University

Madison, NJ

Charleston Southern University

North Charleston, SC

Grace College

Winona Lake, IN