Choosing the right school for special needs child

Choosing the right school for special needs child

Applying to colleges and universities is an exciting time in any student’s life, and it should be no different for students with special needs. For a special needs caregiver, aside from selecting the program that your child is interested in, and meeting all of the school’s acceptance requirements, other factors in choosing the right school for your special needs child may include:

  • Finding the right fit
  • Services that take into account your child’s academic and mental health
  • Accessibility services and mobility needs
  • Your child’s daily living and meal-time routine

Here are some considerations that may help you and your child narrow down the choices of universities and colleges for special needs students that meet all (or most) of your child’s special needs requirements:

Campus tour

Most prospective students living with special needs and their parents will want to tour the campuses of the schools they are applying to, especially if the student will have to live in residence. Campus tours are a great way for parents and students to assess each school’s accessibility services to help with academic success, mental health, and mobility impairment. In some cases, it may help to mention your child’s special needs when you book your campus tour so that the tour guide will be well prepared on the day of your visit.  

Campus tours are a great way for parents and students to assess each school’s accessibility services to help with academic success, mental health, and mobility impairment.

Some schools, like Toronto’s Ryerson University, even have tours geared towards prospective students with physical disabilities. Ryerson’s Access Tours are available upon request and show special needs students where the best barrier-free routes and pick-up and drop-off points are for Wheel Trans, plus locations of elevators, accessible washroom facilities, and information kiosks around campus.

For some families, a campus tour of every single school their special needs child is applying to may not be feasible. Check out the school’s website to see if they offer a virtual tour of the campus and its buildings.

Whether it’s in person or virtual, a campus tour is a great way for a student with special needs to judge whether the school is the “right fit” for them…and you as well. 

Variety of accessibility services

Most post-secondary schools in Canada are upgrading, or have made upgrades, to their facilities and programs in order accommodate their students’ academic, mental health, and mobility needs. In order to access these services, some schools require students with special needs to submit official documentation about their disabilities and/or complete a questionnaire.

Some schools require students with special needs to submit official documentation about their disabilities and/or complete a questionnaire.

This information will be used by the office handling school accessibility services to process your child’s request and even suggest other services that he or she may find beneficial. Some of the amenities and services offered may include:

  • Counsellors that help navigate students through the school’s academic and administrative channels
  • Academic accommodations based on the student’s disability
  • Academic support programs for students with mental health disabilities including, but not limited to, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, learning disabilities, ADHD, or Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Accessible transit services for locations within the campus
  • Barrier-free accommodations, classrooms, and facilities
  • Note-taking services, sign language interpreters, and books in accessible formats such as PDF or Word files, audiobooks on tape or CD, in Braille, large print, or DAISY CD

Visit the school’s website to see a full list of their accessibility services, or speak to the appropriate person in the Student Services or Accessibility Department for more information.

Residence and  accessible housing

Part of the college or university life that many students experience is living on campus in a school residence or off-campus apartment. Accessible housing may be available, but it helps to check it out early in the application process. Some schools may require you to provide medical documentation of your child’s disability and/or pay an application fee in order to request an accessible room or suite. Some features of accessible housing for students with special needs living independently include:

  • Braille signage
  • Automated door openers
  • Large print communication materials (may be available upon request)
  • Height adjustable desks and beds
  • Wheelchair-accessible elevators, bedroom suites, and washrooms
  • Barrier-free common areas such as kitchen and laundry room
  • Visual (strobe) alarms

At the University of Toronto, part of the intake process for incoming students living with a disability includes submitting required paperwork and documentation to the Disability Service Office of the campus they will be attending. These forms will be used at the intake appointment to help counsellors work with the special needs student to figure out and discuss the options for residence.  

Because each school’s intake process is different, it’s important to review the school’s requirements at the time of application, and the letter of acceptance each school sends your child, to ensure that all requirements are met by their due dates.

Keep in mind that not all students with physical disabilities need to live on campus in order to have the “college or university experience”. Commuter students can also connect to student life and other activities, which parents and caregivers may assist them in. The student services office or student accessibility/disability services office may be able to assist commuter students in this aspect.


Beyond making sure that meals served in dining halls and cafeterias are healthy and nutritious for all students, both living in residence and off-campus, schools have to consider the vast dietary requirements that students face today. Food services staff must consider everything from food allergies, medical issues requiring specialized diets, to religious or cultural requirements when planning out their menus. See also our Elizz article on Caregiver Resources for Managing Diabetes at School.

Each school handles special meal requests differently.

At Western University, students are encouraged to connect with the Unit Manager of their residence’s dining hall to discuss their special diet needs, while at the University of Toronto, incoming students discuss their needs during an intake appointment with a counsellor. The earlier your child (or you, as their caregiver) speaks to the appropriate person at the school about any specific dietary needs, the better the school will be aware of and equipped to meet these requirements. 


There is a lot of information coming from all directions when a student applies for college, university, or trade school. The process can be daunting and overwhelming, especially for family caregivers of students with special needs who are being pulled into several different directions as well.

Starting your research early will not only give you and your child time to figure out what his or her needs will be, you’ll also be able to schedule the necessary appointments or attend information sessions that will better equip you and your child to navigate the application process together.

Powered by Saint Elizabeth Health Care, a not-for-profit organization, Elizz is the place to go for all things caregiving.

If you are a family caregiver of a special needs student and need help or advice, Elizz offers support services for caregivers as well as for those in your care. Or, call 1-855-Ask-Eliz (275-3549) to speak with an Elizz representative.




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