Students with Disabilities, Chronic Illness and/or Chronic Conditions

You are not alone.

  • Up to 15 - 20 % of US young people live with a chronic medical condition, and many attend college (Perrin, Bloom, & Gortmaker, 2007).
  • At VCU, over 8% of students enrolled in classes during the spring 2021 semester sought services related to a disability or chronic health condition from the Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunity office.

A chronic illness is a long-lasting health concern that may be present for an individual's lifetime, such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, or fibromyalgia. A disability is a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. Disabilities can be congenital (such as cystic fibrosis) or acquired (such as lupus). A chronic health condition can be a disability, but not all disabilities are chronic health concerns.

Chronic health concerns and disabilities can be visible or invisible. You cannot know that someone has a disability or chronic health concern just by looking at them.

Earning a degree can be tough for anyone, but for college students with chronic health concerns and/or disabilities, it can be even tougher. There are many reasons chronic health concerns and disabilities may make it difficult for students to succeed in college, including but not limited to:

  1. Invisibility: Some chronic illnesses and disabilities are ones that instructors won’t know about unless the student reveals it. But invisibility entails a further consequence: those who have never lived with chronic illness may be inclined to think that the student is exaggerating or even making up the problems caused by the illness or treatment.
  2. Unpredictability: Many chronic conditions ebb and flow in an unpredictable way, creating the potential for major disruptions of learning and course work.
  3. Social stigma: Because some degree of social stigma is still carried by chronic illnesses & disability (especially those, like chronic fatigue syndrome, that are not universally recognized), leading to students hesitating to disclose an illness unless absolutely necessary. This can have the consequence of increasing their sense of isolation and loneliness.
  4. Tighter limits: Students may have less productive time available on a typical day than their professors expect or based on what their able-bodied peers are able to perform.
  5. Attending to physical care: Students with chronic conditions and disabilities have to manage the full range of health-related activities associated with their condition (such as attending doctors’ appointment, taking medications, maintaining a specific diet) all while balancing the multiple demands of college life.

If you are a student with a chronic health concern or disability, the resources described below can help you navigate your health and college life. Every person with a disability and/or chronic health concern has different needs, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Further, what works one semester might not work the next.

  • Get the accommodations you need from SAEO. This can include accommodations for academics, course selection, note-taking, testing, dining, and housing.
  • Pace yourself. College can be brutal on the body. If you are sleep-deprived or not eating well this can worsen your health condition. Be kind to yourself and be sure to set aside time for care of your health in your schedule.
  • Know your limits
    • It is okay to say no! There may be times you need to put your body first and that is okay. This might mean taking a smaller course load or scheduling breaks into your day. College is not a race, and it is okay to take it at your own pace.
  • It can be helpful to create a circle of help at the university. This can include a close friend, RA, trusted profession, and/or advisor. It can be hard to open up to others about your condition, but it can be helpful for a small group of people to know who are around you day-to-day in case there is an emergency.
  • Talk to your family about your health insurance policy before arriving on campus. Know what is covered and how to use the insurance, especially if you are an out-of-state student.
  • Check in with your doctor and medical treatment team before leaving for college. Discuss any concerns about managing your condition at school. It can be helpful to build a treatment plan prior to arriving on campus.
    • Make sure you have enough medications and supplies and how to obtain refills while at school.
    • It can be useful to visit University Student Health Services and to work to establish a care plan for when you’re on campus. Learn who to contact after-hours and the location of the nearest hospital in case you have an emergency.
    • Don’t change your treatment routine without first discussing this with your medical treatment team.
  • Know your rights - Both the Americans with Disabilities ACT (ADA) and Title IX have protections for students with chronic illnesses and disabilities.
  • It can be helpful to get familiar with your surroundings.
    • Before classes start - visit the buildings and take note of the nearest accessible bathroom, accessibility ramps and elevators, quiet versus busy areas, whatever you need to feel more comfortable in new spaces.
  • Pain, flare-ups, fatigue, and more can come out of the woodwork when self-care is placed on the back burner.
    • Try to prioritize sleep
    • Choose foods that make your body feel better
    • Avoid substances that may worsen your condition

For more information about transitioning to college with chronic health concerns check out this blog post on Chronic Illness and College Planning that can be applied to persons of any gender.

Living with chronic health concerns and/or disability can be challenging and it is possible to experience concerns related to mental health. Such as:

  • Feelings of Inadequacy
  • Stigma and fear of judgment
  • Fear of being left out
  • Anger
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Disconnection from professors, staff, and peers
    • Fearing not being believed and having to “prove” disability/chronic health concern
  • Loneliness & Isolation
  • Experience a threat to sense of self and what it means to be a college student. If the diagnosis is newly acquired (or long-standing) it may challenge how one views themselves and their ability status.
  • Grief and loss related to changes in health and ability status

Remember to take care of yourself. Acknowledge how you are feeling. It may be helpful to talk with a therapist or join a support group


Within VCU

  • Student Accessibility and Educational Opportunities
    Get to know this office at the beginning of your first semester. They can assist you in acquiring accommodations you will need throughout your academic career at VCU
  • University Student Health Services
  • Dean of Students
    Can help students balance the non-academic side of their college experience, including providing access to campus resources and coordinate care with other departments if the students experience a medical emergency
  • Dining Services
    VCUDine has an extensive team of culinary experts and on-campus resources available to help accommodate most types of dietary restrictions, including soy, gluten, and dairy-free.
  • Residential Life & Housing
    Contact them if you have needs regarding to living on campus and possibilities

Web Resources

The websites listed are for informational purposes only. Inclusion on this list does not constitute an endorsement by the University Counseling Services or VCU.


  • Herts, K. L., Wallis, E., & Maslow, G. (2014). College freshmen with chronic illness: A comparison with healthy first-year students. Journal of College Student Development, 55(5), 475–480.
  • Lemly, D. C., Lawlor, K., Scherer, E. A., Kelemen, S., & Weitzman, E. R. (2014). College health service capacity to support youth with chronic medical conditions. Pediatrics, 134(5), 885–891.
  • Perrin, J. M., Bloom, S. R., & Gortmaker, S. L. (2007). The increase of childhood chronic conditions in the United States.
  • Journal of American Medical Association, 297, 2755–2759