Every semester I have students who fail quiz after quiz and paper after paper. If they are not just blowing off the work, which can be the case, I usually know what the problem is: they have a learning disability of some kind but have neither disclosed it to me, signed up with an academic skills or disabilities office to get assistance, or don’t even know that they have a specific learning challenge. I’m hardly the only professor who deals with this. The New York Times reports,
“According to the most recent government figures, about 11 percent of undergraduates, or over two million students, have a disability. Most have learning disabilities, like dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but 15 percent have an orthopedic or mobility impairment; 6 percent have a hearing impairment; and 3 percent are blind or visually impaired.”
I would also add that students with temporary disabilities, such as broken limbs or serious illness, are eligible for some accommodations for the duration of their condition.
Unfortunately, many students with learning disabilities reject learning accommodations, including among them the right to
- have extra time on exams or other assignments.
- use note-takers during lectures.
- employ assistive technologies.
- record lectures and discussions.
- bring therapy animals to class.
Students often reject such assistance if educators or administrators did not support their accommodations in the past, or if they fear stigmatization or the kind of ridicule they may have gotten from other students before, such as hurtful and tasteless jokes about being on “the short bus” or the casually cruel use of the word “retard.” Such humiliations can not only be psychologically damaging, but also severely hinder a student’s academic progress. Many students have also told me that they want to do their school work “on their own,” extending their newfound independence to their academic responsibilities. The result is that too late in the semester they realize that they are doing poorly because they have not used their accommodations.
Students need to realize that learning accommodations are not one of the shackles of dependence, such as curfews, that were part of the parental restrictions before college. The whole point of accommodations is to expand a student’s freedom to learn in his or her own unique way, and to work within a structure in which the student’s individual learning needs are taken into consideration and managed in a way that allows them to take flight as active and participatory learners.
Accommodations are also designed to ensure equality among all students. As Queens College disability programs director Mirian Detres-Hickey told The New York Times in the article cited above, “The purpose of accommodation is to level the playing field for students with disabilities.”
That’s why it’s very important for parents, educators, and students themselves to know and understand how learning accommodations work in college, and why the best thing a student can do to ensure academic success is utilize all the resources available to him or her.
How to Use Learning Accommodations
Students do not immediately take advantage of their accommodations for a number of reasons, including a lack of understanding about them, confusion over how to arrange them, and hesitance to approach professors for information and/or the application of accommodations in their courses. It’s also possible that they do not realize that the same federal rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that covered them during their K-12 education are also operative in college. This handy checklist will help any student (or parent) make the most out of the great variety of resources offered by colleges and universities to help meet student learning needs.
- Prepare your documentation before you enroll: Before you apply for admission to any school or enroll in any program, gather all your legal or academic paperwork from your K-12 education. This may include an Individualized Education Program, assessment test results, medical paperwork verifying a condition, etc. There may also be a 504 plan, which is a legal document specifying what services you require. Keep everything in a specific file, and make copies. Colleges and universities will need proof of your disability before they can issue any accommodations.
- Establish a relationship with your school’s disabilities office: After you enroll, schedule an appointment to sit down and talk with the educators and advisers who work in your college’s accommodations or disabilities office, so that you can get to know how the system works, who your advocates are, and the many opportunities available that you may not know about, such as tutoring, new adaptive technologies, etc. It’s also a great place to meet other students with similar situations and learn from them some of their more successful strategies.
- Communicate with your instructors: Your instructors have probably worked with a great variety of students who all have different needs. I have worked in close contact with disabilities offices at several schools, and I have found that the more information I get from a student, the better I can support that student. There is an important federal law that students need to know about: I cannot ask you anything about your disability unless you raise the topic with me first. In other words, federal law prevents me from asking personal questions about your medical or academic history. Even if I suspect you are dyslexic, for example, but your condition has not been diagnosed or you have chosen not to disclose your situation to me, I cannot broach the subject. It is up to the student to do so. I also cannot make any accommodations for students without documentation from the college’s disability services office.
- Understand your accommodations: Too often, students can be too embarrassed or stressed to really look over their education plans. But take some time to do so, by yourself, with a representative from your school, or your family. It is your right to challenge or object to anything within your education plan. Check out the information on your rights with regard to IEPs and other accommodations provided by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
- Be your own advocate: All of the suggestions above really point to the same thing: students with learning disabilities need to act as their own advocates by learning about their accommodations, maintaining clear communication lines, and making sure that they get the rights to which they are entitled. The Pacer Center offers a great list of ways to be your own advocate, including suggestions on how to disagree effectively or ask for help.
Finally, if you are a student with disabilities, try to remember that you are a whole person with a harvest of unique qualities. The way you learn is only one facet of who you are. As a professor, I have many times sat with struggling, sometimes crying students, who fear that the only thing other people see about them is that they use a wheelchair, or are blind, or have not done well in school. I won’t lie: there will always be some petty people with limited conceptions of humanity, who like to judge and criticize others. But they aren’t the people who matter, and when you act as your own advocate, work from your strengths, and fully immerse yourself in any opportunities that come your way, you’ll be too busy— and happy —to let them drag you down.