Success in College Despite Learning Disabilities
It happens every semester. A freshman shyly approaches me after the first class with the form from the advising center stating that the student has a documented learning disability and needs reasonable accommodations. I always ask to meet with the student in order to understand the disability and to make certain that we both understand what is “reasonable” and what isn’t. All too often the conversation starts something like this:
Me: Can you tell me a little about your learning disability and what you need from me?
Student: I have ADD.
Me: That can be really challenging. Can you tell me how it is going to affect you in my class?
Student: I can’t concentrate. Sometimes I kind of zone out and miss a lot.
Me: Yes. I understand that. Can you tell me how you have managed that in the past?
Student: Well, I always had a note taker in high school. Teachers would send me to the library to take quizzes and tests. And my mom always helped me clean up my papers. She’d ask me questions so my papers didn’t go all over the place. Oh, and my teachers would check in with me when they saw me looking blank.
Me: Did any of that help?
Student: Sure. I don’t always know what to write down so the note-taker’s notes were better. But sometimes I couldn’t do the quizzes even in the library.
Me: So, then what?
Student: Well, some teachers let me take the test orally. Like, if you read me the questions and ask about it, it can keep me focused. Some teachers didn’t want to do that, though, which is unfair since I can’t help it. My mom says she can keep helping me on papers by email.
Me: Hmmm. So how much do you know about ADD? And what have you figured out so far about how you can be independent and keep up with things in spite of it?
Student: I don’t know what you mean. I told you what teachers and my mom do to help. . .
This is a big problem. This student’s idea of managing her disability is to rely on other people. It’s long past time for her to learn strategies for helping herself. The reality is this: The further she goes in her education, the less she can expect others to take her notes, provide her with a quiet place, or clean up reports and papers. Once she gets into a profession, most employers would be dumbfounded if she said, “Well, I have ADD so I can’t do this report by myself or on time and you need to accommodate that.”
It isn’t solely the student’s fault that she’s entered college without important skills. In spite of the fact that more and more kids with learning disabilities are going on to college, the majority of high schools don’t provide good transition planning. In their desire to be supportive, well-meaning parents may have been over-involved in their kids’ school work since elementary school. Teenagers often don’t have the perspective to know how important it is to learn how to compensate for a significant learning difference.
Regardless of whose fault it is, though, if you have a learning disability and are headed for college, it now falls on you to do some preparation. Now it’s up to you to master the learning disability so it doesn’t get in the way of academic and professional goals. There are many things you can do to ensure your own success.
10 Strategies for Success for Learning-Disabled College Students
1. Research your disability. Know what you are dealing with inside your own brain. Be able to explain it clearly to your professors and to service providers. If you had an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) in high school, it may be a useful source of information.
2. Get acquainted with the services available at your college. The staff at the advising center can be good advocates for you if you need help negotiating with a particular professor. Many schools have a writing center where advanced students are available to help you organize and edit your papers. If there is a tutoring program and you generally need some one-to-one help to master material, sign up immediately. Don’t wait until you are behind. And please don’t be shy about signing on for some therapy if the school has a mental health center. College can be stressful for anyone but particularly so for those with learning differences. A therapist can help you learn more ways to cope if things get tough.
3. Whenever possible, choose classes that are more compatible with your learning needs. Consider size of the class, time of day, and whether you need a free hour before or after to organize your thinking.
4. Fill out the appropriate forms and take them to your professors on the first day of class. Most will be happy to provide those reasonable accommodations. Most are not happy to be presented with a form halfway through a semester when you are already way behind.