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Learning Disabilities: Achieving Success In College

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An increasing numbers of students with learning disabilities (LD) are enrolling in colleges and universities. Since 1985, the percentage of those with learning disabilities (first-time, full-time freshmen) doubled from 15% to 32%. Currently, nearly one-third of all freshmen with disabilities report having learning disabilities. Anyone with a learning disability who is considering going to college should be encouraged despite their disability.

Having a learning disability means having normal intelligence but a problem in one or more areas of learning. Learning disabilities are neurobiological disorder. People with LD have brains that learn differently because of differences in brain structure and/or function. If a person learns differently due to visual, hearing or physical handicaps, emotional disturbances, mental retardation, or environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage, it is not called a learning disability. Dyslexia is the most common LD.

Learning Disabilities can affect many different areas:

  • Spoken language—problems in listening and speaking
  • Reading—difficulties decoding or recognizing words or understanding them
  • Written language—problems with writing, spelling, and/or organizing ideas
  • Math—trouble doing arithmetic or understanding basic concepts
  • Reasoning—problems organizing and putting together thoughts
  • Memory—problems remembering facts and instructions
  • Social behavior—difficulties with social judgment, tolerating frustration, and making friends
  • Physical coordination—problems with handwriting, manipulating small objects, and/or running and jumping
  • Organization—trouble with managing time and belongings, carrying out a plan
  • Metacognition (thinking about thinking)—problems with knowing, using and monitoring the use of thinking and learning strategies, and learning from mistakes.

Students with a LD should pay close attention to the availability of resources to assist with their LD when selecting a college or university. Since there is no consistent programming for students with learning disabilities at the college level, selecting an appropriate college can be an overwhelming task. There are many more colleges admitting students with learning disabilities than actually have well-developed programs. Finding a “good” program or the one with the most services is not the solution. A match must be made between the unique needs of the student and the characteristics of the college and its learning disabilities program.

During the application process, the student will need to decide whether or not to disclose the fact that he or she has a disability. The college or university may not require the student to disclose a disability on the admission application. If a student decides to disclose a disability, this information cannot be used as a basis for denying admission. Colleges and universities cannot discriminate on the basis of disability. Colleges and universities also are under no obligation to alter their admissions requirements or standards. They are also not required to alter program requirements for students with learning disabilities once they have been admitted. Students with disabilities must meet the admissions criteria established, just like all other prospective applicants. Accommodative services will not to be used in any way that would lower the academic standards established by a college or university.

There are many options available to students with learning disabilities who are interested in attending college. Most colleges and universities have some type of services available to students with learning disabilities. Some colleges have made it a mission to educate individuals with learning disabilities. Some of these colleges include Landmark College (VT), Beacon College (FL), and Mitchell College (CT). There are also many colleges that not only accept students with learning disabilities, but have programs within their colleges designed specifically for students with learning disabilities. Many of the programs have separate admissions procedures and qualifications for entrance as well as structured support systems. Students who wish to learn more about comprehensive LD programs should contact each of the colleges and universities in which they are interested and ask if such a program exists on campus.

It is a good idea to establish communication with service providers as early as possible. Often students with learning disabilities want to start fresh in college. They often want to be just like their non-disabled peers, so they do not register with the Disabled Students Office until they are in academic difficulty. The best course of action is to register for services at the beginning of the semester and then decide if you want accommodations. If you end up needing assistance, it is already established.

There are federal laws that impact postsecondary education for learning disabled students in the Unites States: the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 and the ADA protect the civil rights of people with disabilities and require postsecondary institutions to provide accommodative services to students with disabilities. Keep in mind that once students have been admitted to a college or university, it is their responsibility to self-identify and provide documentation of their disability. Otherwise, the college or university is not required to provide any accommodation.

Students with disabilities are often concerned about the confidentiality of written records The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) of 1974 protects the confidentiality of student medical records. Disability-related information is kept by the college or university in separate files with access limited to appropriate personnel. Disability documentation should be held by a single source within the institution in order to protect the confidentiality of persons with disabilities. FERPA protects a student’s record from being shared without the student’s permission.

Services required by Section 504 and ADA are provided at no cost to the student. The college or university has the flexibility to select the specific accommodation or service it provides. Some examples of these could include:

  • Allowing extra time to complete exams
  • Permitting exams to be individually proctored, read orally, dictated, or typed
  • Providing modifications, substitutions, or waivers on a case-by-case basis. The institution does not have to make accommodations if the changes requested would substantially alter essential elements of the course or program.

Students with learning disabilities may qualify for additional forms of financial aid. Students should look into assistance through a state vocational rehabilitation agency and/or the Social Security Administration. There are also scholarships available to students who have learning disabilities.

Students with disabilities are often faced with additional expenses not incurred by other students. Students should inform the financial aid office at their school of disability-related expenses. Documentation will be required. Some of the additional costs a student could incur include:

  • Special equipment related to the disability and its maintenance.
  • Cost of services for personal use or study, such as readers, interpreters, note takers, or personal care attendants.
  • Transportation, if traditional means are not accessible.
  • Medical expenses not covered by insurance that relate directly to the individual’s disability.

The biggest stumbling block (academically and/or socially) for LD students entering college is the ability to function independently. Students with special needs have probably let their parents take care of the assistance they require. Not many students have had to make these important decisions for themselves. The problem with all of this is that when they come to college they expect all these things will still be handled by other people for them. They often think there is a case manager waiting to greet them and take care of everything they need. This is a serious problem and often contributes to a student’s academic difficulties as well and their problems dealing with “the system”. They have never had to deal with “the system” before. Someone else did it for them.

Students with any kind of disability must know their disability, know what they need, and know how to ask for it. They need to become comfortable with describing to others both their disability and their academic needs. Although the college experience is often difficult for students with learning disabilities, it is not impossible.

Students with learning disabilities have developed many strategies for success. A student who might experience frustration and failure with a full college course load might be successful when taking only two or three courses. There are six attributes that have been deemed necessary for success whatever avenue one chooses:

  • Self-Awareness – This refers to the ability of the individual to understand how the learning disability affects his/her life academically and socially. The learning disability is only one aspect of life. The student accepts their strengths & weaknesses and is not defined by the disability.
  • Proactivity – This relates to the individual having the belief that he/she has the ability to make decisions and has control over the outcome of their life. The student takes responsibility for both positive and negative decisions and actions.
  • Perseverance – This is the ability to continue to pursue goals despite roadblocks. The student knows when to alter or modify decisions and choose an alternate strategy.
  • Emotional Coping Strategies – This is the ability to develop awareness to one’s emotional hot buttons. The student develops strategies to deal with stress, frustration, and adversity.
  • Goal Setting – This involves the ability to set specific goals that can be modified or adjusted to meet the demands or circumstances of the situation. The student set realistic goals and has an appropriate plan or strategy to obtain them.
  • Use of Effective Support Systems – The student seeks support to provide guidance, reinforcement, and encouragement throughout their life. They utilize the support as a sounding board for appropriate decision making and realistic expectations.

An extremely valuable resource for students with learning disabilities is the network of students with disabilities already on campus. Students with disabilities who have had similar experiences and similar needs are likely to have practical advice and low-cost solutions to problems that incoming students with disabilities frequently encounter. Participation in the activities of such organizations is an excellent way to build confidence, increase disability awareness and knowledge, and get information about special programs and resources.


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