Learning Differences & Higher Education

Getting into college is not always the biggest challenge for students with learning differences. It’s the adjustment to college level work and a more independent lifestyle that can be the greatest hurdle.

Picking the Right College
The first step in successful transition to higher education is picking the right college. Every college and university is different and some are more accessible than others. It is important to research college disability service centers as a part of a prospective student’s selection process. There are a number of good books and articles written especially for students with learning differences to help with picking colleges. The LDonline website has a great article addressing this.

After a college has been selected, it is up to the student to send in disability documentation and obtain appropriate accommodations. The school will not initiate this, so it is the student’s responsibility to find out what is needed and gather the documents together. This information can often be found on a college’s disability services web page or by giving the admissions department a call. It is important to note that most colleges require a comprehensive evaluation that is less than three years old to register a student with the disability services office and qualify them for accommodations.

The majority of colleges offer some sort of orientation to new students. It is a wise idea to attend this and find out about the resources that may come in handy as you go along. Remember that these orientations are geared toward the majority, so students with disabilities may need to be assertive and ask for specific information they need. It is also important to visit the disability services center early on and often. They can be a valuable support throughout your college career and they generally won’t make retroactive exceptions for you if you run into trouble before registering with them.

Knowledge & Advocacy
In college, self-identification and self-advocacy is required. Nobody will be asking about an adult student’s disability status as this is considered a breach of privacy. Therefore, students must be able to anticipate their own needs and be proactive about getting them met.

Some students with learning differences are not aware of their strengths and limitations or how their disability might affect their college experience. Even those who are aware may not understand their educational rights or be adept at communicating their needs. It is important for students to know how to explain their disability to others when appropriate, how to ask for what they need, and how to protect their rights. The Wrightslaw education law and advocacy website is a good place to educate yourself in these matters.

College vs. Primary/Secondary Education
Each college has its own specific documentation requirements and different accommodation options. At this higher level of education, options for remediation are limited or unavailable and there are often no modifications allowed.

New college students may find they need different or adjusted accommodations in the college environment as the demands are different from high school. Many students with learning differences learn best through doing rather than just through seeing or listening, so they need to put their accommodations into practice and try different things to find out what works for them.

In college there is less structure and feedback and generally things are less predictable. Having good habits in place before leaving for college is important. Also, students should be prepared to self-monitor and adjust their behavior rather than relying on others to give them feedback and direction. Students have limited time in class with their teachers and class sizes are larger; therefore, they must learn to be assertive and seek out what they need outside of class time. There is increased competition and greater expectations for the quality and amount of work produced, so good time management and study skills are necessary.

In light of the greater independence required, students need to arrive armed with solid independent living skills. Strong decision making and problem solving skills will also make the transition to an independent lifestyle easier.

Stumbling Blocks
In my experience working with children, adolescents and adults with learning disabilities in private practice, at colleges and at a university disability services center, I’ve become aware of a number of early missteps that can cause problems later on down the line.

  • Don’t automatically assume students understand their disabilities just because they have been living with them. Children need to be told over and over again in ways that are appropriate to their changing development. Some students lack awareness of how their disability affects them and others avoid thinking about it because of shame or intimidation. These students will have trouble asking for what they need and may be reluctant to protect their rights.
  • Don’t forget the saying “wherever you go, there you are”. Some students think they will grow out of their disabilities or they hope that things will be different in college and they won’t need the help they were used to in the past. Most research tells us that although people can compensate for their disabilities such that they are almost imperceptible, there is currently no cure. Students who believe otherwise often never even register for services at their college.
  • Use it or lose it. Some students register with disability services, but do not use their accommodations when they really need them. Often their grades do not accurately reflect their knowledge. It is true that not all college students with disabilities need accommodations; however, a good rule of thumb is if you needed it through high school, you are likely to need it in college and you may need things in college you didn’t need in high school.
  • Stand up for yourself. Some students try to use their accommodations, but run into roadblocks and don’t advocate for themselves. They may become discouraged and stop using their accommodations. Know your rights and don’t be afraid to protect them.

Transition Planning
The law requires public schools to provide transition planning for students with disabilities once they reach a certain age. As with any service, the quality can vary from school to school and from district to district. It is important for parents to monitor this process and make sure it is meeting the student’s needs. If you feel more is required, there are a number of good resources on the web. The National Joint Commission on Learning Disabilities has a nice brochure on transition planning (revised 2007).

Part of transition planning should involve helping students understand their rights, how their disability affects their current functioning, how to communicate this to others, and how to find and utilize the tools they need to succeed.

Some students have emotional and identity issues related to their disability that are getting in the way of reaching their potential. In counseling students with learning differences, often work has to be done to raise awareness and self-esteem.

Students may feel inadequate, weak, abnormal, or “dumb”, because they do not view their disability in the same way they might view a more visible disability. For example, a student with dyslexia may understand that her friend who has a spinal cord injury needs an elevator to get to the 2nd floor, but she cannot accept that it is okay for her to need audio books to complete her reading assignments for her classes. People with “invisible” disabilities sometimes internalize the unrealistic expectations of others. Counseling can help such students learn to see their disability for what it is, capitalize on their strengths, understand their limitations, and positively incorporate these factors into their lives.

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