Accommodations For College Students With Learning Disabilities

Accommodations For College Students With Learning Disabilities
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Hopefully, these examples of accommodations convince you that colleges take seriously their task of caring for and supporting their students with disabilities. As long as they’re willing to advocate for it, your child will be able to obtain the accommodations they need to thrive as a college student.

Common Accommodations for College Students With Learning Disabilities

Transitioning from high school to college is often stressful, especially for those with learning difficulties. Taking class notes, studying, and sitting exams come with particular challenges for those with dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and other learning challenges. Without proper guidance and direction, some students with learning difficulties cannot meet the weighty demands of college; some are put on probation, some drop out.

While current law requires high schools to accommodate students with learning disabilities, the rules are not the same for colleges. At best, regulations such as the Americans With Disabilities Act ensure that all students have equal access to education without discrimination. This doesn’t mean college students with learning disabilities have no options. It does mean they often have to take the initiative and find out what accommodations are available to them. If you have a learning disability and are in college, these are some common accommodations that may be available to you.

Using Audiobooks

Colleges will often allow students to substitute written texts with audiobook versions. This accommodation is particularly helpful if you suffer from dyslexia and often feel disadvantaged since it takes you longer to read books. Audiobooks also help increase comprehension for dyslexic students. Normally, a student with dyslexia has to work to decode the words on the page. This can detract from the flow of the narrative. In audio form, you can hear the flow of the text and better understand what is being said.

Using Text-to-speech Software

Text-to-speech software can also help you overcome the hurdle of trying to decipher words on a page if you are dyslexic. The software may come pre-installed on your computer or you can purchase it separately. Text-to-speech software reads to your web sites, documents, and any other written material you may have on your computer. This enables you to study class materials and perform online research at a speed comparable to other, non-dyslexic students.

Recording Lectures on a Digital Device

Reading Recording Device for a Learning Disabled Individual

Image via Flickr by Johan Larsson.

If you have trouble processing information when presented aurally, such as in a lecture, you could ask permission to record the lecture on your phone or some other digital device. You can then replay the lecture in your own time, perhaps at a slower speed, stopping and rewinding as necessary to comprehend the information. Some schools loan smartpens to students with learning disabilities. These pens not only digitize your written notes and drawings but can also record the lecture while you write. These devices can also be helpful if you have short or long term memory issues.

Providing Lecture Notes

If the use of a recording device is not an option for you, consider asking the professor or instructor to provide you with their notes ahead of time to help you stay focused on the material in class. These notes may be a summary of the presentation, or they could be guided notes that you compliment with your own.

You could also use a designated note-taker. This is someone who volunteers, or is chosen, to take notes for you. This person needs to have legible handwriting, or be willing to type up their notes. The notes you get from the note taker will, however, reflect the points and ideas that the note taker felt were important. These may differ from the notes you might have taken.

Requesting Extra Time on Coursework

If your learning disability is impacting your ability to complete coursework or a particular project on time, you can ask for a time accommodation. Your professors are not obliged to grant this, but if you have already made them aware of your situation, they may be willing to give you extensions on a case-by-case basis. This would apply to any learning disability that impacts the time it takes for you to research, study, or write, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, or ADHD.

Requesting Extra Time on an Exam

Colleges will often grant additional exam time to students with learning disabilities. This could apply to you if you have dyslexia, or if you have dyscalculia and are taking a math exam. You may also need additional time if you suffer from ADHD and struggle to stay focused. The extra time may be as much as time-and-a-half or double the prescribed time for the exam. This allows you the flexibility to read and answer the questions at a slower pace and still be able to complete the exam on time.

Using a Calculator in an Exam

Not all college math exams permit the use of a calculator. If you suffer from dyscalculia, this can put you at a serious disadvantage compared to the other students. You can, however, ask to be allowed the use of a calculator on the basis of your special circumstance. Most colleges should be willing to accommodate you.

Using a Quiet Room for Exams

If you have ADHD, or a similar condition where you are sensitive to stimuli or have trouble concentrating, you could request to sit your exam in a separate location. This might be a quiet room with no visual or aural distractions, or perhaps the library. Be sure to inform your instructor of your particular needs so they can make the appropriate arrangements.

Using a Different Exam Format

Ask your instructor if you can take the exam in a different format if the current format is challenging to you. For example, if you have dyslexia, you may prefer to be examined orally as opposed to taking a written test. Conversely, if you have trouble processing aural information, you may prefer to take an oral test in a written form. These accommodations may or may not work depending on the exam, but instructors should be willing to make sure you are not disadvantaged by your disabilities.

If you are a college student with a learning disability, be sure to consult with your instructors and health professionals with regard to your options. If you need a professional neuropsychological assessment or would like to consult with a neuropsychological advocate, consider contacting NeuroHealth. With vast experience in psychology and in the academy, NeuroHealth is more than qualified to provide the help you may need.

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How to Get Accommodations for Learning Disabilities in College

Explore the ways your child can self-advocate to receive accommodations as a college student with a learning disability

College student using earbuds to listen to audiobook.

If you have a child with a learning disability, you might have some concerns about them becoming a college student. You’ve watched your student thrive in high school with the support of their IEP or 504 plan, which you were closely involved in creating and fine tuning, but the process of obtaining accommodations for learning disabilities in college is completely unknown. Will they get the support they need? Will they be able to achieve their full potential?

While obtaining accommodations for learning disabilities in college is indeed different from what you and your child have experienced in high school, the process is nothing to fear. In fact, it’s a valuable opportunity for your child to advocate for themselves and take charge of their future. Continue reading to discover how your child can get accommodations for their learning disabilities in college.

Accommodations for learning disabilities in college vs. high school

The best place to start is by understanding how the process of getting accommodations for learning disabilities in college is different from what you’ve done for your child in high school.

Different legal protections for college students with learning disabilities

In high school, accommodations for learning disabilities are required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) , which guarantees free and appropriate education to all students with disabilities. Your child has received an IEP or 504 plan thanks to the IDEA. However, this law isn’t applicable to post-high school education.

College students with learning disabilities are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act , which guarantees equal access and bans discrimination based on an individual’s disability. While the language of these two protections may appear similar, the bottom line is that colleges aren’t required to offer the same levels of support and services your child was used to receiving in high school. For example, colleges don’t have to provide specialized instruction or individual tutoring to college students with learning disabilities.

But don’t let these differences make you worry. There are still plenty of accommodations and support services provided by colleges. And when they receive the accommodations they qualify for, many college students with learning disabilities successfully earn their degree and have a positive college experience.

Different role for parents in obtaining accommodations

In high school, you played a major role in obtaining, reviewing, and adjusting your child’s provided accommodations. You regularly talked to teachers and attended meetings as part of your involvement. But this changes drastically for college students with learning disabilities.

At the college level, students have to step up, advocate for themselves, and obtain their own accommodations. In fact, once students reach the age of eighteen, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents parents from accessing students’ personal records or speaking with college officials on their behalf—including those in the disability office. Your child can choose to allow you to play a role in this process or speak with involved parties, but they are still in the driver’s seat.

The good news is that obtaining accommodations for learning disabilities in college is usually a relatively simple process—easier than it was in high school, at least. Your child is more than capable of guiding this process and becoming their own self-advocate.

Types of accommodations available to college students with learning disabilities

Before we share the step-by-step process of obtaining accommodations for learning disabilities in college, let’s look at some of the different types of accommodations most colleges provide.

  • Audiobooks—which translate required written textbooks into an audio format to assist students with visual processing difficulties.
  • Receiving lecture notes in advance—which usually contain the outline or summary of a presentation to help students prepare for class and stay focused during the lecture.
  • Lecture recordings—for students to play back later at a slower pace or while pausing and rewinding.
  • Smartpens—which digitize written notes and also have recording capabilities.
  • Designated note-takers—someone who takes notes during lectures and often types them up later to assist college students with learning disabilities.
  • Text-to-speech software—which reads web pages, documents, emails, and any other text on a computer out loud.
  • Speech-to-text technology—which allows students to dictate a paper or assignment and translates their speech into a text document.
  • Extra time on coursework—extending deadlines for assignments or projects, particularly if a lot of reading, research, and writing is required.
  • Extra time for exams—up to double the normal time to allow students to read and answer the questions more slowly.
  • Quiet exam room—taking a test separately to reduce distractions from classmates.
  • Alternate exam format—getting an oral examination rather than a written test, or vice versa.
  • Captioning media content—such as videos and podcasts assigned to the class or necessary for project research.
  • Reduced course load—taking fewer credits than required to be a full-time student.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should give you a good idea of what types of accommodations colleges most regularly provide to students with learning disabilities.

It’s also worth noting that colleges offer additional accommodations for students who have non-learning disabilities that still impact their college experience and warrant special arrangements.

  • Housing accommodations—such as a room on the first floor, a room with a private kitchen, having no roommates, or allowing a support animal.
  • Dining accommodations—such as exemption from the required meal plan or allergy-free food prepared separately to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Attendance flexibility—for students with episodic conditions that may force them to miss class because they’re too unwell to attend.

Hopefully, these examples of accommodations convince you that colleges take seriously their task of caring for and supporting their students with disabilities. As long as they’re willing to advocate for it, your child will be able to obtain the accommodations they need to thrive as a college student.

Step-by-step process to obtain accommodations for learning disabilities in college

As we mentioned previously, it will be your child’s responsibility to advocate for themselves and obtain the accommodations they need to be successful in college. However, you can still play an important role—be knowledgeable about the process so you can offer guidance and encouragement to your child. So let’s explore the steps your child will need to take in order to receive accommodations for their learning disabilities in college.

1. Research different disability services offices and academic supports

The first step in this process actually begins during your child’s college search. When researching and visiting schools, see if you can arrange a meeting or phone call with advisors from the disability services offices. To help your child get into practice, they should be the one to call, email, or submit a meeting request.

When disability advisors talk to prospective students, they’ll usually share a broad overview of their services or how they work, rather than offer specifics on your child’s situation. Even so, you and your child will still be able to get a feel for the atmosphere of the disability services office and hear about the different supports and resources they provide their college students with learning disabilities.

Because the American Disabilities Act isn’t overly specific when it comes to higher education, colleges differ in the level of support they provide to students. They might all offer extended exam time, but only more supportive institutions hire tutors who specialize in learning differences or offer note-taking and time-management workshops to their students. Use the college exploration phase to identify which schools will offer the most supportive environments for your child.

2. Register with the disability services office

After your child chooses which college to attend and submits their enrollment deposit, the process of obtaining accommodations can begin in earnest. Your child is ready to start their official request for accommodations. At most colleges, your child will simply submit an online registration or application form to the disability services office to get assigned to a disability advisor and schedule their initial meeting.

Technically, students can ask for accommodations at any time during their college career. However, if your child wants to maximize their potential for success, it’s in their best interest to obtain accommodations for their learning disability before they begin freshman year. Add this task to your child’s before-college summer checklist. Some accommodations take a while to arrange, so they don’t want to wait until classes have already begun to request them.

Some college students with learning disabilities are hesitant to ask for accommodations, especially if they think they don’t need the accommodations they were provided in high school. While each student should make their own choice, it’s generally better to have accommodations available and not use them than to struggle alone and request them after their grades have started slipping.

Going to college with a learning disability is more manageable when students obtain the right accommodations. There’s no need for students to struggle in silence when colleges are eager and willing to offer the support they need.

3. Provide documentation of learning disabilities

Before any college will grant your child’s request for accommodations, they’ll need evidence of their learning disability. While the exact documents your child needs to provide will vary according to their disability and the college they attend, you can expect to supply some of the following items:

  • Your child’s high school IEP or 504 plan
  • Medical forms
  • Letters from their healthcare provider(s)
  • Psychological or psychiatric evaluations
  • Psycho-educational evaluations or test results

Your child should check their college’s disability services website or contact their disability advisor directly to see what specific documents are needed to verify their learning disability. In addition, some colleges require evaluations or test results to be recent, usually within the last three years. So don’t be alarmed if your child’s disability advisor asks them to get re-evaluated—it’s merely routine.

4. Meet with a disability advisor to determine accommodations

Once your child provides all the requested documents, they’ll be ready to meet with their assigned disability advisor and determine which accommodations they’re eligible to receive. You and your child can decide whether or not you should be present at the meeting. Remember, the goal is for them to take the lead in managing their learning disability and advocating for themselves, so you should only join the meeting in a supportive—not a managing—role.

If your child is nervous for this meeting, help them practice explaining their learning disability and the challenges they face in their education. They don’t need to be an expert on what types of accommodations the college is able to provide—the disability advisor knows what’s possible and what to recommend. Your child should just be prepared to express why they need accommodations and what’s worked for them in the past.

During this meeting, the disability advisor will review your child’s learning disability documentation and determine what accommodations they can offer your child. When deciding on accommodations, disability advisors evaluate two factors—necessity and reasonableness.

In order for an accommodation to be necessary, it must directly relate to the impact of your child’s learning disability. For instance, it’s necessary for a student with ADHD to receive extra testing time or be offered a quiet room to take their exams, since getting easily distracted is part of their learning disability. On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t be necessary for them to receive an alternate exam format (oral instead of written), since their learning disability isn’t related to reading comprehension.

In order for an accommodation to be reasonable, it must not replace the required skills or knowledge the student is meant to demonstrate. For instance, it’s reasonable for a student with dyscalculia to use a calculator on high-level math or statistics exams. On the other hand, it might not be reasonable for that student to use a calculator on lower-level math exams meant to assess their calculation skills, since the calculator would be replacing the skill altogether. A more reasonable accommodation in this example would be extended test time.

5. Receive accommodations and work continually with the disability services office

After your child’s accommodations have been determined, their disability advisor will let them know what steps they need to take in order to use them. For instance, when they want to use a quiet room to take an exam, they might need to request it one week ahead of time with the disability services office. It will be up to your child to follow whatever procedures are in place for them to utilize their accommodations.

Depending on your child’s college, the disability services office might send your child’s professors for the upcoming semester a list of their provided accommodations. If not, your child will receive a letter outlining their accommodations and be responsible for informing professors themselves.

Your child must be prepared to work with their professors to navigate the logistics of receiving their accommodations. For example, if they’re supposed to receive lecture notes in advance, they’ll have to determine with their professor when and how they’ll get those notes. If they can have extra time to complete projects, they still need to talk to their professors to establish their new deadlines.

Throughout their college career, it’s your child’s ongoing responsibility to check in with their disability advisor and say something if their accommodations aren’t working. While this may seem like an extra burden other students don’t experience, help your child view this responsibility as a chance to continually improve their self-advocacy skills.

Talking to new friends about their learning disability

It’s a major accomplishment for your child to obtain the right accommodations for their learning disabilities in college. But we can’t neglect to address the social transition challenges that college students with learning disabilities face.

Your child should never feel pressured to tell classmates or new friends about their learning disability if they don’t feel ready. As they get comfortable and build close friendships in college, encourage them to open up and share this part of their lives with those they trust. This is another part of self-advocacy—learning to own their story and be proud of who they are.

Unfortunately, there is still a lingering and frustrating stigma surrounding learning disabilities, even though more and more individuals with disabilities are attending college. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics , 11% of college students have learning disabilities—that’s one in every ten students. Through advocacy, your child can play a role in starting conversations and reducing the stigma for college students with learning disabilities.

As Dr. Seuss once said, “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” An effective self-advocate has the courage to be authentic and surrounds themself with a supportive network. If your child can achieve this level of personal growth in college, they’ll be well-prepared to succeed in their career and beyond.

Final thoughts

Now you know what lies ahead for your child as they graduate high school and begin the process of receiving accommodations for their learning disabilities in college. Encourage your child as they take on the role of self-advocate, and always be ready to offer guidance when they face challenges. Your role as a supportive parent is to help them problem solve, use the resources available, and continue dreaming of their bright future.

Maddie Otto

By Maddie Otto

Maddie is a second-year medical student at the University of Notre Dame in Sydney and one of Level Medicine’s workshop project managers. Prior to studying medicine, she worked and studied as a musician in Melbourne. She has a background in community arts, which combined her love for both the arts and disability support. She is an advocate for intersectional gender equity, and is passionate about accessibility and inclusive practice within the healthcare system.

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