Author: Jane Drover, M. Ed. is the Learning Disability Coordinator of the Meighen Centre at Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick.
Postsecondary education can be a reasonable goal for students with learning disabilities. Not everyone in the general population chooses to go to college or university; the same will be true of those with learning disabilities. Adolescents with learning disabilities must explore as many postsecondary options as possible, and make choices that will suit individual strengths, interests and goals.
Students must be involved in planning for their postsecondary education! This role must not be taken over by parents, teachers and guidance counsellors, although all these people will be very much involved in the process. Begin early! Planning should begin by the end of grade nine, when high school courses are being chosen. It is wisest to keep all doors open by choosing high school courses that will qualify the student for the widest range of postsecondary institutions and programs. Be realistic. Students should select courses and plan for a career in their areas of strength.
During the high school years, students must be not only advancing academically, but also developing personal independence. First-year college and university students should be capable of basic shopping and cooking, managing bank accounts and credit cards, managing time, and making logical decisions. They should have basic computer skills and sophisticated study skills. In addition, they should know how to set clear short-term goals and how to keep on track even when things get frantic, or when social pressures conflict with academic demands.
Students with learning disabilities need an additional skill – self-advocacy. They must understand and accept the learning disability they have. They must know their own strengths and weaknesses and be able to explain them and their specific academic needs to postsecondary service providers and instructors.
Students with learning disabilities must also be prepared to present their chosen postsecondary institution with up-to-date documentation of their disability. It should state the exact nature of the disability and give specific recommendations for the accommodations and strategies that will be of greatest benefit to the student. The grade eleven year is a good time to have a thorough psychoeducational assessment of the student’s abilities made by the school psychologist, and to have this assessment thoroughly explained to the parents and the student together.
Today, most provincial governments provide publicly funded colleges with operating funds to set up special services for students with disabilities. However, the governing boards itself of each college or university must decide how that money is used. Some colleges and universities have a special services department to assist all students with disabilities. Others have a more comprehensive service for students with LD, in which there is a designated staff person trained and experienced in LD. These supports are especially important for adults returning to school for retraining, and who may have missed special education services in elementary and secondary school.
Selection of institution/program
Shop for an education. Ask lots of questions. Take nothing for granted. If you wish to attend a college or university, contact the school of your choice and ask for an interview with the Special Needs office. The staff will determine appropriate strategies with you. Strategies differ depending on the individual college/university, the type of program requested and the nature of the learning disability. Does the institution offer the academic or professional program that this student wants? Is it within a reasonable travelling distance? What kind of support services does it offer to students with learning disabilities? Is there a specific person and place to go to for help? Can the support program deal adequately with this student’s particular disability? Do the size of the institution and the classes suit this student? Are pre-college courses available if needed? Can the student visit the campus now, sit in on sample classes and talk with the student support personnel? Is the faculty willing to grant the accommodations that this student needs?
Expectations on arrival
Students can expect the college or university situation to be very different from high school. The work will be more demanding – in quality and in depth. There will be less class time, more study time, less feedback from instructors, and less supervision. On the one hand there will be more academic and personal freedom; on the other there will be more academic and personal responsibility. Levels of support available on campus will vary widely from minimal to satisfactory. However, with appropriate accommodations and support, and a lot of hard work, students with learning disabilities can have success.
It is up to the students to ensure that they receive the accommodations which are appropriate and necessary for them. Extra time for tests and exams is the most common request, and perhaps one of the easiest to satisfy. There should also be access to word processors, academic counselling and personal and financial counselling. It is important for the student with a learning disability to take advantage of all that the student support centre has to offer. Many students come to postsecondary institutions planning to ‘do it all by myself’ – this attitude can cause much grief.
Finally It really depends on the individual students. Common problems that often scuttle a postsecondary education are poor academic preparation, a poor match between student abilities and program requirements, or inadequate knowledge of what is expected at the postsecondary level. All these can and should be addressed before choosing a postsecondary institution. Students with learning disabilities do belong on campus, and should not undervalue their strengths. They are more like the typical first year student than they are different. With careful selection, adequate and appropriate preparation and on-campus support, students with learning disabilities can succeed in every field.
Accommodations for Learning Disabilities in Postsecondary Schools:
- Extended time for tests, exams
- Reduced course load
- Course counselling
- Electronic or taped textbooks
- Text-to-voice software
- Voice-to-text software
- Reader (support person)
- Scribe for oral work (support person)
- Specialized organizational tour
- Tape recording of lectures