Succeed in College as a Learning Disabled Student

Delece Smith-Barrow

College freshmen will soon learn to live with a roommate, adjust to a new social scene and survive less-than-stellar dining hall food. Students with learning disabilities will face these transitions while also grappling with a few more hurdles.

Laws such as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act that require teachers and other adults to identify children with learning disabilities and make sure they get additional academic help no longer apply to college students, says Sheldon Horowitz, director of LD resources at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

These students now have to take the reins on disclosing their disabilities and advocating for resources.

"It used to be a guidance counselor, used to be an English teacher, used to be mommy and daddy. Now it's the person themselves," he says.

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Some of the most common learning disabilities include dyslexia, which affects reading skills; dyscalculia, which relates to math; and dysgraphia, which pertains to spelling and writing.

Many students with learning disabilities are in the minority at four-year institutions. Only 19 percent of young adults with disabilities enroll in a four-year college or university, according to a 2011 report from the National Center for Special Education Research.

The process of handling academic demands can be smoother when students with learning disabilities have strong resources and know how to express their needs to teachers and peers. Experts suggest students learn how to speak up and get technology that will aid them during their first semester of college and beyond.

One of the first steps students should take is ensuring they have documentation that proves they have a learning disability, says Horowitz. Without it, students may not be guaranteed assistance from their school's office of disability services, which can help them find tutors and note-takers, provide technology-based resources or give them a quiet environment for taking tests.

Once students have the right documentation and the backing of their school's disability services office, students must start to tell professors and peers about their disability.

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At University of the Ozarks, students accepted to the Jones Learning Center, which offers services to students with learning disabilities and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, can practice having this conversation with staff before approaching professors, which can be intimidating. They are also given a sheet of paper to help facilitate the discussion.

The sheet outlines which disability the student has and how the disability makes learning certain skills difficult, says Julia Frost, director of the center. "It will say these areas are weaknesses and because of that they are going to be getting some accommodations for that. And these areas are strengths."

In some cases students may also need to have a conversation with peers who make it difficult to learn and study, such as a loud roommate.

"Often it's just as important for them to be honest with a roommate about the kind of support that they're going to need as far as in the room or the kind of agreement they're going to have to come to," says Frost, who also works with the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

In the classroom, there are a number of ways a student can make the learning process easier.

A learning disabled student may learn best by making eye contact with the professor or may need additional help from a professor to understand a topic. Choosing the right class size can help with both of these issues.

"Smaller, seminar kinds of classrooms can provide that individualized attention, especially at the beginning of a college career," Horowitz says.

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There are also several techniques and tools students can use no matter how large or small the class.

Difficulty reading is a common disability, Horowitz says. It can be a slow process for some students, making it hard to read along with a professor during a lecture.

"If they could get access to their books or their readings in digital format, that could save them a lot of headache once they get into class," he says. Listening to a textbook while also reading it can be especially helpful for students with dyslexia, he says.

Word processing and dictation software could also help students, experts say.

Frost suggests students use a LiveScribe Pen. "It's a pen with a recorder inside of it," she says. Students write as much as they can on a special paper. They can place the pen on the area of the sheet where text is missing and the pen will dictate the missing words.

Students can also invest in different software programs and mobile apps that translate text to speech and that read text aloud.

Evan Greer, a senior majoring in information, science, technology and art at the University of Arizona, uses a range of software programs as well as tutors and note-takers to do well in school. But when he started college, he shied away from using resources available to students with learning disabilities.

"I really didn't want to use our services here at the SALT Center," he says, referring the school's Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center, which provides support for students with learning and attention differences.

Greer was diagnosed with dyslexia about 10 years ago, a diagnosis he said became a stigma that followed him for years.

"I kind of wanted to steer away from that and become my own person." He received an F and a D on some of his first exams.

He began going to SALT for weekly tutoring and saw his exam grades go up to A's and B's. He encourages students with learning disabilities to do much of what students without learning disabilities do to succeed: Find an environment that helps you focus on your work, and embrace places that help you succeed.

"Find a really good study place on campus. Whether it's here at the SALT Center, or if it's the academic resources center, or at the fifth floor of the library," he says. "Find a good spot to study on campus where you can always go to."

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