By Linda G. Tessler
Speak up! Fight your own battles! When kids used to taunt in the
schoolyard, your friends would gather around to stick up for you.
Now, on the college campus, it's your chance to stick up for yourself
-- to fight for the accommodations that you require to succeed as
a college student with learning disabilities. Through grade school
and high school, your parents and your special education teachers
fought for you. With your interests at heart, they spoke up on your
behalf, helping you get the services you needed to thrive.
Now it is time for you to learn how to advocate for yourself, to
support yourself, to reach your full potential in college, where
there are large classes, less interaction with professors, and the
expectation that you will manage your own study time. You must speak
up! Here are some suggestions for easing the transition from depending
on others to being your own advocate.
Know Your Rights
It's natural to feel uncomfortable discussing your learning disability
and to worry about how professors will react. Perhaps they don't
believe that learning disabilities even exist, or maybe they have
a child with learning disabilities and completely understand your
situation. In either case, you are not alone. If you a planning
to attend a college with an enrollment of 25,000 students, then
approximately 550 of those students have learning disabilities,
writes Howard Eaton in his book Self Advocacy. Remember that you
are not asking for a favor; you are asking for a right that is guaranteed
by the federal government. As a person with learning disabilities,
you are entitled to receive certain accommodations. In fact, the
Americans with Disabilities Act says, no discrimination should take
place against anybody who is disabled. This includes persons with
learning disabilities. Colleges are required to allow you an equal
opportunity for success. Your job is to work hard to take advantage
of that opportunity.
To advocate for yourself and to deal with the inevitable roadblocks
you'll face, you should understand what kind of disability you have
so that you can explain it to others. How do you process information?
What strategies work for you? Remember that a learning disability
is a perceptual difference that inhibits intelligence from manifesting
Be able to explain to the instructor what special kind of perceptual
difference you have which inhibits your learning. Speak in terms
of your strengths and weaknesses.
The list of accommodations that other students with learning disabilities
have received is not a shopping list from which you can choose.
You are entitled only to the help that allows you to use your accommodating
techniques in order to overcome your disability.
Develop Your Support System from the Beginning
As soon as possible, or before school begins, make yourself official,
register with the college's Office for Students with Disabilities.
Find out where the tutoring and editonal services are, introduce
yourself, and create your supports. Make friends in class. Other
students are excellent supports.
Remember the fundamentals. From the first day in class be dependable.
Attend all classes, arrive on time, and complete work by its due
date. When possible do extra credit work. There's no substitute
for hard work. This conscientiousness helps you advocate for yourself,
because professors want to help responsible students.
Decide in which subjects you are most likely to need help. Use
your high school expenence as a guide. It's unlikely that those
trouble spots will evaporate when you get to college. It's also
unlikely that you'll require accommodations in every class.
By meeting with professors before something goes wrong, they will
not think you are using your learning disability as an excuse, and
you will be in the position to get the help needed from the start.
When you are ready to meet with your course instructors, schedule
an appointment. What you have to discuss is important. Don't catch
the instructor in a rush before or after class.
Bring some documentation describing your learning disability to
the appointment. Some people need things in black and white. Be
friendly, greet your instructor and maintain eye contact. Before
getting down to business show interest in your instructor. In life,
if you want someone to be interested in you, show interest in him
or her. The goal is to get your instructor to cooperate with you
and to promote mutual respect in the process. School life is political
and learning how to play the political game will be good practice
Explain what kind of learning disability you have and what accommodations
you require. Explain, for example, that you have an attention deficit
disorder and therefore need a quiet room; if you are dysgraphic
you may need to tape record classes to enable you to take better
notes. When this connection is made between your disability and
what you need, few professors will turn you down.
It must be clear that you are not asking for standards to be lowered.
You are using tools to help you perform. To pass, you must perform
the task that your classmates perform. You may, however, need to
get there in a different way. Dyslexic students have to read the
textbook just as nondyslexic students do. They may just do it differently
through the use of books on tape.
Don't be aggressive. It isn't in your best interest to turn a professor
against you. But don't be passive either. Stand up for your rights.
The best approach is to be assertive. If things don't go well, ask
the Office for Students with Disabilities for help. No matter what
happens in the meeting, thank your professor for his/her time. Stay
Many students have no problem getting their professors to cooperate.
Their success has a lot to do with how it's done. By developing
these social skills, you're developing your emotional intelligence,
which is in the end one of the most important accommodating techniques
for overcoming a learning disability.
About the author: Linda G. Tessler, PhD, is licensed psychologist
in private practice in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Dr. Tessler's major
interest is in serving persons with learning disabilities.
This article appeared in the September/October 1997 issue
of LDA Newsbriefs, the newsletter of the Learning Disabilities Association.
Newsbriefs is published six times a year and is a benefit of LDA