Learning Disabilities And Higher Education Access Essay

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Statistical data produced by HEATH Resource Center (1999) demonstrates that there has been a steady increase in the number of students with learning disabilities (LDs) attending postsecondary institutions. However, research suggests that the academic and social challenges they face in colleges and universities may be enough to discourage them from completing their education. Researchers have identified specific circumstances that help to explain this phenomenon: (1) the complex transition from the secondary to the postsecondary setting, (2) pessimistic attitudes of faculty and staff toward individuals with learning disabilities, and (3) the lack of experience of students with LDs in self-advocacy. This entry examines these problems.

A Complex Transition

The fundamental differences between high school and college make the adaptation of freshmen with learning disabilities to the postsecondary institution very complicated. Many times, students with LDs arrive at their college or university expecting no change from their high school experience. What they find is that the professionals involved in their education (e.g., faculty members and advisers) have no responsibility in requesting special services for the students. In addition, high school students interact more often with their teachers than the average college student may be able to do. Consequently, opportunities to demonstrate learning are also quite different; for example, as compared to high school classes, college classes have fewer exams that cover larger quantities of information, and they require more time invested on homework than what is expected of the high school student. In addition, college students with disabilities find that their parents are less involved in the structuring of their lives at college.

Researchers have also found that when faced with less support from parents and teachers around them, students with LDs are also faced with significantly more requirements to plan their days and activities. This sudden amount of freedom may challenge all students, but for those with LDs, many of whom have difficulty with organizational skills, such freedoms can contribute to failure.

Faculty Attitudes

Section 504 and the Americans with Disabilities Act ensure that individuals with disabilities receive instructional accommodations that will grant them equal access to postsecondary education. As a result, colleges and universities have adopted alternative methods to help these students in their academic endeavors. However, studies investigating faculty understanding of learning disabilities showed that many members of the professorate have little knowledge about disabilities in general and about learning disabilities specifically. This lack of understanding can influence how faculty members provide accommodations for their students with learning disabilities.

One group of researchers found a backlash against college students with disabilities and reported that some faculty felt that providing accommodations for students with LDs was not fair or justified. This attitude may be related to the fact that a cognitive impairment often involves changes in related features of the academic work (e.g., extra time to complete assignments, readers, and alternative methods of demonstrating knowledge attainment).

Inadequate Self-Advocacy

Students with LDs may have little opportunity to develop self-advocacy skills because they are not actively involved in the academic decision process. The important decisions are made by teachers and parents, who believe they are representing the students’ best interests. According to federal law, in order for students to receive accommodations at the postsecondary level, they must self-identify and provide the necessary documentation to prove the nature and the needs of their disability. It is therefore essential that the student develop as early as possible the skills to self-advocate.

Some institutions have programs such as an Office of Disability Services that provide students with documentation of their disability and a delineation of the nature of the disability and the educational needs of students. However, in most instances, it is up to the individual student to advocate for himself or herself. In order to ensure that college-bound students with learning disabilities have equal access to postsecondary education, transition plans should include preparation and training in the necessary skills needed to succeed in the fast-paced college environment.


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  2. Brinckerhoff, L. (1994). Developing effective self-advocacy skills in college-bound students with learning disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 29(4), 229–237.
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  4. Flexer, R. W., Simmons, T. J., Luft, P., & Baer, R. M. (Eds.). (2001). Transition planning for secondary students with disabilities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.
  5. Janiga, S., & Costenbader, V. (2002). The transition from high school to postsecondary for students with learning disabilities: A survey of college service coordinators. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 35(5), 462–468, 479.
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  7. Strichart, S. S. (1993). LD in the college setting: A different ball game than high school. In W. Ellis (Ed.), Their world (pp. 84–86). New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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