Sunday, October 26, 2008

College students with disabilities must learn to become advocates

From the intro to a story in The Washington Post:

After a decade of worrying about her son's attention-deficit disorder, meeting with teachers, calling around to get lost homework assignments and getting advice on SAT test accommodations, Lori Spinelli-Samara is facing this simple truth: Next year, in college, Nick is on his own (pictured).

The Olney mother knows he's plenty smart enough. But will her son, a senior at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, get to the assignments due in three weeks without his parents, teachers and cross-country coach keeping tabs on him? Keep his focus during lectures? Lose afternoons playing Guitar Hero instead of studying?

"If you have ADD," she said, only half laughing, "how do you remember to take your medication?"

A generation of students accustomed to receiving help for special learning needs is entering college. The percentage of students identified with learning disabilities who graduate from high school and go on to four-year colleges jumped from one in 100 in 1987 to about one in nine last year. And those who go on to any kind of post-secondary education went from a third to almost three-quarters by 2003. But some are finding that the transition isn't easy.

Many students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia or memory troubles have had years of education shaped by intense parental support, involved teachers and legally mandated school safety nets. And many colleges, including American University and Montgomery College, have programs to assist students with the transition.

But what colleges must do is far less defined legally, and professors and administrators at some schools seem to remain skeptical about the needs that
students might have. Schools must provide assistance to students, but only if
the students disclose their disabilities.

Most students don't. Some are tired of being labeled. Some are unable to afford the extensive and recent cognitive testing that most colleges require as proof of disability. Some just don't get around to it until they start failing classes, at which point it's often too late to salvage the semester.

For the parents of learning-disabled students, the typical concerns about their sons and daughters going away to college are magnified. Those make-or-break exams, for example, are even scarier for students who have never done well on tests. All that unstructured time between classes is far more daunting for those who tend to lose track of things. People with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is a neurobehavioral disorder, often have trouble organizing tasks, finishing homework and paying attention.

The students who are most successful, experts say, are the ones who adapt quickly to independence from their parents and become their own advocates.