Accommodating Disability, College Style

I was a lousy grade school advocate. I tried my hand at speaking up for my oh-so bored (but don’t use that word) older son during his first grade year, asking for assignments that took bigger bites with less repetition. I didn’t get very far, and even when we handed over the testing they requested to prove that he really didn’t need that, the testing that showed that he very much did, nothing happened. We were welcome to keep him in the school, but with the understanding that they had nothing to offer him.

Thinking that getting little for nothing was a better deal than getting nothing for 10K a year, we tried a public gifted program. Now we had more information. In addition to a quick mind, my older had a writing disability. Intervention via a scribe or keyboard wasn’t available for a gifted kid, it seemed, so while free, he was stuck with education that was boring and unaccommodating to his disability.

So eight years ago, we went home.

Last spring, it was with great trepidation and a good amount of encouragement from a psychologist who “gets” twice exceptional (gifted and learning disabled) kids that I made the call to Madonna University  a small private college just minutes away from home. With my son just months from 15,  called their designated admissions advisor for dual-enrolled students (a good sign of an open-minded institution). I spouted a few scores and what we were seeking — Calculus I and Sign Language and Society (a liberal arts intro class with no signing). Yes, they’d be glad to have him. Then I asked for what I’d not asked for in the previous seven years — accommodations for dysgraphia and ADHD (and assorted executive function disorders.

I held my breath.

“Of course we can accommodate him,” she began before spouting off a list of accommodations I’d not known was even possible. I exhaled, thanked her profusely, and nearly cried on the line.

A few weeks later, after scheduling his classes, we were walked down to the Office of Disability Resources (ODR) to meet his advisor. This would be a first for the university, a dual-enrolled student using the ODR, we were told, with a smile and not a small amount of enthusiasm. I could hardly believe it. Two grade schools had met him with doubt of the validity of his gifts and his disabilities, despite reason, pleading, paperwork, and repeated meetings. This place — this college — was ready to help as soon as we presented ourselves.

Well, not only ourselves. We’d brought the latest evaluation from his psychologist, complete with diagnoses and specific recommendations. We had ACT scores and more, hoping that the high scores on those measures wouldn’t negate the very real challenges my son faces. My son and I were both nervous. Me because I’d failed every previous attempt to advocate for him. Him because he was sitting in a college advisor’s office and was not yet 15, plus he felt that somehow his disabilities negated his intelligence. Being twice-exceptional is quite the head game.

The rest was easy. The advisor chatted with both of us, getting a feel for what worked and didn’t work for my son. Note taking was the biggest concern. Dysgraphia affects the ability to write by hand but also the ability to organize thoughts. Note taking in college classes require a rapid hand and an ease with sorting out what is relevant and noteworthy from what is just interesting. It requires constant focus, which in these classes, meant attending for up to three hours at a time. Note taking is his greatest nemesis.

And the box was checked for a note taker. A paid — by the university– note taker chosen by the ODR was available. This service could be done anonymously or more openly, with carbon copy notes either handed over after class, sent via email, or placed in a numbered box in the office.  If the first one didn’t work out, a replacement would be provided. Either way, a student already in the class would provide him with notes. I exhaled again.

What else did he need? Quiet testing? Okay. Time-and-a-half for testing? Just in case. Keyboard for testing anything longer than a single-word answer? Definitely. Permission to use a laptop during class for in-class writing assignments? Yes.  We were handed the list of possible accommodations to consider, encouraged to take what might be needed. It was overwhelming. And encouraging.

College accommodations come with a caveat: it is up to the student to enact them. The student needs to approach the professor with the paperwork for scheduling a test in the testing center then file the paperwork with the ODR secretary. The student needs to ask to use a keyboard for an assignment in class instead of writing it out. No teacher or advisor will come after the student, meaning that it all can be in place on paper but go unused in reality. For a student with executive function issues (difficulty planning and organizing), this seemed a daunting task.

Fast forward to fall, with nine credits on the schedule, a nervous mom, and plenty of adrenaline for my son. Only the note taking accommodation was used, and without that, he’d have been lost. Thanks to long class times, extended test-taking time wasn’t needed. While offered a reader and a scribe for tests, he decided to use neither, and thankfully his Calculus teacher assured him she’d dealt with far worse handwriting than his (somehow his numbers are legible where his letters aren’t). He was sure that telling someone what to write down for math would be far more challenging than just showing the work himself, and he was likely right. But just like most security blankets, knowing the accommodations were there for the taking was a comfort.

Accommodations even when enacted, don’t solve all the problems of the learning disabled student. Poor executive function — the skills of planning, organization, and impulse control — isn’t easily accommodated for. I’ve served as his frontal lobe for a good long time, and I’ve had to continue that role as he moved some learning to the college classroom. While we’ve worked on ways to keep schedules and lists, these skills still aren’t used to anything close to their full potential. Additionally, a few tests went bad — or at least weren’t that great — mostly due to poor self-monitoring and a tendency to be overly optimistic about what he knew. An assignment was missed (miraculously just one), likely due to wishful thinking that he’d already done it paired with a lack of follow-up to assure that was true. In short, the  usual problems persisted.

So this semester, he’s taking three classes, carrying eleven credits between two colleges. I hold my breath again and again, wince regularly, and cheer whenever appropriate. The second school offered similar supports, including audiobooks, preferential seating, advance copies of in-class reading and writing assignments, and speech-to-text software for writing assignments and tests. None of those are necessary in the PC Troubleshooting and Repair class he’s taking, but it’s good to know they are there. For a reading and writing heavy class, he’d need it all.

Accommodations are readily available at the college level, even for dual enrolled students. While they can help with some of the challenges of the child with disabilities they can’t touch the underlying executive function issues many kids with learning disabilities experience. Twice exceptional kids who need the intellectual stimulation of the college environment will still need support at home to meet deadlines, hone studying skills, and provide organizational support. It’s a continual balance between those disparate needs.  Disability resource offices offer some substantial support, but parent will end up offering a good amount, too. At least for me, that job doesn’t seem likely to end soon.



5 thoughts on “Accommodating Disability, College Style

  1. Thank you for writing this. I needed to hear that it is possible. I am want so much for accommodations to not be necessary that I think I am holding my kids back. More thinking….

  2. I had no idea there were accommodations available at the college level! This is wonderful! I’m about to burst into tears reading this, because my son is bright, but he has many of the same issues you’re describing. I’m so relieved and am definitely going to look into these further as he gets a bit older (he’s 10 now). Thank you so much!!

  3. You have made my day! Thank you. College is one of those things I try not to think about but it lingers in my mind. I have two kiddos who will need accommodations (especially, the note taking!). I had no idea these were available. I know I have a few years but this has definitely put a bit of peace in my mind.

  4. Oh.My.Word. Knowing that there is another boy who is like my son is a priceless gift! GeorgePaul has sensory processing disorder/dysgraphia and was tested and placed in the gifted program at a public charter school. He had a serious illness in fifth grade (now resolved!) and we started homeschooling him last year in 6th. I have wondered how to proceed toward college in the future and you have given me hope! Thank you, thank you!

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