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July 10, 2018
Sarah was an outgoing and bright teenager in her senior year at a public high school. She was a star violinist in the school orchestra and, on the weekends, enjoyed working at a local retirement community. Sarah was also very determined and hardworking. Having been diagnosed with dyslexia and executive function issues in third grade, she had participated in many hours of structured, sequential, multisensory reading instruction at school, and each summer she worked with a reading tutor.
Sarah also benefitted from school accommodations including preferential seating, frequent teacher check-ins, help breaking larger assignments into smaller pieces, access to her teachers’ notes, and extra time to complete tests and assignments. All of these were provided through her Individualized Education Program (IEP). Since entering high school, Sarah had become more active in her IEP meetings, and her parents and teachers helped her to build self-advocacy skills. Sarah felt thrilled and proud of herself when she was accepted to her top-choice college. However, she began to wonder if she would still be able to get accommodations – which had been an important part of her success in high school – once she entered college in the fall.
In our work as staff psychologists at the MGH Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP), we often meet students like Sarah who are diagnosed with dyslexia (and other disabilities) while attending public school. Often, these students are found eligible for school accommodations through an IEP or a 504 Plan, depending on the nature of their disability and the level of support required. There are many resources devoted to helping parents navigate special education in public K-12 settings, which is governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, fewer resources exist for students at the college and graduate school level.
We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Dana Roth, the Assistant Director of Disability Services at the Ross Center at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Based on our conversation, we put together some common questions and answers about how accommodations and supports work for dyslexia and other disabilities in higher education settings.
What should students know about transitioning from accommodations in high school to accommodations in college?
Students who had IEPs or 504 Plans in high school do not automatically receive accommodations once they enter college. Instead, they must disclose their disability to the disability services office at their college or university and provide appropriate documentation. In most cases, “appropriate documentation” is a psychoeducational or neuropsychological evaluation completed within the past three years, with adult norms (i.e., age 16 or older). Such evaluations may be completed by the student’s school district or by an independent psychologist or neuropsychologist. College students do not have IEPs, as these are provided through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which only governs public K-12 education only.
When students are found eligible for college accommodations, the supports they receive may differ from those they received in high school. One of the main differences between high school and college is that modifications, or changes to a student’s learning goals, generally are not provided in college. In high school, modifications might include a student learning different content or completing shorter assignments, compared to other students. In college, students with disabilities are almost always responsible for learning the same content and completing the same assignments as their classmates.
Which accommodations are most helpful for college students with dyslexia?
Like high schoolers, college students with dyslexia may benefit from the following classroom accommodations:
Students with dyslexia may also benefit from a course substitution to fulfill a world language requirement – for example, taking a Spanish history or art course that is taught in English, instead of a Spanish language class. Considering the diversity of learning disabilities and the frequency of dyslexia and co-occurring conditions (for example, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), there is no set list of accommodations for students at the college level,
How can parents support their college-age children with dyslexia?
While parents generally have a “starring role” in their children’s special education teams through high school, this is no longer the case in college. In college, the student is responsible for communicating with the disability services office. Parents can encourage their children to be good self-advocates and to set an initial appointment with the disability services office at their college or university. Parents can help foster these skills during the high school years by talking with their children about disabilities, sharing (at least in part) neuropsychological evaluation reports, and involving children in their IEP meetings.
When should college students contact the disability services office?
If high school students think they will need accommodations in college, then gathering information from the disability services office should be an important part of the college search process. This might involve stopping by this disability services office during a campus visit, or calling or emailing the office.
Without necessarily disclosing one’s disability status, it is possible to gather a lot of information about the types of accommodations and supports that might be available, upon enrollment. Accommodations can be very different from college to college, and students with dyslexia should consider this when choosing which college or university to attend.
Once students have chosen which college they will attend, contacting the disability services office the summer before enrollment, or at the very beginning of the fall semester, is a good idea. Students should be prepared to meet with a staff member at the office and to provide appropriate documentation about their disability (or disabilities). This is when a student’s specific accommodations will be determined. The disability services office acts as a liaison between students and professors, and tells professors which accommodations they must provide. They are not told the nature of a student’s disabilities, unless the student chooses to share this information.
What are common pitfalls?
Sometimes, students who had IEPs and received supports in high school are reluctant to seek out accommodations in college. They may see accommodations as part of their past – not their future. However, Ms. Roth recommends that students reflect carefully about supports and accommodations that helped them to succeed in high school, and to seek out supports and accommodations in college too.
Some students with dyslexia and other disabilities take a “wait and see” approach when it comes to contacting the disability services office. But Ms. Roth recommends that students be proactive in seeking accommodations in college. Especially when a college has distribution requirements (common in liberal arts settings) and an accommodation might include a course substitution, students are encouraged to get in touch with the disability services office early. Students should not wait until they are close to graduating to seek this type of support, as it could ultimately delay graduation.
Another pitfall is students not taking advantage of the full range of services and supports available at their college, above and beyond those coordinated by the disability services office. For example, many colleges and universities have an “Academic Resource Center” or “Center for Student Success” – the exact name varies from campus to campus. In general, these are centers where students may work with different tutors – subject tutors, writing tutors, public speaking tutors – and participate in one-time and short-term courses, such as an organizational skills class. Further, colleges and universities often have on-campus counseling centers that provide individual and group therapy, which can be beneficial for students adjusting to college, regardless of their disability status.
All students – and especially those with dyslexia and other disabilities – are encouraged to make full use of the range of services and supports available at their college or university.
What about students who are diagnosed with dyslexia later in life and pursue accommodations for the first time in college?
It is not uncommon for students to seek disability accommodations for the first time when they are in college. For some students – especially bright students with relatively mild disabilities – this could be the first time that they encounter academic difficulties. For others, they may not have been identified by their school districts as having learning issues and in turn, they may not have received accommodations or supports in high school.
If college students suspect that they may have dyslexia or another type of disability, then they are encouraged to contact the disability services office at their college or university. The disability services office can provide referrals to providers who perform psychoeducational or neuropsychological testing, which can pinpoint the nature of the disability and generate recommendations for accommodations.
What about accommodations in graduate school?
Graduate students with dyslexia and other disabilities may also be eligible for accommodations and supports. The steps to request accommodations are practically the same as those described above for college students: it will involve contacting the disability services office at their school, sharing appropriate documentation about the disability, and meeting with a disability services office staff member to discuss and determine accommodations.
After Sarah accepted her offer to attend her top-choice college, she went online to find the contact information for the disability services office. Because the campus was only an hour drive from her home, she made an appointment to meet in-person with an office staff member in July. Sarah brought a copy of her most recent neuropsychological evaluation report to the meeting, which outlined the nature of her disabilities and recommended accommodations at the college level. Sarah felt a little nervous about going to the meeting by herself, without her parents there for support. However, because she had actively participated in her IEP meetings, she felt comfortable and confident discussing which accommodations had been helpful in high school, and which ones she thought she would need once classes started in the fall. She felt positive about her meeting with the disability services office staff member, and felt reassured to know that she still could receive supports in college. She could not wait to begin!
It is important for students with dyslexia (and other disabilities) to know that accommodations and supports are available in college and graduate school.
While some students pursue college accommodations after receiving these supports during elementary, middle, and/or high school, others pursue accommodations for the first time in college or graduate school.
The accommodations a student receives in high school may be different from those they receive in college.
All students pursuing accommodations in college or graduate school, regardless of whether they received accommodations in high school, must contact the disability services office at their college or university and provide appropriate documentation of their disability (or disabilities). All students who receive accommodations and supports at the college or graduate school level must assume a self-advocacy role, and elementary, middle, and high school are excellent times to start cultivating these skills.