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Attorney Paul Grossman on Legal Rights for College Students With LD

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By Kristin Stanberry , Paul Grossman, J.D.

Q: In public elementary and secondary schools, many students with LD are legally entitled to modifications and accommodations. Is that also true in the college and university setting?

A: There are some important accommodations ("academic adjustments") that students with documented learning disabilities frequently get in college such as early registration, a somewhat reduced course load, and extra time on examinations. But In higher education, modifications to the curriculum that are fundamental are not available. Basically, the university's legal responsibility is to provide the student with a disability access (via accommodations) to the information that is provided in the curriculum for all students. There is no legal duty to re-teach, repackage, or reformulate that curriculum. There are no special day classes, for example. There isn't even a duty to provide tutoring unless, of course, such a service is made available to all students.

Q: Are colleges and universities allowed to ask applicants if they have disabilities?

A: It is illegal for a college or university to make a pre-admission inquiry into whether or not an applicant is an individual with a disability. This is in contrast to elementary and secondary school where teachers and other school officials have an affirmative duty to tell parents that they have reason to believe a student may need special education and to suggest an evaluation. Colleges must carefully consider the evaluation information presented to them by a student, and even tell the student what may be missing from the evaluation, but only under very rare circumstances does the college have a duty to conduct or pay for the evaluation.

Q: At what point after being admitted to a college should a student reveal her learning disability?

A: If you need accommodations, the minute you are accepted is a probably a good time to reveal your disability. Unless you start the accommodation process, the university has no responsibility to accommodate your disability. Every college and university has its own accommodation process. It is important to learn about the process in advance. Generally, this process may be identified in the college catalogue or website. Also, there is nothing wrong with calling the disabled student service personnel at a college you are thinking about attending, and asking for information about accommodations. For example, some colleges liberally allow for course substitutions, while others almost never grant a course substitution. Some colleges provide extensive tutoring and learning labs; others provide none.

Accommodations are an opportunity provided to us by law. They are a civil right. Accommodations can make a huge positive difference in our lives; not just for better grades but for all things in life that come with getting a diploma and having a strong academic record - most important, a chance to live up to our potentials. Conversely, your status as a person with a disability will do very little or nothing to excuse poor performance. If you wait a semester to request accommodations, you may end up with an unnecessary set of low first semester grades dragging down your grade point average. However, if you don't need any accommodations, my advice is to not disclose your disability. One never knows how a particular professor feels about students with learning disabilities.

Kristin Stanberry is a writer and editor specializing in parenting, education, and consumer health/wellness issues. Her areas of expertise include learning disabilities and AD/HD, which she wrote about extensively for Schwab Learning and GreatSchools.


Comments from readers

"I was a student at a Nursing School in Sacramento in which I requested accommodations for my disability. I notified school officials as well as the director of nursing and was ignored. Because the program was very new I feel that they were not knowledgeable in dealing with the matter and in fact was asked what 504 accommodations were by the DON. We were also told to take a course that wasn’t required and told that if we did not we could not pass the program. Students were told to go to another school in Solano and take a one day course for $300 dollars and instructed students to bring cash. I refused as I knew this was wrong. I brought this to the attention of the school principal Mrs. Compton and vice Principal Mr. Choate. They had no idea this was being done by the DON (director of nursing) and were confused since the school there had the same course for $45 dollars. But the point was that it was not a required course and was told by the board of nursing that if the cour! se was not required and the DON was threatening to fail students it was fraudulent. They were many issues with the program that I spoke up about for myself and behalf of others that were basically ignored and even threatened if we complained we would be expelled. I even received an email from another teacher that stated that the DON gets rid of people that speak up. After many conversations to the principal and being told by the DON that my disability was an issue for him and he felt I was a “liability� to the nursing field I was dismissed from the program temporarily due to my disability. A complaint was filed and two months later the DON was fired by the district and the principal suddenly retired. I feel that my civil rights were violated by the school as well as discriminated based on my documented disability. "
"Where can I find a lawyer to represent me? I am a student with a LD, and my college refuses to provide academic accommodations, even though the school policy, and section 504 of the ADA, require them to do so. My LD has been documented with a DSM, and I therefore have evidence of my disability. "