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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: As a college student with dyslexia, you've said you experienced both struggles and success. What advice would you offer young people with LD as they prepare for college and their future?

A: When I decided to return to college, I found it useful to do some reframing, which is to say, I decided to see the world differently. The ancient Jewish philosopher and Rabbi, Hillel, articulated my favorite framework for life, as an individual with a disability. Hillel's advice begins, "Let no one else set your limits." I tell children with learning disabilities, "Don't ever let the guidance counselor tell you what you can or cannot do. You decide what your limits will be." I think developing this attitude in high school is very important. Students with LD must also understand what a learning disability is. Learning disabilities are real, not just something mom and dad made up to explain to their friends why school is hard for you. As the brain scans performed by Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz reveal, dyslexia, for example is an organic, language processing-based disability. Our brains are wired differently from those of fluent readers. It is harder for us to read for a real reason. It's not about being lazy or unintelligent.

We are only lazy when we decide to give up on learning how to compensate for our specific weaknesses and best capitalize on our strengths. Every student has to develop a personal effective learning style. A thorough evaluation, perhaps more thorough than one is likely to receive for free from a school psychologist, is part of coming to understand the peaks and valleys of our thinking and learning skills. Of course, it does no good to get such an evaluation, if no one carefully explains to you the meaning of the test results. For example, I learned that it was critically important to me to never miss a lecture in college, even if I didn't have time to do all the assigned reading.

Also, learn to be your own advocate. The research by Gerber, Ginsberg, and Reiff tells us that the number one issue that distinguishes successful people with learning disabilities is character, whether the LD individual has "fire in the belly." Find the anger in yourself and harness it! Let that anger be the energy that empowers you to study late at night or study twice as hard for a test as the "next guy." Let the anger give you the courage to ask for the accommodations to which you are legitimately entitled.

There is often an alternate route to success. The ability to find those routes is an important predicate to having an LD and being successful. Each high school student should develop a self-service strategy in case of trouble in college. What will you do if, one night, you find out there's more reading to do than you can possibly accomplish? That's exactly what happened to me at Oxford University. I was expected to read a lengthy, complex book every day. The way I got around it was to read the first and the last chapters, skim the rest of the book, and go to the pub at night. Really! I went to the pub because I knew when my professor was going to be there and I could talk to him about each book. This worked because I am an auditory learner and my professor, after two pints, loved to talk.

Hillel's guidance continues, "If I am not for others, who am I?" Here too the advice of Hillel is right on point. I know of no better way for someone to get beyond himself and become a better self-advocate, than to learn to advocate for or otherwise support others. LD students are too often misperceived as engaged in "gaming the system," for a selfish advantage. They are often considered "into" self-victimization. The perception is quite different when the student is known as an individual who works to level the playing field for everyone.

Hillel completes his guidance with the admonition, "If not now, when?" This is so true for LD students in high school. Accommodations in college are a civil right, but one with limits. Not everyone identified in high school as having a specific learning disability will qualify in college as "disabled" and be entitled to accommodations. Even if one receives accommodations they are unlikely to be as robust in college. Students with learning disabilities need to learn the essentials of "self-accommodation" as soon as possible. This means heading for college having practiced self-advocacy in IEP meetings and the classroom, a solid set of independently managed study skills, an individualized approach to learning, and a thorough mastery of adaptive technology.

After "fire in the belly," mastery of adaptive technology, not IQ, not reading fluency is the single most important predictor of success in college. If you're going to use a reading pen, Naturally Speaking, Kurzweil 3000, Inspiration, a spell-checker, don't wait until college to learn how to use it. Start using it now on a daily basis.

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. "