Assistive Technology

How Colleges Can Better Serve Students with Learning Disabilities

Although assistive technologies and other supports can help, too few students who need them take advantage.

DeAnna Guetschow always had a hard time focusing, but by the end of her junior year of college, she felt overwhelmed.

A studio arts major at Adrian College in Michigan, DeAnna found that her reading assignments were taking hours to complete each night because her mind would wander as she tried to read the text. She'd always been an honors student, but now she was scraping by with Cs and Ds.

"I thought, I need help," DeAnna said.

She went to her school's Disabilities Services office, where Disability Specialist Danielle Ward recommended that she be tested. DeAnna was diagnosed with mild dyslexia and severe ADHD, and Ward suggested that she use a text-to-speech software program called Kurzweil 3000-firefly to have her texts read aloud to her the following year.

The results were "phenomenal," DeAnna said. What used to take her hours only took minutes to complete, and she was retaining the information longer as well. With the help of the Kurzweil software, DeAnna finished her degree in May and is now teaching art at nearby Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

Students who have learning disabilities like DeAnna's often face steep challenges in making the jump from high school to higher education, and these challenges go well beyond the shift to more intensive, college-level work.

The transitioning of students with learning disabilities from high school to college "is a very important issue, and it often gets overlooked," said Tracy Gray, managing researcher for education at the American Institutes for Research. A nationally known expert in improving opportunities for students with disabilities, Gray used to head the now-defunct National Center for Technology Innovation, which supported researchers and entrepreneurs in creating new assistive technologies to help all students learn.

While assistive technologies (like the Kurzweil software) can help with this transition, Gray and other disability specialists warn that too few college-level students are taking advantage of these kinds of tools, and they say campus leaders need to be more active in addressing the challenges students with learning disabilities face at their institutions.

Only 19% of Students Get the Help They Need
DeAnna wasn't diagnosed with learning disabilities until she was in college. But many students arrive at college after having an individualized education program (IEP) in high school. For these students, "the process is very different for getting services in K-12 compared with higher education," said Sam Johnston, a research scientist for CAST, a nonprofit organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all students.

At the K-12 level, the onus for identifying learning disabilities and providing the right kinds of support is on the school or district, Johnston said. When students move on to college, the responsibility shifts over to them, and "it often falls apart somewhere along the line," Johnston said.

As students get older, "they don't necessarily want people to know they have a disability," Gray said. "They don't want to be singled out." As a result, many college students choose not to self-identify as having a learning disability.

This problem is made worse by the fact that many college students do not live at home and therefore no longer have their parents advocating for their education.

What's more, the scope of services that colleges and universities offer to students with learning disabilities varies widely. While the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires colleges to support students with learning disabilities, colleges differ in terms of the resources they have devoted to this challenge.

"It's still a bit of the Wild West out there," said Gray, describing colleges' focus on the issue. "Some colleges and universities have been more responsive to the needs of students with disabilities, but we hear from many students that the kinds of supports they had in the K-12 system just aren't there."

As a result, the adoption of services at the college level is quite low. A national longitudinal study from the United States Department of Education found that 87 percent of students with learning disabilities received some kind of support at the K-12 level; but when these students moved on to college, only 19 percent continued to get support.

"It's shocking to see such a huge change" from high school to college, Johnston said. "These are the same students, but for whatever reason, they're not being served in higher education."

How One College Has Responded
DeAnna was lucky that her college had such a responsive support staff. Another institution at the forefront of this issue is Taft College, a rural community college outside Bakersfield, CA.

Taft College is known for its Transition to Independent Living program, which has become a national model for serving adult students with moderate to severe developmental or intellectual disabilities. Most students who complete the program are able to move out and live on their own. But Taft College also has a Disabled Student Programs and Services office that serves students with less severe disabilities. These might include learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or a lack of executive functioning, such as difficulty in organizing schoolwork or planning essays.

"We take the approach of giving students a variety of options," said Joseph Polizzotto, an associate professor and access specialist at the college's High Tech Center. He said about 15 percent of the college's students receive special services.

Polizzotto meets with students who are confirmed as having a learning disability to discuss what kinds of services and accommodations would best serve their needs. These might include having someone help them take notes in class, giving them more time to take tests or introducing them to assistive technologies that can help with various tasks.

For instance, if students are having problems with organizing information, they might be given a Livescribe Smartpen that can record the audio from lectures at the same time they're taking notes. By tapping their notes, students can play back the audio recording to hear what the professor was saying at that particular point in time, which could help them understand what they had written.

If students have difficulty writing, they might receive Dragon speech recognition software. If they struggle with reading, they might be introduced to text-to-speech software.

Polizzotto shows students all the options at their disposal and teaches them how to use these tools, going over the various menus and commands. He also schedules follow-up meetings with students to make sure they are using the technology effectively to support their learning.

If students are not able to retain what they read, a text-to-speech program like Kurzweil 3000-firefly "can help them auditorily process information and comprehend information better," Polizzotto said.

Advice for Schools and Students
Because many college-level students don't admit to having a learning disability, it's important for instructors and support staff to look for some of the telltale signs, Polizzotto said: problems focusing or organizing thoughts, for instance, or a gap between a student's potential and what instructors actually are seeing.

Colleges and universities also need better sharing of information across their campus, he said, including more coordination between their academic departments and their disability office. In addition, colleges should teach all students how to use the basic support features built into their computer's operating system, such as its limited screen reader functionality.

DeAnna urged students with learning disabilities to find out what supports are available on their campus. Her final advice to her peers? "You don't have to struggle with this on your own."

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