“The sky is the limit,” said Stephanie Whitham, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of San Francisco (USF). Whitham was told that she would be lucky to graduate from high school and shouldn’t even consider college because of her nonverbal learning disability, which means she has trouble understanding communication that isn’t verbal, such as body language and tone of voice. “The key is to sit down with the school’s office of disability services and get all the help you have a right to.”
Getting the right help is more possible today than ever before, but it is neither easy nor cheap. My spouse and I, who have six college degrees between us, spent several years, countless hours, and tens of thousands of dollars finding the right treatment and academic interventions for our now thriving 12-year-old daughter, who has ADHD and dyslexia, a reading disorder. Despite what many may believe, learning differences do not correlate to lower intelligence or an intellectual disability. In fact, students with learning differences who have normal to above-normal intelligence can succeed in school with the right academic instruction and accommodations.
Brain-based learning and attention issues such as ADHD and dyslexia affect an estimated one in five children in the U.S., according to The National Center for Learning Disabilities. That means their parents, educators and therapists, and eventually, their employers, are affected as well. LDs stem from neurological differences in brain structure and function that “affect a person’s ability to receive, store, process, retrieve, or communicate information.” The most common types affect reading, math, and written expression, and include ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and associated disorders such as auditory or visual processing deficits, executive function deficits, and nonverbal learning disabilities.
About 67 percent of students with LDs enroll in some type of postsecondary education within eight years of leaving high school, which is the same as the general population. The most common services offered in college to students with LDs include tutoring and coaching, additional time for coursework, tests and assignments, note takers, quiet spaces for test taking, audio books, and assistive technologies such as equipment, software, learning materials, screen readers, and voice-recognition programs.
However, students with LDs attend four-year colleges at about half the rate (21 percent) of the general population. And just 41 percent of students with LDs graduate from a four-year college in six-years, compared to 52 percent of all students.
The reasons for the lower graduation rate include added costs and trouble satisfying the documentation requirements. In the K-12 system, for example, schools are required to test students and offer appropriate accommodations for free. At the college level, schools are not required to provide specially designed instruction to accommodate students with disabilities. But college students may be eligible for academic adjustments, program modifications, and extra services, usually for an additional fee. Students also must self-identify as disabled, and documentation of their disability must be provided.