Succeeding in Graduate School with a Learning Disability
Overcoming the Obstacles
by Stephanie Small
Published January 31, 2011
In 2006, the National Center for Learning Disabilities estimated that as many as 2.9 million school-age children in the United States have a learning disability and are receiving some kind of support. The National Institute of Health suggests that 15-20% of the U.S. population has some kind of learning disability. Sadly, a National Longitudinal Transition Study the same year reported that only 13% of students with learning disabilities attend a four-year college, and an even smaller percentage of those continue on to graduate school
The hesitation learning disabled students often feel in revealing their difficulties combined with classrooms unequipped to support LD students' needs can create a vicious cycle. Learning disabled students who do make it to a Masters or a PhD often have an even more difficult time than the average student in dealing with the stressors of academic life.
In this day and age, it doesn't make sense that a bright, competent student should be dissuaded from a graduate program simply because of differences in processing ability and learning style. Increased awareness by professors, academic staff, and prospective students alike will go a long way towards improving visibility and increasing support of LD students.
What, exactly, is a learning disability?
1. There must be a significant discrepancy between overall cognitive ability and achievement.
2. Processing Deficit- The brain must process all the information received from all of the senses (hearing and vision).
3. The processing deficit must be shown to be directly contributing to underachievement. The weakness must be negatively affecting the person’s academic performance.
4. The underachievement can not be primarily due to factors other than a processing deficit, such as a head injury or epilepsy, physical disability, or sensory impairment, (vision or hearing), mental retardation, or lack of appropriate instruction, or severe psychological disturbance.
Symptoms can include inconsistent school performance, short attention span, letter and number reversals, and poor organization, to name a few.
When discussing the concept of learning disabilities, it's important to note a couple of things. First, the term “disability” itself is controversial. Conceptualizing this experience as a flaw, a deviation from the “normal” way of doing things, can feel pathologizing to those who are labeled as “learning disabled”. “Differently abled” is one alternate term, but it's important first and foremost to ask the individual how he or she would like to describe their way of learning. Second, as guideline #4 explains, it's critical to rule out other contributing factors.
For example, eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods demonstrably impacts one's ability to focus, stay present, and retain and process information. Please don't jump to a diagnosis of ADHD without checking whether you (or the student in question) are eating Froot Loops for breakfast and McDonald's for lunch.
Steps to success
1. Erase the stigma. Learning disabled students, if you hide your difficulties, you will not get the help you need, and you won't be able to demonstrate your true ability. Identify schools with strong Disabilities Support centers, and make use of your allies there. Tutoring and untimed tests are just two options commonly available if you reach out and ask. Also, without advocating for yourself, classrooms will remain tailored towards mainstream learning styles.
2. Don't assume. The responsibility for creating an LD friendly environment should not rest solely on the shoulders of LD students. They're dealing with enough as it is! Professors, don't assume your student is simply blowing off class, not that smart, or has problems at home. Same goes, students, if you have a classmate you think is struggling. Learning disabled students benefit from a community response. Remember they are probably already experiencing feelings of marginalization and shame, so it's up to you to offer support.
3. Try Technology.Designed especially for students with learning disabilities, several tools exist that can aid with note-taking and information processing. If you're an auditory learner, try recording your lectures. Reading-based software can read your notes aloud to you.
4. Create Your Support Network Early.Most importantly, take action early on! Before you matriculate, have someone – a professor, counselor, family member, or friend – assist you in researching technologies that could be beneficial for you, potential allies at your school, and the school's policies around learning disabilities. At the beginning of your first semester of your first year, alert your professors to possible challenges you may have ahead. If you let shame, procrastination, or confusion stop you, you'll regret not having this infrastructure in place should problems emerge down the road.
5. Be Proud of Yourself.As we mentioned earlier in the article, students with learning disabilities often do not make it to graduate school. If you have, chances are you're extremely intelligent, resourced, and resilient.