Attending Graduate School with a Learning Disability

learning disability

In most cases, graduate program curriculums are designed to be challenging, but attending graduate school with a learning disability can make it even more difficult. Curriculums push students to think more critically, retain more information, and increase their abilities to read, write, analyze, and take action. They are ultimately designed to put students through a rigorous process of investigation, unraveling, reconstruction, and growth.

Therefore, it is incredibly important to accurately diagnose undiagnosed learning disabilities or to document identified learning disabilities. Once learning disabilities have been identified and documented, colleges and universities are obligated by law to accommodate students with learning disabilities and help them succeed.     

Resources for Attending Graduate School With a Learning Disability

Federal Laws and Learning Disabilities

Students with learning disabilities are granted certain rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments of 2008, and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These sets of laws require public and private colleges and universities to provide students with learning disabilities accommodations to help them succeed in college.

Therefore, most colleges and universities offer disability services and may devote entire offices to serving students attending graduate school with a learning disability. If you have a diagnosed and documented learning disability, you have certain rights to accommodations under the law.

Disability Offices at Colleges and Universities

Disabilities offices offer students attending graduate school with a learning disability a variety of resources and services. Those resources and services are offered by counselors who work with students to determine eligibility for accommodations, establish reasonable accommodations, and develop plans for delivering provisions. Counselors work with students and professors to ensure students with disabilities’ needs are met, and those students are able to succeed.

Undiagnosed Learning Disabilities

Many students work and struggle their way through pre-collegiate and collegiate education and make it all the way to graduate-level academia with undiagnosed or undocumented learning disabilities. Those learning disabilities, whether slight, moderate or severe, might have a huge impact on students’ education. Students with undiagnosed or undocumented learning disabilities may have a hard time grasping concepts, analyzing ideas, reading materials, writing papers, and completing other challenging tasks demanded by graduate level curricula.

Students with undiagnosed or undocumented learning disabilities often suffer unnecessarily, earning lower grades, or failing out of a program. Therefore, if you have struggled with any aspect of academia (whether reading, writing, critically thinking, focusing, or other), it is important to determine whether or not you have a learning disability. 

Diagnosed and Documented Learning Disabilities

Students with documented learning disabilities receive reasonable accommodations from the colleges or universities they attend. This means disabilities centers and professors work with students to make sure their learning disabilities do not negatively impact their education. These resources can also make attending graduate school with a learning disability a little bit easier.

Accommodations may include extended deadlines for certain assignments, assistance with test-taking, guidance in using study tools, and many others. Students with documented learning disabilities also receive accommodations directly from professors. Professors who are aware of students’ documented learning disabilities will work with students to make sure their particular needs are taken care of.

Many students with learning disabilities refuse to document their learning disabilities because they don't  want to be treated differently from other students. This is understandable given the silly stigmas attached to learning disabilities. However, it is important for students attending graduate school with a learning disabilities to understand documenting learning disabilities is no different from securing a tutor or studying harder.  

By documenting their learning disabilities, students are taking responsibility for tasks they find challenging. Also, most professors don’t (and absolutely shouldn’t), treat students with learning disabilities as less intelligent than other students. Professors should expect students with documented learning disabilities to turn in strong, thoughtful, and insightful work just as they do other students.

Resources for Students with Undiagnosed, Diagnosed, or Undocumented Learning Disabilities       

If you think you might have an undiagnosed learning disability, consider taking some steps to be diagnosed. You can begin by contacting the Learning Disabilities Association of America which lists the following as some of the most common symptoms of learning disabilities:

  • Short attention span
  • Poor memory
  • Difficulty following directions
  • Inability to discriminate between/among letters, numerals, or sounds
  • Poor reading and/or writing ability
  • Eye-hand coordination problems; poorly coordinated
  • Difficulties with sequencing
  • Disorganization and other sensory difficulties

If you display several of these symptoms, consider doing more research or visiting the learning disabilities center on your campus to be diagnosed or referred to a diagnostic center in your area.  

Also, consider visiting the National Center for Learning Disabilities website which offers a checklist for people with an undiagnosed learning disability.  

Learning Disabilities and Graduate School

Attending graduate school with a learning disability is a challenging endeavor. But taking the time to understand and use all of the various resources available to you can help you succeed in this academic environment. Some other resources for all graduate students include how to create the ideal work environment and how to manage your time in graduate school.

Check out more tips on how to Survive in Graduate School


Annie Rose Stathes holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Political Science, both from the University of Colorado, Denver. She is currently an Instructor of Writing at Fort Lewis College in Durango Colorado

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