Few are aware that even at an institution of the College of William and Mary’s caliber, some students endure academic rigors while coping with learning disabilities.
When Blaise Springfield ’13 came to the College, he made a request to the Disabilities Services office.
Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia, he asked if he could take his exams in a separate location, in order to accommodate his learning disabilities.
Springfield said Disability Services refused to include the information in his documentation so that teachers would know to accommodate him, and has since been required to take tests in regular lecture halls alongside his classmates.
“Professors are hard to approach,” Springfield said. “Unless you are very assertive about what accommodations you have, they don’t necessarily give you the accommodation … It’s like they haven’t been instructed in terms of higher education for students with learning disorders.”
According to the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, a learning disability is defined as “a neurologic disorder that causes difficulties in learning that cannot be attributed to poor intelligence, poor motivation, or inadequate teaching.” Common learning disabilities for students at the collegiate level include ADHD, dyslexia, and disabilities affecting processing rates.
“Many people don’t recognize learning disorders as a disability,” Springfield said. “I think that many people see it as a way to get an advantage over other students, but it isn’t. Learning disabilities function just like any other disability; it’s nothing you have any control over. It’s not an embarrassing thing or something you should be persecuted for. But, anyone who goes against our social norms is going to be somewhat scrutinized.”
Students with learning disabilities must meet the same admissions standards as all other applicants to the College, according to Assistant Dean of Students Lisa Colligan.
“Disability is never the basis for admission or denial,” she said in an email. “There is no requirement that a student disclose a disability during the application process. However, a student may benefit from disclosing a disability early in the application process. For example, by incorporating information concerning disability into a personal statement or letters of recommendation, an applicant can explain challenges faced or overcome, as well as explain transcript discrepancies.”
In order for learning disability accommodations to be considered at the College, students must provide professional documentation from a physician to the Disabilities Services office. If they are approved, forms are sent to professors, who are legally required to accommodate students’ needs.
“Accommodation decisions are made on a case by case basis, taking into consideration the impact of a particular disability within the specific context of a college-level academic environment,” Colligan said.
The most common learning disability accommodation at the College is the provision of more time on tests.
Other accommodations include separate space during testing, tape-recorded lectures, peer note takers, seating in the front of the classroom, and access to a computer for tests.
Requesting accommodations for learning disabilities can sometimes be uncomfortable, Matthew Roman J.D / M.B.A. ’13 said. Roman has been diagnosed with A.D.D as well as other learning disorders which make reading difficult.
“A lot of people I know with disabilities won’t admit that they have disabilities here because they don’t want others to think that they have a disadvantage,” he said. “It’s a competitive environment, and I and think a lot of people see [having learning disabilities] as a weakness.”
Professors react differently to accommodation requests, which can create extra work for them.
“I don’t want administrators telling me how to teach my class,” religious studies professor Donald Polaski said. “I’m more than willing to accommodate the basic needs of students … but I can’t teach the class any different. At a certain point, you just have to suck it up and figure it out.”
American studies and religious studies professor Maureen Fitzgerald estimated that on average, in a class of 35 students, one or two have learning disabilities. She said that typically spends an extra four to five hours each semester accommodating such students.
“I think that people are very respectful of the fact that some students need more time and a separate space,” English professor Mary Melfi said.
Polaski seemed to agree.
“What I want is for everyone to come in equal in terms of processing. If a student needs that extra half an hour to equalize everything, then that’s fair,” Polaski said.