Self-Advocacy is the Key to Success for
Students with Disabilites in College
by Ellen C. Farr
College graduate, fiancée,
Bristol-Myers Squibb employee: these all are terms that describe Lauren
George. A recent graduate of the history department at The College
of New Jersey, Lauren landed a job submitting a new drug for approval
from the FDA. She is also planning her wedding. One could say that
she has a lot on her plate right now, but she does not seemed fazed
by these major life changes. She is excited to be starting this new
chapter in her life. This stands in stark contrast to her earlier
experiences when going to school was a dreaded chore.
Lauren has been living with a learning disability that she was only able to name when she was a junior in high school. All through elementary, middle and most of high school, her teachers indicated that Lauren struggled to learn but never took any action to determine why. Frustration and more challenging coursework prompted Lauren and her parents to seek some answers on their own. A series of tests revealed that Lauren has attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and visual and auditory processing difficulties. Reading is her number one problem. The test results meant changing high schools in the middle of her junior year because her former high school was not willing to make the necessary accommodations. This was the beginning of a new learning experience.
Discovering What Works
Lauren’s new high school provided smaller class sizes and more attentive teachers. Being able to identify her problem allowed Lauren to begin to overcome the challenges she faced in school. She experimented with different strategies to help her cope with her difficulties and soon found some that worked. For example, she learned to allot more time to complete reading and writing assignments, and she rejected mental math in favor of pencil and paper. She also discovered that extended time on tests was a useful strategy.
Lauren graduated high school, completed community college, then enrolled in The College of New Jersey. Ironically, the student who once dreaded reading elected to become a history major, which is a reading-intensive program of study.
Considering her previous struggles, one would assume that Lauren would have sought assistance for accommodations at college. However, she admits that it took her a while to learn how to self-advocate.
After graduating high school, Lauren thought she would be just fine at handling her education at the community college. She took a few classes without registering with the disability support office and eventually discovered that she just could not keep up with the work. It was only then that she sought assistance.
After transferring to The College of New Jersey, Lauren somewhat sheepishly admitted, she again hesitated to ask for help. She thought she could handle the coursework on her own. Then, Lauren met Terri Yamiolkowski, coordinator of the College’s Office of Differing Abilities. Through Terri, she learned about two important projects at The College of New Jersey: The Adaptive Technology Center for New Jersey Colleges and the Faculty Ambassador Project.
The Adaptive Technology Center for New Jersey Colleges, funded by the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education's Special Needs Program, assists college students who have disabilities meet the academic demands of college by providing access to appropriate technology tools. Through its lending program, Lauren was able to try two tools that helped her with her coursework: WYNN (www.freedomscientific.com) and AlphaSmart (www.alphasmart.com). WYNN, a scan/read program with a text-to-speech feature, is designed to assist students with reading and writing difficulties. Lauren found it especially useful when writing papers. The program would read back what she had written so she could hear her words as she read them. This bi-modal approach gave her a better idea of the construction of her paper than if she had only read it. Lauren could have also used WYNN to help her conquer the enormous amount of reading required of her as a history major. She could have scanned the text into WYNN and had it read it aloud to her. She elected not to use this feature, however, because scanning every page was too time consuming. She had five required reading texts for one history course alone! Instead, she devoted this time to carefully reading, and rereading when necessary, her assignments.
Lauren also borrowed an AlphaSmart from the Adaptive Technology Center. The AlphaSmart is a lightweight, portable word processor that allows the user to enter text, then send it to any computer or printer. She used the AlphaSmart outside of class to keep herself organized, particularly during meetings or study sessions. Due to its small size and long battery life, it was much easier to tote around than a laptop computer. With these tools, Lauren was better equipped to tackle her college coursework.
Lauren also became involved in The College of New Jersey’s Faculty Ambassador Project. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Post-Secondary Education, this three-year project emphasizes the concepts of equity and reasonable accommodations as they pertain to college students with disabilities. The goal is to increase the achievement of college students with disabilities through the use of assistive technology and the involvement of faculty mentors. This is accomplished by educating faculty, staff and students on the role of assistive technology as a reasonable accommodation at the post-secondary level.
Lauren became a student
ambassador for the project and learned what she considers her most
valuable lesson at college: how to self-advocate. Lauren indicates
that learning to self-advocate is “the most important quality
you can build for yourself. If you can convey difficulties for yourself
no matter what they are, then it is easier to prove that you are competent
to perform the same tasks as everyone else.” Being involved
in the project helped her regain confidence in approaching professors
and utilizing the resources that are available to college students
Lauren encourages other
students with learning disabilities to take charge of their own education.
Her advice to them is to contact the disability support office right
away. She admits she usually learns her lesson after one mistake and
regrets that it took her so long to accept that she needed accommodations.
With enhanced coping strategies and knowledge of available tools,
Lauren is looking forward to beginning her career. She is not sure
of all that is ahead of her, but she is planning on attending graduate
school. And this time, she says, she will be sure to ask for help
at the beginning of her graduate career.
Ellen Farr is an alumna of The College of New Jersey (M.S. in Educational Technology) and the Project Coordinator of the Teacher Effectiveness Grant.