Advice for High School Students
by LeDerick R. Horne
High school can be a very scary time for young people with a disability. Believe me, I know. I was classified in the third grade and was placed in special education right up until I received my high school diploma. By my junior year I was so sick of school that I spent more time looking at the exit doors than the blackboards.
If you are a high school student with a disability, I would like to applaud you because I know how hard it has been for you to make it this far. And if you are thinking about continuing your education once you graduate, I have a few suggestions that I would like to give you that will help the transition go smoother. Whether you are thinking about a county college, technical school, or university, here is some advice that I wish someone had given me before I left high school.
College is an Option
I need to start out by emphasizing that, “college is an option!” It may sound obvious to some of you, but it is still important for me to say because far too many teenagers with disabilities think that they are not smart enough to continue their education. I remember being in high school and thinking that I would be allowed into a college when pigs fly and dogs drive SUV’s. Then, if by some stroke of luck I was admitted into an institution of higher education, I was sure my learning-disabled-butt would flunk out before the red ink on my midterm exams had a chance to dry. Given my experience in high school, this way of thinking is understandable, but it is simply not true. The overwhelming majority of young people with disabilities, me included, have all it takes to get into a college or university and do very well once we make it to campus.
Documentation is One Key
I owe most of my success after high school to the support I received. From extra time taking tests to using a computer to check my spelling, all the accommodations and other services I used were made available to me because I could prove I had a disability that warranted modifying my classroom experience. Disability support offices at colleges and universities need to see some kind of documentation to grant accommodation requests. For some of us, providing copies of our IEP (Individualized Education Plan) reports from high school will be all the proof we need to get our accommodations, but some of us may need additional documentation to prove we have a disability. The point I am trying to make is that you will need to have some kind of paperwork about your disability if you are planning to use services at college. Documentation is the key to unlocking the doors of higher education for folks with disabilities. Make sure you have your documentation before graduation from high school, and once you have it, keep it in a safe place. Some high schools actually destroy the IEP’s of past students a few years after they graduate.
Connect With Your
Once you get to college you will see that it is full of resources. There are advisers who will help you pick the right classes, the library will let you borrow books, and the financial aid office will do its best to find you money. These are just a few of the many resources available to you once you are accepted. But one of the most powerful resources available to you once you step foot on campus is something most people never think of -- your fellow students.
I recommend you make an effort to connect with the students on your campus. Join a club, sorority, fraternity, student government, or any campus based activity that will allow you to build relationships with the students at your school. Your fellow students will be able to offer academic support (like study groups or working together on projects), as well as emotional support (like wiping your tears as you study for your final in Calculus III). So make an effort to get to know the folks at your school.
Some of the most powerful relationships I had while in college were the friendships that I built with other students with disabilities. In fact, one of the best ways to determine the quality of a college or university’s disability support services is to talk with students with disabilities who have been at the school for a year or more. I recommend that you contact the disability support person at the college you are planning to attend and ask if they can connect you with two or three students on campus who have a disability like yours. Ask those students what they think of the school. The information they formation they give you might be more valuable and relevant than any advice you get from a professional.
Get Used to Standing Up
for Yourself and Others
One of the buzz words you will hear over and over again as you get ready to leave high school is “self-advocacy.” In a nutshell, self-advocacy is all about you going out and getting what you need to be successful. It is one of the most important set of skills you should learn before you go to college. This is because your college will depend on you, not your parents, to make all the decisions related to your education. So I recommend you practice being in control of your education before you graduate high school. One way to practice self-advocacy is to begin taking a more active role in your IEP meetings. Make some of your own academic goals for the year and challenge your IEP team to help you reach those goals. Let the IEP team members know that you would like to continue your education beyond high school. Ask them to come up with a plan (that you can understand) which will help you transition to the institution of higher learning that fits you best. My point is that it is your education, so start getting accustomed to making some of the decisions about what kind of education you are going to receive.
Lastly, it is important for all of us to advocate for others, in addition to ourselves. People with disabilities have a long history of fighting for the opportunity to be treated as equal members of this society. As the next generation of people with disabilities, it is our responsibility to continue that struggle. While you are in high school, take the time to work together with other students with disabilities to improve the quality of your education. Invite other students with disabilities into your IEP meetings to help you advocate for yourself. Start self-advocacy clubs in your school to give students an opportunity to work together to address problems. Work together to take a stand against bullying and name calling of students with disabilities. This kind of team work will teach you things about others and yourself which will help shape you into the kind of student that any college would be proud to acccept.
Editor's Note: LeDerick R. Horne, Board
Chair of Project Eye-to-Eye, was recently honored as a Rising Star at the 2006 Equity Awards Dinner of the Educational Equity Center at The Academy for Education
Development in New York
(www.educationalequity.org). This honor was in recognition of his service as an advocate and mentor for students with disabilities. From his own personal experience with a learning disability, he has become a national speaker, reaching thousands of students, teachers and service providers.
LeDerick Horne is a guest contributor. He is a graduate of Middlesex County College and New Jersey City University.