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A Chance to Prove Themselves

A Chance to Prove Themselves

In an era of increased attention to campus diversity, LD and AD/HD students are seen as beneficial additions to the collegiate environment.

By Carla Deford

Sean Garballey, a senior at a state university in New England, recently won a highly competitive, prestigious scholarship. A political science major with a 3.8 GPA who has competed in international model United Nations programs, Garballey balances his course work and extracurricular activities with public service as a member of the local school board and town council. He also plans to attend law school next fall. This would be an impressive list of accomplishments for anyone, but especially for a person who spent his entire primary and secondary school career as a special-education student.

From an early age, Garballey had significant reading and speech problems as well as test anxiety. Had he been born 30 years ago, he might have been diagnosed with a cognitive impairment such as minimal brain dysfunction or mild retardation. Recent advancements in the fields of educational psychology and neuropsychology, however, have made a more accurate diagnosis possible. Garballey was not cognitively impaired, but learning disabled, or LD. Fortunately, he received early and intensive intervention.

“I don’t know where I would be without the special-education teachers I had in elementary, middle and high school,” says Garballey, who no longer needs any services or accommodations. Recent research suggests that Garballey’s  experience isn’t an isolated case. Many learning disabled students, if given the right support, do very well in higher education institutions, and colleges are taking notice.

College fairs targeting students with learning disabilities are cropping up across the country. Sponsored by high schools or LD organizations, the fairs offer students and their parents an opportunity to assess postsecondary options in a congenial environment. “I feel more confident at a special-education fair,” says one student. “I don’t have to hide anything.”

Possibly the oldest college fair in the country for LD students is hosted by the Connecticut Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities, or CACLD. The organization was founded in 1963, the year Dr. Samuel Kirk coined the term “learning disability.” Last April, the association held its 24th annual fair, which featured about 200 attendees and 25 exhibitors. “We were the pioneers,” says Beryl Kaufman, CACLD’s executive director.

If the CACLD event is the first of its kind, fairs in Minnesota and Illinois share first place in terms of size. In September 2005, Groves Academy, a private school for LD students in St. Louis Park, Minn., sponsored a fair that attracted about 875 attendees and 58 exhibitors, including 27 four-year colleges, 14 community and technical colleges, five vocational schools and 12 educational consultants.

In Illinois, the “Choices” fair is sponsored by a consortium of 11 public high schools in the Chicago area and takes place, on a rotating schedule, at one of those schools each year. The most recent event attracted about 700 attendees and 56 exhibitors, including 40 four-year colleges, seven community colleges, five vocational/technical programs and four life-skills programs.

With so many special education or LD fairs attracting two-year, four-year and even a few Ivy League schools, the question remains: What evidence do colleges have that these students can do advanced academic work? One answer has to do with testing. Dr. Maureen Riley, an associate professor of special education at Lesley University, says  that “careful analysis of the intelligence tests of students with LD shows that they have the potential to meet the academic standards set for typical students.”

In addition, students with LD show areas of both strength and weakness in tests of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning and math. As Drs. Loring C. Brinckerhoff, Joan M. McGuire and Stan F. Shaw note in Postsecondary Education and Transition for Students with Learning Disabilities, the cognitive profiles of these students have “peaks and valleys” while those of students with retardation are flat, showing weakness in all areas. Many LD students also have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly called ADD or AD/HD. While AD/HD is not technically a learning disability, it does affect the ability to focus attention and organize information.

Test results are revealing, but even more important as a predictor of success in postsecondary education are high school records. Brinckerhoff and his colleagues point out that because the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act require all disabled students to be educated in the “least restrictive
environment,” many LD students are no longer being taught in segregated classes. These days, more of them take college-preparatory courses, and many do well.

Both laws also require that higher education institutions provide services and accommodations for disabled students. As a result, most colleges have established an office of disability services, and there has been no lack of students to keep those offices busy. In fact, according to one study, “Postsecondary Education for Students with Learning Disabilities: A Synthesis of the Literature,” there were 10 times as many learning disabled college freshmen in 2000 as there were in 1976.

Not all disability services are created equal. In the K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit Disorder, Marybeth Kravets and Imy F. Wax describe three levels of support offered by colleges around the country. The most comprehensive is a “structured program,” which features a director and staff certified in LD, flexible admissions requirements and a full panoply of services. Massachusett’s Curry College, for example, requires LD students to take a two-semester course designed to help them enhance their reading comprehension and listening skills, among other things. Other institutions that offer structured programs include Beacon College in Florida, Landmark College in Vermont, Muskingum College in Ohio, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and the University of Arizona. Many of these programs achieve impressive results. For
example, students in UA’s Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques Center graduate at a rate “equal to or surpassing that of other students,” says Jeff Orgera, the center’s director.

A second level of support, called “coordinated services,” is available at Brown, Cornell and Stanford universities, to name a few. At these schools, students must disclose their disability and request the accommodations or services they need, such as extended time on tests, note-takers and books on tape. Dr. Matt Tominey, director of Student Disabilities Services at the University of Pennsylvania, says 4.8 percent of Penn students have disabilities, and about 75 percent of those students have LD, AD/HD or a psychological impairment. According to Tominey, LD and AD/HD students at the university  graduate at the same rate as non-disabled students.

Colleges that offer “services” comply with the federal mandate to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled students, but usually offer a lower level of support than schools in the other two categories.
Teresa A. Citro, executive director of Learning Disabilities Worldwide, a nonprofit volunteer organization, says it is crucial for students to match their specific needs to the services provided by the college. For example, students who need a quiet place to study in their dorm should make sure they can be accommodated. If students need books on tape, they should ask whether all the required readings are available in that format. Finding the right match is not always easy, and Citro emphasizes the importance of campus visits as a way of assessing the services offered.

Of course, one way to start searching for a good match is to attend a special education or LD college fair. For many students, this is one of the first steps in the process of making the transition from secondary to higher education. Brinckerhoff first recommended that high school students attend “LD college nights” in a 1996 study, when such events were still relatively difficult to find.

Special education or LD fairs are not only valuable for students, they also offer a number of benefits to the colleges involved. Since disability services are mandated by law, it makes sense for colleges to recruit students to use them.

Another consideration is the bottom line.

“Ten percent to 20 percent of the general population has a learning disability,” says Ben L. Mitchell, admissions director of Landmark College, adding, “Colleges that recruit LD students are opening up a huge new market for themselves.”

LD and AD/HD students are now seen as contributing to campus diversity as well.

“To be inclusive, a university must be open to students with diverse talents, interests and backgrounds,” says Michael Barron, director of admissions at the University of Iowa. “Students with documented learning disabilities and/or ADD have a place in higher education.”
Perhaps the most important motivating factor is the commitment many colleges have made to give students in this population a chance to prove themselves. As Barron observes, “Students with learning disabilities often have tremendous intellectual capacity and simply are in need of a supportive environment in which to learn.”

Riley concurs, adding that “students with LD typically have difficulty with lower-order information processing, such as spelling, while understanding complex, higher-order ideas.” In fact, Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison are said to have had learning disabilities. While it’s impossible to prove such claims, it is true that many high-achievers, such as financier Charles Schwab who sponsors an extensive Web site on LD issues, consider themselves members of the club.

As for public servant and future lawyer Sean Garballey, he always assumed he would pursue higher education. “College is what you make of it,” he says. “The courses have been rigorous, but I’ve enjoyed it. No matter where you are on the spectrum, if you want it, you have to go get it.”

Upcoming LD College Fairs, 2006-2007

Arlington High School (Mass.)
36 exhibitors, 200 attendees May 2007

Belmont High School (Mass.) 

Bucks County, Pa., Public Schools
40 exhibitors, 200 attendees
[email protected]

Connecticut Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities (CACLD)
25 exhibitors, 200 attendees Spring 2007
[email protected]

DIRECT Center for Independence, Inc.
Tucson, Ariz., area

49 exhibitors, 300 attendees
[email protected]

Delaware County, Pa., Public Schools
20 exhibitors, 100 attendees
[email protected]

East Valley Transition Fair Phoenix area
60 exhibitors, 200 attendees
[email protected]

Groves Academy, St. Louis Park, Minn.
58 exhibitors, 875 attendees

Howard County
Community College,

Columbia, Md.
39 exhibitors, 250 attendees 3/3/07
[email protected]

Learning Disabilities Worldwide
[email protected]

Lutheran High
School of Orange County,

Orange, Calif.
30 exhibitors, 200 attendees

Riverside Brookfield
High School,

Riverside, Ill.
22 exhibitors, 270 attendees
[email protected]

University of Pennsylvania
Sixth Annual Disability Symposium

Westford Academy (Mass.)
110 attendees
[email protected]

Winston School, San Antonio
35 exhibitors, 150 attendees
[email protected]

Woburn High School (Mass.)
15 exhibitors, 20 attendees
[email protected]

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