Need Extra Help? Just Ask

Schools will go out of their way to support students with learning disabilities.

By + More

No concessions. "It really was great when I realized that I could get all the services I need and not have to give up any of the other things I want to do," says Breininger. She majored in rehabilitation counseling and is entering grad school at Arizona to train for teaching the visually impaired. "If I had not used and embraced these options, I would not be nearly as successful," she says.

Blaine Todfield said Arizona's SALT program made a "huge" difference in her transition from high school to college. "Every week we would go over my grades and my work, and what I can do to improve," she says. "It really kept me on top of my work." When she decided after her sophomore year to transfer to a school that offered a major in public relations and was closer to her family on the East Coast, she made sure that all three schools to which she applied (Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Hofstra University on Long Island, and Fordham University in New York City) all had excellent disability programs.

For students looking for similar programs at colleges with a different size or location, there are many possibilities. Curry College in Milton, Mass., with only about 2,000 undergraduates, offers a well-established, comprehensive program for students with learning disabilities; about 25 percent of Curry students participate. Lisa Ijiri directed the school's Program for Advancement of Learning for 15 years; a fee-based program, it pairs each student with a professionally trained learning specialist. Through intensive mentoring, "students learn how they learn and how to continue to learn," says Ijiri, now Curry's interim associate dean of academic affairs. In addition, because the program has been in place since 1970, "we have thousands of successful alumni who can come back and talk about how they're managing LD in successful careers as lawyers or doctors or in management and business."

Among midsize schools, Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., with about 10,000 undergraduates, offers Higher Education for Learning Problems, or HELP. "We address reading skills, reading speed, comprehension, test-taking strategy, time management, and improvement of self-esteem," says Barbara Guyer, who founded HELP in 1981. She urges collegebound students with learning disabilities to evaluate what types of support they may need, then visit prospective colleges and take a good look at the services offered. "Find the program director, ask questions, and take notes or tape-record the answers," she says.

Finding—and using—those resources from freshman year on can make a big difference. Out of about 200 undergraduates who use HELP, about 50 made the dean's list this year, Guyer says. One recent graduate proudly told her: "Because all of my life I have had to work harder, my work ethic is exceptional, and that will give me a leg up in the workplace."

Funckes also suggests that students look at a college's educational philosophy: Is the school student-centered? Are faculty members sensitive to learning differences? Does the college foster interactions between students and teachers?

On a more mundane note, because colleges require different documents than do secondary schools to certify a learning disability, get a head start gathering all the paperwork. Once you've arrived on campus, speak up if you need additional help. Commitment, self-discipline, and self-advocacy are the key elements of success.

What's legal, what's not. Although it's illegal for colleges to discriminate against those with disabilities, some students may decide to discuss their learning disability in a separate essay or give permission to include the information in a letter from a high school guidance counselor. That could be used to explain, say, the discrepancy between poor grades one year, before a learning disability was diagnosed, and improved grades later, after accommodations and tutoring were put in place. However, "if you meet the requirements for college admission, there is no reason to tell the admissions office that you have LD, because that is irrelevant," says Funckes.