By Karly B., MPP Tutor
You’ve made it to college. Congratulations! Starting college is a big accomplishment and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Maybe you think that you can navigate college without the disability support you received in high school. After all, you made it in, right? Maybe you had a disability, but you never needed accommodations in high school. But then the first test comes, and you realize you need help. Perhaps you’ve never taken a long exam and you discover that your ADHD makes that tough. Maybe dyslexia makes it hard to read long passages under testing time constraints, or maybe chronic anxiety makes it difficult for you to recall and synthesize information during a test.
For too many students, poor grades can signal that you’re not good enough or that you somehow don’t belong at your college. In reality, lots of disability-related issues can make it difficult to demonstrate aptitude. This is to say, maybe your condition makes it impossible for you to demonstrate what you have learned using a course’s given assessment method. For some, maybe papers are a challenge. For others, like me, disabilities can make tests tough regardless of preparation. I currently work as a tutor for Orange County, California-based My Private Professor and am simultaneously earning a graduate degree. Throughout both undergrad. and graduate school, I’ve seen many students struggle to navigate disability accommodations processes, and I’ve struggled with these issues personally too. If you find yourself in need of support for your disabilities, consider these tips:
- Remember that you’re not alone. The prospect of seeking out disability accommodations may make students feel lonely or inferior to peers, but more college students have disabilities than you might think. According to a recent National Center for Education Statistics report, about 20% of college students report having some sort of disability (NCES, 2020). This estimate is likely low, as it doesn’t account for the students who never disclose their disabilities. This is to say, a lot of students struggle with disability in some form. Some disabilities might be easier for your peers to conceal, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
- You do not need a diagnosed disability to go to disability services. Maybe you notice that you have a really hard time focusing, but you’ve never been diagnosed with an attention disorder. Maybe you find yourself short of breath walking to class, but you haven’t had it checked out by a doctor. Disability services can still help you and, if necessary, they can connect you with appropriate professionals to provide a diagnosis.
- Accommodations are your right, not a privilege. College students are responsible for seeking out accommodations from school disability services, whereas in high school the school is responsible for coordinating those services. This shift may signal that college accommodations are a privilege, but they are still your right. In accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, universities must provide equal opportunity to students with disabilities (StudentCafe, 2020). This means that your school must provide you with appropriate accommodations when presented with the necessary documentation.
- Utilize drop periods when necessary. Professors are required to serve your accommodations. In my experience, most professors are eager to get you the help that you need and will cooperate with you. That said, there are a lot of professors in academia, and some may hold archaic, inaccurate ideas about disability. I recommend presenting your accommodation paperwork to your professors early during the semester. Often, disability services will send this information to your professors on your behalf. If you feel uncertain about whether a professor might be accepting of your disability, ask to talk to them. During that meeting or email correspondence, pay attention to how the professor makes you feel about your disability. This feeling is important, as you’ll need to interact with them and coordinate disability-related accommodations throughout the semester.
If a professor seems burdened by your accommodations or behaves in a condescending way, consider dropping the class. On a systemic level, there’s a lot to unpack here about how professors should be expected to behave. Keep in mind that you are a student. It’s not your job to change the system, but rather to learn and feel comfortable in that learning environment. Unlike many high school courses, university classes are often taught by more than one professor and don’t need to be taken at a specific time. Don’t be afraid to drop a class and take it during another semester with a different professor. Dropping classes is common and your professor will likely pay little to no attention to it. Should you find yourself in a situation where you do need to take a specific class during a specific semester, consider talking to your disability services counselor. He or she might be able to help you navigate the process of talking to your professor early on.
- Your friends don’t need to know about your accommodations. Disability stigmas in higher education are important social issues that need to be addressed at systemic levels, but that is not your job. Again, remember that you are a student and that your job is to learn. Even if your friends have a good intent, it’s worth considering that they might treat you differently if they find out about a disability. To get your accommodations, only you, your professors, and your disability counselor need to know. Occasionally, you may find that students with the same accommodation are asked to test together, but if you feel uncomfortable with this, say something. I was really scared about people knowing I had accommodations in college. I needed extra time and a quiet space to complete tests. In one test-based class, I discovered that several of my friends would be in the class with me. I talked to my professor about it, and she allowed me to sit with the rest of the class during the exams. I could work, or just look like I was working. After the test, I would go to her office and take my exam with my extra time and quiet space. So many professors do understand the desire to keep accommodations confidential. If you communicate what’s going on, they may be able to help you.
Accommodation needs vary by person, and there’s no one-size fits all advice. These tips are meant to serve as a starting point. Keep in mind that accommodations are intended to help you do your best, and that they are there for you to use them.
Karly B. is a tutor at My Private Professor, which provides individualized online & in-person tutoring to students in all subjects, including K-12 math, science, language arts, history, foreign language, AP exams, test prep, essays, & college counseling, by top tutors from top universities. www.myprivateprofessor.com
NCES. (2020). The NCES Fast Facts Tool provides quick answers to many education questions (National Center for Education Statistics). National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60
StudentCafe. (2020). The Americans with Disabilities Act and Your Rights as a College Student. StudentCaffe. http://studentcaffe.com/prepare/students-with-disabilities/ada-your-rights-college-student