When a student with a hidden disability enters the college classroom

Ernst VanBergeijk discusses what steps professors should take to help students with a disability that is not readily visible.

It is frustrating as a professor to notice a student in one’s classroom who is clearly struggling with the material, acting oddly, not completing assignments, or not even communicating with the instructor. Often, professors will reach out to a struggling student to inquire what is wrong. Only then will the struggling student acknowledge some sort of learning disability that is not readily visible. The student will ask for extensions or other modifications to the assignment or class. Many professors are apt to give the student a second chance in an effort to be helpful. What is the correct course of action in this type of situation?

The correct course of action is NOT to grant the student’s request. Instead, the professor should encourage the student (regardless of the type of disability) to contact the college’s office of disability services. This is a major positive step that the professor can take. Students with disabilities are reluctant to identify themselves as former special education students who were entitled to services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In fact, only about half of the students with disabilities (who are otherwise qualified to attend college) actually receive support from an office of disability services. It is only after the student runs into academic difficulty that he or she is willing to ask for help. Some never are willing to ask for help. Sadly, many drop out of college.

Once a student with a disability graduates from high school, he or she is no longer entitled to services or protection under IDEA. Now, a different law - the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) - governs the behaviour of colleges and other institutions in reference to how they treat individuals with disabilities. Both public and private universities in the United States may not prevent or bar an ‘otherwise qualified’ student from receiving the benefits (he or she is otherwise entitled to) from the institution solely on the basis of the individual’s disability. The institution is required to make reasonable accommodations to ensure that the person is not discriminated against. It is up to the college to determine what a reasonable accommodation is. The law is designed to level the playing field. Unlike IDEA, the ADA is not intended to maximise the student’s chances of success.

During the student’s primary and secondary education, the student’s parents were the main advocates for support services. Under the ADA, a college student must self identify and register with the college’s office of disability services. The student must provide documentation supporting their history of having a disability. Many students with disabilities are not good self advocates. They need the help and support of faculty to be able to make an appointment with the office of disability services. It is a frightening first step in the process. The student does not want to appear different from his or her peers. They also need help reading their supporting documentation and deciding what documents he or she should submit. Role playing a discussion of the type of disability he or she has and the type of support services they have received in the past can greatly reduce the student’s anxiety surrounding the disclosure. The student needs to know that his or her professors do not have to know the exact disability. His or her classmates will not know that he or she is receiving support services from the office of disability services.

Only after the student opens a case with the office of disability services, then reasonable modifications can be made to either assignments or the classroom environment. This office will send a letter to the professor of each class that the student identifies as where he or she needs a reasonable accommodation. The professor simply has to follow the instructions contained in the letter. Typical accommodations include a quiet and alternative testing location, extra time on tests or assignments, the ability to receive copies of classroom Power Point presentations in advance, a note taker, or the option to tape record lectures. If the professor is unclear as to how the accommodations should be implemented, he or she should contact the student’s advisor from disability services and have a discussion with the advisor and student.

Simply letting the student know there is no shame in asking for help and encouraging the student to contact the office of disability services before he or she runs into academic difficulty is the single most important intervention a faculty member can do to help a student with a hidden disability. Many faculty members will tell students during the first lecture that they encourage all students with disabilities to contact the office of disability services. They also admonish the class that they will not be able to make any accommodations to the course unless this office is involved. Some professors go one step further and include a statement in their syllabi to this effect. Self-identification is the key to helping a student with a hidden disability succeed in the college classroom and to preventing an unnecessary academic disaster.

Written by Ernst VanBergeijk, PhD., M.S.W. (2011)
Associate Dean & Executive Director
New York Institute of Technology
Vocational Independence Program

The Vocational Independence Program is a Comprehensive Transition and Post Secondary Program for students with neurologically based intellectual disabilities or students who are higher functioning on the autism spectrum.