By Andrea Ditter-Middleton
It’s just about midterm time, and, as many first-year college students are learning, this is not your high school’s midterm season. For college students, midterms are often the first “real” test (pun intended) of how they are doing and what they can expect from this semester. Many professors, especially those in large lecture classes, weight midterm exam grades heavily which means that failing a midterm could mean failing the class. However, if you are one of the over 2 million post-secondary students in the United States with a disability, then the prospect of midterm exams ushers in a whole new challenge – managing exams without the help of an IEP.
However, just because you aren’t automatically filtered into a special testing room or given other accommodations that your disability requires does not mean that you are left out in the cold. Colleges and universities, like K-12 schools, are bound by law to provide you with each and every accommodation listed on your paperwork.
Here’s the trick though, if you want those accommodations you’ve got to ask.
Unfortunately, for many college students who are new to their schools, their disability resource offices, and their teachers, this simple step can seem like an enormous leap. However, I am here to tell you today that you not only need to use your accommodations, but your teachers, counselors, and everyone else at your school desperately want you to.
Disability Accommodations and Higher Education: A Basic Overview
Back in high school, getting extra time for a test or finding a separate testing area was simple. With an IEP in hand, each teacher knew which of his or her students needed accommodations and worked with disability coordinators to make sure they were ready at test time. College, however, doesn’t work like that. By their very nature, college courses are all mainstream and college teachers are responsible for instructing all manner of students with only their names and their student ID numbers to go on. While most schools require that professors put disability statements onto their syllabus, this simple copy/paste exercise is just that to most of them. While they are completely willing to cooperate with any legal requirements, college teachers are simply not versed in what these accommodations are or what they need to do to provide them – that’s the job of disability services. As a student with disabilities, it’s important to understand that your teachers in college have no clue as to whether or not you require accommodations and, by and large, that is not a good thing.
Students Who Don’t Speak up
At first, students with disabilities may not understand the differences between college and high school teachers when it comes to offering accommodations. Then, once they realize they are just “another face in the crowd,” they believe that fitting in and starting fresh is preferable to having an awkward conversation with an authority figure. So they fail to register with disability services or fail to complete their paperwork or fail to hand that paperwork over to their teacher when asked. Pride, embarrassment, and a little bit of fear dictate many of these decisions. Away from home for the first time, college students with disabilities may feel the need to be fully “adult” and independent, thus sloughing off all vestiges of their high school selves, including their link to their disability.
Suffering the Consequences
I don’t need to tell you, based on my introduction to midterms above, how terrible the consequences of ignoring your disability in college can be though. Over the years, both as a student myself and as a teacher, I have seen friend after friend, pupil after pupil fail classes that they had every reason to pass, all because they refused to get the help they deserve. Without the recourse to take a test over again and with the added embarrassment of a bad grade on their record, students who refuse to use their accommodations are likely to fall into a dangerous downward spiral that can lead to more bad grades, academic probation, or worse. On top of that, depending on your disability, failing to use the tools available to you can exacerbate some symptoms and coconditions such as anxiety and depression.
What Your Teacher Wants You to Know
I have been blessed to teach college to students from all walks of life for over a decade. As a professor of English, specializing in writing, my students are almost exclusively first-years who are desperately trying to fit in, adjust, and find their place in the wide world of college and beyond. Many of them have had disabilities. Here’s what I would say to them if they were willing to listen:
I want to help you – so badly.
Unfortunately, legally speaking, my hands are bound. Without your self-identification, I cannot offer my assistance, and without the paperwork to go with your diagnosis, I cannot offer you anything I do not offer to my other students. I understand that many disabilities are invisible, so I have no idea whether you are struggling in my class because of yours. I can suspect, but I cannot act without your initiation. Most importantly, though once I know who you really are and what you need, I will do everything in my power to even the playing field so that you are able to achieve everything I know you are capable of achieving.
And we all feel this way.
As teachers, even college teachers, we are here with one goal in mind: helping you learn. Unfortunately, that process happens differently for each person and, without a crystal ball or access to a college-level IEP, I simply cannot discover your method alone. You have to help me. You have to help yourself.