Did You Know? The Trouble with Aiding Students with Learning Disabilities

As college classes go online, one group of students is ignored: those with learning disabilities.

The Atlantic calls learning disabilities an “invisible disability” because they aren’t physically obvious. These disabilities can be detrimental to a student’s success if they don’t get help.

Students with disabilities aren’t rare; almost 20 percent of undergrads reported having one, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. The increase is connected to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which mandated equal access to colleges for students with disabilities.

The passage of the ADA led to more programs and greater student access while raising awareness of students with learning disabilities. Disabilities that are protected now include emotional disabilities, cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, and neurodevelopmental disabilities. Colleges have disability resource offices as well to help students.

Emma Albin, a senior at North Carolina State University, described her ADHD to the Martin Center as “out of sight, out of mind.” Focusing is difficult for her unless she’s stimulated or under pressure. That affects her self-motivation, which is made worse with online classes.

When she registered with the Disabilities Resource Office at NC State, they told her about the accommodations available for ADHD. She could get more time on tests and access to early registration, which helps her get smaller classes with more teacher interaction. It also helps students get a schedule that works best for them, time-wise. Emma cared most about avoiding online classes, which are now unavoidable as NC State has gone remote.

In summer 2020, the Association on Higher Education and Disability conducted a survey to understand student experiences and the barriers they face from COVID-19. The study concluded that “students with disabilities were more likely to experience difficulty with accessing the internet, technology training and support, course materials and assessments, as well as learning management systems and communicating with instructors,” US News reported.

When students with learning disabilities take online classes, being timed and recorded during tests stresses them out more. Emma stated that the testing center on campus can be used if students need accommodations, but rooms must be reserved in advance and it can be hard to schedule one ahead of time. Limited spots are available in the testing center, especially since COVID-19.

Not everyone is happy about the current rules for accommodating students, however.

In a prior Martin Center article, Garland Tucker, quoting professor Ari Trachtenberg, noted that: “Students without disabilities are potentially disadvantaged by these accommodations. It is inappropriate to give an objective test with a clearly delineated grading policy if some students get uncalibrated bonuses.” In addition, he argues that the intended beneficiaries of this legislation are actually being hurt. Disabled students are now receiving special accommodations in college that they will presumably not receive in the workplace.

An NC State junior who chose to remain anonymous told the Martin Center that they chose not to register with the Disability Resource Office for that reason. The stigma of receiving “special” treatment turns away many students from getting proper help. Students also may doubt the college’s ability to actually help them.

The concern over lackluster disability assistance isn’t an isolated one. According to the Hechinger Report, “special education students across the country reported low expectations in school, regardless of their actual ability level or future plans. The majority of those interviewed said that the problem often isn’t the fault of individual teachers, but a failure of the system.”

Those internal failures hold students back. While inconsistencies in higher education have always existed, the pandemic’s effect on higher education will make it harder for students to find the support that could help them graduate.

Megan Zogby is a Martin Center intern.