Attending college with a learning disability

What do Albert Einstein, Jay Leno, Leonardo da Vinci, Terry Bradshaw, Cher, Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson and Suzanne Somers all have in common?

If you said they are well known figures in their respective fields, you would, of course, be correct. If you also said that each of them had a learning disability, you also would be correct.

According to the Academic Support Services Office at Virginia Military Institute, each of these iconic figures has, or is believed to have had, a learning difference. And while each of them is associated with rarified company, their educational uniqueness is not all that, well, unique.

In December 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that almost one in five Americans, or approximately 19 percent of the population, reported some level of disability in a 2005 census. This figure translates to about 54.4 million Americans, which is roughly equal to the combined populations of California and Florida.

The percentage of students with learning differences going to college is growing at a steady rate. The outcome of two longitudinal studies conducted by the US Department of Education over the last two decades to identify the post-secondary experiences of students with learning differences revealed in 2005 that within four years of leaving high school, 46 percent of young adults were reported to have enrolled in a postsecondary school versus 26 percent in 1990.

According to data released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2011, 88 percent of colleges currently enroll students with disabilities. This report breaks down the types of disabilities represented on college campuses, with the largest percentage, 31 percent, having specific learning disabilities, such as processing challenges. Others represented include ADHD: 18 percent; physical health conditions: 18 percent; mental or psychiatric conditions: 15 percent; hearing or sight impediments: 7 percent; and 11 percent with other disabilities.

The growing percentage of students with learning differences who are going to college and the high percentage of colleges who welcome students represent encouraging trends. But how many bright students are not queued up to go to college because they’ve never had educational testing that might have provided academic accommodations to level the scholastic playing field for them? Or, how many have not considered going to college because they are unaware of various nuances, strategies, or opportunities to assist students.

Just as no two people are gifted exactly alike, no two people learn quite alike. Unfortunately, though, far too many young people who have unique learning abilities that fall outside standard deviations or norms can feel academically inferior. Consequently, it is important for parents of students who are not enjoying academic success to work with school and/or district personnel to get their children tested for any potential learning disabilities. This service is provided free of charge by public school districts and is open to public, private and homeschool students alike.

If a student is identified as having a learning difference, he or she will likely have some level of academic accommodation(s) through an Individual Education Plan, which according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “Creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results for children with disabilities.”

The level or range of educational services available to a student is individualized to a student’s specific need. What sometimes falls below the radar in this discussion is the opportunity for students with learning disabilities to also be accommodated when it comes time to taking standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.

Students with documented learning differences may be entitled to such accommodations as extended time, large print tests, having tests read to them, and other accommodations. However, to receive these services, a student must have current documentation on file, and a designated school representative must file the appropriate paperwork with the designed testing agency by a specific date.

There are colleges and universities who do not require standardized tests, and so for students who do not test well or are concerned about taking a standardized test, they can visit to view a list of these institutions. The University Testing link at the top will direct you to this list.

When it comes to actually applying to colleges, students with learning disabilities should factor additional considerations into their decisions. Though all schools are governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act, each school has its own policy regarding the criteria students must meet to receive accommodations.

Understanding the unique policies and procedures of each institution is important. To understand these nuances and the level of commitment schools provide differentiated learners, look for their policies and the resources they provide under “student services,” “academic services,” or “accessible education.”

There are some wonderful resources available to students with learning disabilities who are interested in plotting a course to college. Two particularly good ones are the K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (Kravets & Wax) and The College Sourcebook for Students with Learning and Developmental Differences (Lipkin).

Scientists, entertainers, artists, athletes, inventors, presidents, and those in every career in between come in all shapes, sizes, and with a range of gifts. Each of us is unique, and wonderfully made. And if it just so happens that your gifts, or those of someone you love, need to be fostered in a particular way to make them shine all the more brightly, embrace that opportunity.

Brian Underwood is the executive director of Sierra Lutheran High School. He can be reached at


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