Handling learning disabilities

It’s two years ago I stepped into a classroom for the first time as an instructor and not as a student. In the space of one summer, I had gone from being a senior with senioritis to being a graduate student and a budding instructor. I had a crash course about how people learn and the problems some people encounter with learning disabilities.

There is no doubt that I tend to excel in the typical university classroom.

I’ve never been daunted by lectures nor afraid to talk during discussions. My learning style coincides with the methods that most professors on this campus use. In those fields I love to study, I rarely encounter a situation that I find to be intolerable and incomprehensible.

But a lot of people struggle with learning disabilities. Learning disabilities — an issue explored in the Feb. 24 IDS article entitled, “Student turns challenge into blessing” — are a real concern for students and faculty. They can come in many different forms: dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia, to name three broad categories. (Dysgraphia are problems associated with reading and dyscalculia are problems associated with math.)

What is critical for all learning-disabled students is that they learn how to communicate their problems and concerns to their professors. After listening to my professors rant and rave over the past seven years, I know that this is an important component. Many of my professors were skeptical whenever a student showed up on the day of the test and announced, “I have a learning disability and I need a special room and extra time.”

That was, without a doubt, the wrong time to tell my professors that piece of news. Talking to them about these situations, I found that they had a lot of concerns about doing anything for the student at that point. Questions like “Does he really have a learning disability?” and “Does she really need that much extra time?” were constantly on their mind.

There was also the major concern of “Do learning disabilities catch?” That is to say, will one student claim a learning disability when they see another get extra time or special consideration? As a student, I know that I was occasionally frustrated when I’d see a classmate claim a learning disability and get extra time or other perceived “extras” that I did not get.

What I came to appreciate as a budding instructor were the students who were upfront and honest about their learning disabilities. The key here was communication and timing. The earlier they told me about their special needs, the better I was able to handle their problem appropriately and discretely.

That’s why I was particularly pleased to see the article earlier this week about a freshman with dyslexia. Freshman Alli Jainchill took the problem by its horn and turned it into an advantage. She also sought out the additional help that this University, and all universities, provide.

The Office of Disabled Student Services has assisted students with learning disabilities since the 1970s and established the Coordinator of Learning Disability Services position four years ago. Lynn Flinders, who recommends that students contact her office if they have problems, currently holds that position. The number is 855-3508.

My recommendation for all students with learning disabilities is to give the office a call today. Midterm season is nearing quickly and you really shouldn’t surprise your professor at the last moment.

I did ask one last question of Flinders before I finished writing my column. I asked her if test anxiety is a learning disability. It isn’t one, so the University isn’t obligated to accommodate it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek out help for text anxiety: for that problem you should consult with the Student Academic Center at 855-7313.

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