BY DANIKA KIMBALL
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law over 25 years ago, the college environment was forever changed. Legal mandates under the ADA require that postsecondary institutions make reasonable accommodations in order to provide disabled students an equal opportunity to participate in courses, programs, and activities — including athletics programs.
While most people think of the ADA as legislation that helped those with visible disabilities, the ADA has also impacted those who may have “invisible disabilities.” As highlighted by The Atlantic, a number of students with dyslexia and other learning differences (LDs) have also benefited greatly by the passing of the ADA.
Accommodations come in many forms, from academic adjustments or modifications like extended time for test taking or completing coursework; substituting specific courses to help students fulfill degree requirements; modification of test taking or performance evaluations. These accommodations can also include classroom aids such as sign language interpreters, note takers, readers, braille, large print, and electronic formats of required texts.
Because of the passing of the ADA, students like Rae Jacobsen, a person who has been diagnosed with ADHD and dyscalculia, a condition that makes it difficult to make sense of numbers and mathematical concepts, was able to earn a master’s degree from Loyola University in New Orleans. Today, she is a writer for the New York-based Child Mind Institute. “It doesn’t mean you can’t learn,” Jacobson writes about her learning differences. “It just means you haven’t been taught in a way that makes sense.”
Although the ADA has made things easier for students with both visible and invisible disabilities, there are still a number of challenges when it comes to accessing higher education spaces. Students with LDs attend four-year colleges at about half the rate of the general population, and only 41 percent of those students graduate from four year institutions in a 6-year time frame, compared to 52 percent of all students.
The reasons for this are abundant and can range from a lack of funds to trouble satisfying the documentation requirements necessary in college offices. In college students are required to self-identify as disabled, and accurate documentation of their disability must be provided. This process is easier for some than it is for others.
“In the end, it means that college students must be academically prepared, ready to live independently, understand the nature of their learning differences, be able to describe the services and accommodations they may need and have the ability to advocate for themselves,” Laura Castaneda writes for The Atlantic.
Peter A. Eden, president of Landmark, an institution which specifically serves students with LDs, agrees.
“For some students, when a parent is no longer helping them at a the kitchen table like in high school, a student may need a more robust system and set of resources to help them succeed in college,” he argues.
The good news in all of this is that colleges are more prepared than ever to help students with disabilities succeed. Schools with structured programs that have a director and staff certified in learning disabilities or related areas have been cropping up in schools around the country. And while schools that exclusively teach students with LDs are rare, there are traditional schools like Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, and the University of Arizona in Tuscon, Arizona that each have robust disability services programs.
Still, while these accommodations are readily available at many institutions, it’s important that those who intend to use ADA services do their research and that they start early — from finding programs that help disabled individuals save money to finding a college environment that is right for them.
Over the past 20 years, the ADA has transformed the educational system, providing more opportunities for individuals than were available before. While there are still a number of improvements that could be made, this legislation provides students with both visible and invisible disabilities with equal opportunities when it comes to education.
Danika is a writer and musician from the Northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. You can follow her on Twitter @sadwhitegrrl