Learning Disabled Students in Higher Education: Hidden Disabilities and Visible Challenge

Jennifer M. Pigza

The number of entering college students with learning disabilities continues to grow after a threefold increase in the 1980s. Faculty members and student affairs professionals must rise to the challenge of serving these students by balancing the demands of appropriate accommodations and desire for student success. The following questions are explored in this paper: What are learning disabilities? How do Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 apply to higher education? How can student affairs professionals best collaborate with faculty to meet the needs of learning disabled students? Additional questions and challenges are posed.

According to 1989 U.S. Department of Education statistics, approximately 3% of all college and university students have learning disabilities (Houck, Asselin, Troutman, and Arrington, 1992), and the number of entering first-year students with learning disabilities continues to grow. These men and women enter higher education with the same hopes, dreams, and fears as their non-disabled peers; however, they also carry with them equal protection under the law and most likely the need for academic adjustments and accommodations.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) prohibit discrimination based on disability. Within higher education, the offices responsible for enforcing these laws and serving disabled students are usually housed in divisions of student affairs. Student affairs professionals are often undertrained and lack experience in this area. Frequently they advocate students' rights regarding necessary academic accommodations to the university community (Vogel, 1993b).

Section 504 and the ADA present tremendous implications for higher education. The majority of learning disabled students do not require co-curricular modifications, but it is the responsibility of student affairs professionals to understand the impact that learning disabilities have on students' academic lives. This paper addresses specific issues related to learning disabled students who meet the academic standards of an institution and are granted admission. The following questions are explored: What are learning disabilities? What is the legislation which governs higher education's responsibility to learning disabled students? How can student affairs professionals best collaborate with faculty to meet the needs of learning disabled students? Finally, this paper will pose unanswered questions and challenges to the academy.

What is a learning disability?

Many student affairs professionals and faculty confuse learning disabilities with mental retardation (Vogel, 1993a), because of their false perceptions of learning disabilities. This confusion is heightened because learning disabilities are invisible (Higbee, 1989). Definitions of learning disabilities primarily focus on an impairment which adversely affects the brain's ability to process information. According to the Federal Register, August 23, 1977:

Specific learning disability" means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding and using language, spoken or written, which may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. . . . The term does not include children who have learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, learning or motor handicaps, or mental retardation, or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.

"Learning disabilities do not impair the potential to learn; rather they impair the process of learning" (Rose, 1993, p. 136). They are lifelong conditions presumedly caused by dysfunction in the central nervous system, and learning disabled students exhibit a range of intelligence from low-average to gifted (Vogel, 1993a).

To qualify for accommodations under Section 504 and the ADA, a student's learning disabilities are documented and submitted to the university. Documentation of a learning disability is accomplished through both cognitive and achievement testing which is administered by a learning specialist or psychologist and requires several hours to complete. Many campuses refer students to specialists outside the institution for testing; the costs for testing are frequently absorbed by the student.

The following descriptions of specific learning disabilities offered by Higbee (1989) provide a beginning understanding of some of the challenges facing learning disabled students:

developmental aphasia-a disorder of language functions
dyscalculia-primary calculating disability
dysgraphia-primary writing disability
dyslexia-primary reading disability
specific language disability-difficulty with symbol systems
cognitive problems-difficulty organizing or sequencing thoughts or distinguishing between concepts
directional problems-trouble with left and right, directions, and maps
perceptual problems-sensory intake and/or processing difficulties

Student affairs professionals must approach each learning disabled student as an individual and use knowledge of specific disabilities to enhance their understanding of the individual rather than place him or her in a defined category. "There will be significant variation as to how the disability affects the learning different [sic] person depending on the person's particular blend of intellectual strengths and weaknesses" (Georgetown University, 1990, p. 9). Faculty and student affairs professionals have great opportunity and responsibility to equalize learning disabled students' learning environments. Federal law broadly identifies the minimal requirements for accommodations.

Section 504 and the ADA: Rules to Live By and Beyond

Some basic information regarding Section 504 and the ADA will assist student affairs professionals in beginning to understand the legal implications of accommodating all types of disabled students. For a full review of legislation governing college students with disabilities, consult regional U.S. Department of Higher Education Offices for Civil Rights, court documentation, and other relevant literature.

Section 504 provides that:

. . . no otherwise qualified individual with handicaps . . . shall, solely by reason of her or his handicap, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. (29 U.S.C. Section 794)

Federal financial assistance includes federally-funded student loans, research grants and contracts. Specific to higher education, Section 504 provides regulations regarding admissions and recruitment, academic adjustments, housing, financial aid, general treatment and non-academic services for all disabled students.

The ADA prohibits discrimination in all places of public accommodation (a step beyond Section 504 which only governed programs and activities receiving federal funding); included in this definition are all post-secondary institutions most of which were already subject to Section 504. Although the ADA is often described as one of the most powerful pieces of anti-discrimination legislation, "in the context of higher education, the ADA breaks little new ground" (Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe, 1994, p. 1). The ADA defines discrimination as:

a failure to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the entity can demonstrate that making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services, privileges, advantages, or accommodations. [42 U.S.C. Section 12182(b)(2)(A)(ii), emphasis added]

When students believe their rights have been violated they can proceed with several courses of action. Colleges and universities are mandated by law to designate a grievance officer to process complaints regarding Section 504 and ADA compliance. Students may choose to file a complaint with the local grievance officer who is often the dean of students or Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employment coordinator. Regional offices of the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) also process complaints. In some cases, students file litigation against the institution.

Little litigation occurred regarding Section 504 and higher education until the late 1980s, when disabled students protected by the 1973 anti-discrimination laws were beginning to enter college. In the 1990s, the ADA gave greater awareness to the issues of civil rights for the disabled, and litigation again increased. Because the ADA is relatively young (it became effective January 26, 1992), and its implications for higher education are not as specific as those in Section 504, "the courts will continue to rely on the Rehabilitation Act regulations when addressing claims of discrimination against post secondary educational institutions." The courts "have yet to address fully what constitutes a 'reasonable' or 'fundamental' modification under the ADA" (Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe, 1994, p. 12).

Most legal questions regarding the ADA and Section 504 relate to definitions of the concepts necessary and reasonable modifications/accommodations and fundamental alterations. Some of the questions related specifically to learning disabled students are: When does an accommodation become unreasonable? What is absolutely necessary to provide an equal opportunity for success? What changes fundamentally alter the content of a particular course or field of study?

A review of court documents evidences that the courts pay great deference to colleges and universities in terms of undue burden or fundamental requirements (Orrick, Herrington, & Sutcliffe, 1994; Rothstein, 1993). Brooks' (1994) review of reports and findings from the OCR suggests, however, that the OCR frequently finds universities negligent in providing both academic and non-academic accommodations and in delineating a clearly documented and implemented grievance process. The OCR, it seems, often pays deference to student complaints. The courts often defer to the institution, because the institution is perceived as the expert in education, and the courts rarely attempt to interfere with what the university determines is a sound educational and developmental decision. This difference in grievance and litigation outcomes contributes to student affairs professionals' struggles to understand what constitutes a reasonable accommodation. This dichotomy may exist for the following reason: By the time a student appeals to the courts, he or she has most likely completed the university grievance procedure and the OCR complaint process with both verdicts cast in favor of the institution. Perhaps it only makes sense, then, that the courts would also rule in favor of the university.

Official grievances and litigation are the formal struggles learning disabled students endure. In their daily lives, however, they may battle with faculty and staff regarding recommended academic adjustments.

Reasonable Accommodations: Adjustments in Teaching and Evaluation

Learning disabled students experience more anxiety in the classroom than their non-disabled peers (Schmidt, 1983). Additionally, the prevalent perception that learning disabled students are lazy and unmotivated is incorrect (Schulman, 1984; Vogel, 1993a). "Most learning disabled students work twice or three times as hard as their non-learning disabled counterparts to achieve the same goals" (Vogel, 1993a, p. 5). Once these students break the silence regarding their disability, student affairs professionals must respond not only because the law mandates equal access, but because it is in the best developmental and academic interests of the students.

Reasonable accommodations are made by adjusting how information is presented and how mastery of material is measured-teaching and evaluation (Vogel, 1993a). The following accommodations are available in varying combinations, based on a student's specific needs: subject/study skills tutoring, untimed and extended-time exams, change in exam format (i.e. from multiple choice to essay), question restatement during an exam, use of assistive technology (such as dictaphones, computers, spellers, calculators), change in course and degree requirements or length of time for their completion (Higbee, 1989; Raskind and Scott, 1993; Schimdt, 1983; Seelig, 1987; Vogel, 1993a).

Academic adjustments do not lower the standards of performance for learning disabled students. Many faculty members balk at untimed exams for learning disabled students, and claim that untimed or extended-time exams offer the disabled students an advantage over their non-disabled peers. Studies have shown, however, that while learning disabled students' achievement did rise during untimed exams, their achievement did not supersede the achievement of non-learning disabled students in regularly timed exams (Hill, 1984, as cited in Georgetown University, 1990; Runyan, 1990; and Sandperl, 1989, as cited in Georgetown University, 1990). The goal of accommodations is not to make each learning disabled student academically successful but to provide the opportunity for success by mitigating the affect of the disability.

Faculty Involvement

Faculty members are integral components of any student's university experience. For the learning disabled student, however, instructors have the power to assist that person in recognizing potential or to allow the student to flounder. Research investigating faculty attitudes regarding learning disabilities and willingness to make academic accommodations offers disparate results (Houck, Asselin, Troutman, & Arrington, 1992; Matthews, Anderson, & Skolnick, 1987, cited in Rose, 1993; Nelson, Dodd, & Smith, 1990). Student affairs professionals, however, were found to exhibit more benevolent and positive attitudes about learning disabled students than their faculty peers (Aksamit, Morris, & Leuenberger, 1987).

The most common recommendation is that the entire university community, faculty and staff, must be educated more extensively regarding learning disabled students. This poses a challenge, because faculty attitudes toward the learning disabled are more difficult to combat than their attitudes toward the more visibly handicapped (Wilchesky, 1986). Because of student affairs professionals' generally positive attitude toward learning disabled students, their roles as educators and advocates in the university community are clear. Rose (1993) suggests that institutions gather an advisory committee composed of students, faculty, learning specialists and administrators. Support services for learning disabled students should include written materials geared toward faculty regarding the nature of learning disabilities and possible accommodations and teaching strategies.

Faculty can implement specific educational techniques that benefit both learning disabled and non-disabled students alike. Georgetown University (1990) prepared a list to assist instructors in making learning more accessible to all students. Among the suggestions are the following: detailed syllabi (due dates, grading system, learning expectations); suggested study approaches; structured lectures; multi-sensory teaching techniques (chalkboard, overheads, prepared handouts, videos); student use of supplemental services and assistive technology.

While these specific techniques may be useful in the classroom, faculty must first understand learning disabilities and be interested in better serving their learning disabled students. Rose (1993) presents an overview of collaborative and educational models to incorporate faculty in student accommodations. "The more faculty tend to know about learning disabilities, the more they tend to support education and services for students with learning disabilities" (p. 132). Additionally, the more faculty are involved in planning and evaluation the more they will be invested in programmatic success. There are four questions that faculty consistently pose, and therefore, should be part of all faculty training and conversations. "What are learning disabilities? What are my responsibilities under the law? What can I do for these students in the classroom? Do reasonable accommodations mean lower standards for students with learning disabilities?" (Rose, 1993, p. 135). Student panels during faculty workshops have proven effective in changing faculty attitudes toward learning disabled students. Training for faculty should be offered each semester, and new faculty should be encouraged to attend.

As with many areas of student affairs administration, the quality of the relationship between student affairs professionals and faculty is in direct proportion to the quality of the students' experiences. Faculty and student affairs professionals are responsible to students for this collaboration.

Unanswered Questions and Institutional Challenges:

Questions plague the academy and the courts regarding the definition of acceptable, reasonable, and fundamental changes to particular courses and overall curriculum. In these discussions and determinations the desire to serve the student as an individual must remain fundamental. For example, one student's adjusted time for degree completion cannot be translated into the same timeline for all learning disabled students. Additionally, just because one learning disabled student may not require a certain accommodation does not mean all learning disabled students do not require said accommodation. Each student and his or her disability must be viewed individually to ensure proper access to education without unnecessary relaxing of standards: an admittedly difficult balance to maintain.

Under the law, students with documented disabilities are eligible for accommodations, but the law does not mandate that institutions provide diagnostic testing. This testing and evaluation can cost each student between $300 and $1000. Does the current system disqualify economically poor students with learning disabilities from exercising their rights? Should availability of diagnostic testing be addressed in subsequent laws? Because the current law fails to address economic accessibility of diagnostic testing, should the academy develop a policy that would allow eligible students within a certain level of financial aid to receive such testing free of charge?

There has been inadequate research regarding learning disabled adults in college and university settings. Vogel (1993a) asserts that of the more than 100 articles written on learning disabled adults in the 1970s and 1980s less than one-third were data-based. She urges each campus to research its own population, environment, and accommodations. Hoeck, Asselin, Troutman, and Herrington (1992) pointed out conflicting results of studies regarding faculty. If empirical research were available, then such questions regarding the experiences of learning disabled students, faculty perceptions, and the effectiveness of supportive services could be answered. Statistics could also be used to justify the expenses of support services.

Finally, individual colleges and universities must continually review their level of compliance with Section 504 and the ADA. Vogel (1993b) presents a continuum of compliance related to several areas of learning disabled student services: institutional awareness, faculty and staff awareness, application and admission procedures, eligibility for services, supportive services (staff training, student to staff ratio, diagnostic testing), and co-curricular modification. Can learning disabled students expect comprehensive services at all institutions? While providing services to disabled students is a developmental issue, it is a financial concern as well. How does an institution blend the often conflicting visions of practitioners who advocate extensive services for students and those of administrators who contend that base-line compliance with the law is what the university can afford?


An undergraduate student diagnosed with dyslexia reflected on her experiences with a learning disability as part of a research paper. Her determination and courage exemplify student profiles that emerge from a review of the literature regarding learning disabled college students.

Why was it so hard for me to accept the fact that I am learning disabled? . . . I set out on a sole expedition to find and conquer these problems. . . . I became so preoccupied with myself and my condition that I unknowingly evolved into a changed person. My joking and energetic attitude became serious and depressed. My dorm relationships suffered. . . . I was not going to be conquered after I had succeeded [in getting admitted to Stanford University]. I wanted to know which problems, errors, and frustrations I could attribute to the disability and which to my own carelessness and stupidity. (Reiling, 1990, p. 2)

Learning disabilities themselves are invisible, but the students who live with these diagnosable conditions are not. They study, live in residence halls, join co-curricular activities, participate in club sports, and struggle with relationships; they endure and embrace the challenges of college life much like their non-disabled peers. As responsible educators, student affairs professionals must increase their knowledge of the effects of learning disabilities, the requirements of Section 504 and the ADA, and collaborative models for working with faculty and educating the institutional community. The personal development and academic success of students such as this individual depend on the ability of all educators to come together to serve the entire student.


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Jennifer M. Pigza is a first year HESA student and is the Coordinator of the Exam Proctoring Room of the Learning Cooperative. Jennifer is a 1990 Graduate of Loyola College in Maryland. Prior to UVM, Jennifer worked with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: East.