- Tanner Shields
The Problem with Disabilities and Education
Student at Brigham Young University
Imagine you are sitting in class, working on a paper for an assignment. The whole class is seated quietly writing, and suddenly the student next to you leans over and asks you how to spell an elementary level word. You sit there with a confused look in your eyes, waiting for some dumb punch line to a joke or something. Time slowly goes on, and you soon realize that this poor student isn’t kidding at all and doesn’t know how to spell the word in question. You answer their question quickly, and they thank you and turn back to their paper, and you can tell that they are embarrassed by the whole situation. Now, this might not be a situation that you have ever had your entire life, but this is something that kids like me struggle with daily. I have a learning disability called dyslexia. Dyslexia is defined by the International Dyslexia Association as “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.” Now, if you had a hard time reading and understanding that, imagine trying to do that with a reading disability. Growing up with Dyslexia, I am always surrounded by people who don’t know what it means, and I get bombarded by questions. In high school, I once jokingly told a physical education teacher that I was unable to run the mile that day because my dyslexia was terrible that day. To my shock, the teacher looked up and said: “Oh, I am sorry about that you don’t need to run today. Let me know when you are feeling better.”. My joke ended up revealing how little my teacher knew about dyslexia. My hope is to help educate people on disabilities and their effect on a student.
Having a learning disability has made school hard and challenging for me. As a kid, I felt stupid, and that something was wrong with me. I’ve been bullied by both students and teachers because of my challenges with reading and spelling. Through all my years in school, I have had to deal with things like this. I have a fear of handing my assignment over to another student because I don’t want them to see how bad my handwriting and spelling are. I have a fear of being called to read something out loud in class and not being able to read a word right and embarrassing myself. Ultimately I am worried that others will think there is something wrong with me and that I am broken, stupid, a failure. Fast forward to today, near the end of the first semester of my first year in college, and just when I thought things like this were past me, it comes right back up. My professor projected a picture of a note someone had written about the schools’ honor code. The whole class and professor who disagreed with their opinion pointed out the poor spelling and lousy handwriting and connected it to their “lack” of intelligence. I sat there and felt like the dumbest person in the room because my handwriting and spelling is much worse than that of the person they were all attacking with their harsh words. Now I do not think for the most part that these are mean people and that they are trying to make me and others feel bad about our disabilities I think they are uneducated on the matter and students with disabilities are not prepared or equipped with the right tools to handle these situations and be open and honest with their struggles.
Like many other students with learning disabilities, I am given accommodations to help me in school. For elementary through high school, this consisted of teachers giving me tests verbally and allowing me to use technology to help with assignments and use audiobooks. I never really used many of these at school, because I didn’t want to stick out. I felt like all the other students would look at me differently. They would think that the accommodations I got were unfair and made work too easy for me because I was dumb. So like most students, I didn’t use these tools that I honestly needed to be successful, and this isn’t just the case for me. According to studies, one of the biggest reasons students did not seek accommodations available to them at the post-secondary level frequently had to do with issues of identifying as a student with a disability. (Marshak et al., 2010). I am one of the rare cases of students who reached out and asked for these accommodations for college. About thirty-seven percent of college students who had special education services while in high school identify their disability at the post-secondary level(Newman, Wagner, Cameto, & Knokey, 2009). So there is definitely something wrong with the way we are handling disabilities in the education system. Even though I decided to seek accommodations for college, it was way harder then it should have been. The previous diagnosis of my learning disability wasn’t enough for the college level. I had to spend seven hundred dollars to take twelve-hours of tests to prove that I still had a learning disability. Not to mention the fact that in the state of Utah, there are only two colleges that offer this type of testing, both Utah Valley University, and Brigham Young University. With how challenging it is and how many hoops they make you jump through, it’s no wonder students get discouraged from getting the help they need in college. Having a learning disability is a lifetime thing; it is not just something you grow out of and get rid of. There is no need for us to be pushing these tests on students for them to re-prove; they have a learning disability.
It is quite evident from all of this that there is a problem with the way that our education system handles disabilities and accommodations for them. Almost eleven percent of all students enrolled in post-secondary institutions are students with disabilities (National Center for Education Statistics, 2011). That is a low ball number because that’s just the students that have identified with a disability. As we have gone over already, many students do not disclose their disability. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “In fall 2017, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions was 16.8 million students.” That means over 1.68 million postsecondary students are students with disabilities. It would seem that with that many students with disabilities, there would be more effort made in helping those students out, and teachers would be better suited to fit their students’ needs. It has been well proven that Individuals in the United States with disabilities are considerably less likely than those without disabilities to earn a college degree (12% vs. 31%; Erickson, Lee, & von Schrader, 2010; Garrison-Wade, 2012; Quick, Lehmann, & Deniston, 2003). If we genuinely care about this ten percent of students and their success to graduate and earn a degree, then some things need to change. I believe that we need to acknowledge the problem and talk about it. As we help educate educators on disabilities and accommodations, then more students with disabilities would graduate from college and be more successful. There is so much we can do with such little effort to help these students out.
Now that we have established that there is a problem, we need to fix it. And as I stated already, I believe that the key is in better education on disabilities and accommodations. There are many teachers and even students who might have negative ideas and thoughts about students receiving accommodations to help them in class. There are many students and teachers that believe students receiving accommodations in classes make it easy for them, that it is unfair for the others, who have to do all the work. Part of the problem here is students with disabilities that need these accommodations don’t feel comfortable disclosing their disability or feel able to express how it affects them in their participation in the classroom and their classwork. This is even more so for those students who have learning disabilities because it’s a non-visible disability (Cowen, 1993). Learning disabilities in the areas of math, reading, writing, and attention are invisible but very real. I had an experience in class that I feel illustrates the fear that most students have with this. I turned in an assignment, and the teacher in front of the class looked at it and made a big deal. She said that writing scribbles to make it look like I filled out the assignment wasn’t going to work and that she wasn’t going to let me get away with being lazy. I sheepishly stated that I had done the work, but I had a learning disability that made it so that my handwriting and spelling were really bad. She told me that lying wasn’t helping my case and that I needed to do the work like everyone else. You can see why this type of thing can make it so in the future, a person wouldn’t feel the most comfortable being open about their struggles. Lucky for me, a lot of students in the class knew about my disability and stood up for me, and said that I indeed did have a learning disability.
Now with the students and teachers understanding my struggles, I found that dealing with these situations became a lot easier. I wasn’t embarrassed to hand my paper over for another student to look at it because I knew they understood, and they weren’t going to make a big deal about it. This openness and honesty changed my life and made my education a lot less stressful and helped me be more successful. Now with this, there still is the problem with those who feel like giving accommodations is an unfair advantage. Well, this type of thinking isn’t just with students and teachers but also with those who have a disability. Barnard-Brak, Sulak, Tate, and Lechtenberger (2011), say that the main reason cited by students for not using accommodations available to them is because they want to prove that they can do college without the help. I compare this type of thinking as similar to someone feeling like a person with asthma using an inhaler in a race is cheating and unfair and shouldn’t be done. There are many times that students with disabilities are struggling and feel as if they “can’t breath” and these accommodations can “breath life” into them and help them work their hardest and succeed as they “race” forward to earn a degree. With better education on what these disabilities are and what the accommodations due, we can better help students and teachers see the fairness of them and help give confidence to students with these needs to be open and honest about them. Once the students and teachers come together to best help with their education, things will change and improve a ton.
We don’t ask for accommodations to make it easier for a person to be successful, the accommodation, just like glasses, brail, or hearing aids, make the classes accessible so we can demonstrate our knowledge. A degree earned by a person with disabilities doesn’t come with an asterisk by it. Now studies do show that students with disabilities, on average, take longer to complete their degree programs than students without disabilities (Brinckerhoff, Shaw, & McQuire, 1992). So yes, it may take them a little bit longer, but these students can graduate. I think part of the reason these students can take longer is because of the lack of belief others have in them succeeding. When I was meeting at the Brigham Young University Accommodation center, my advisor saw that my class schedule only had about eight credits on it, and she was thrilled to see that. I told her that I was going to be taking more classes, and I just needed to add them to my class list. She had a look of concern on her face when I told her this. She told me that “students like me” shouldn’t take too many classes if we want to be successful. That I most likely wouldn’t be able to handle a full class schedule. I told her that I was planning on graduating in four years. To which she responded that she hoped I proved her wrong, but she felt like I’d be needing to drop classes and take a lighter schedule. I ended up taking 12 credit hours, I felt that with my accommodations, I would have all I needed to work hard and be able to take on any challenges that I faced, and I am not the only student with accommodations that feels this way. A study found that sixty-nine percent of students who used disability services were satisfied with the accommodations they were given, and eighty-five percent reported that the accommodations they were given were appropriate for their needs (Sharpe, Johnson, Izzo, & Murray, 2005)
I once heard that willful ignorance is a crime, and a man should be held accountable for it. The education system needs to evolve and adapt to better support the needs of the world that we now live in. We have studies and information proving that there is something wrong being done, and if we don’t change it for the better, then the education system needs to be held accountable for its discrimination toward people with visible and hidden disabilities. We have the knowledge, and we have the ability it is just left to whether we care enough to do something about it. I love to learn, and I have enjoyed my college classes, and I hope that things can change to help allow more students like me to enroll and not only be successful in college but be happy. I know it may seem like such a small minority of people that I have talked about today, but I know how big of an impact this has on many people’s lives. I know that if we better-educate teachers and students on disabilities and on accommodations, we can make education more inclusive for everyone, and we can and will see more students enrolling and more graduating with these disabilities. If we make getting accommodations easier and more accessible, then more students will have the tools to graduate. If we teach both the teachers and the students that individuals with disabilities are smart and capable, then we will help open people to the truth and stop hiding behind the word disabled and be able to enable people to get their life and education on track. The better educated we are as a country, the better we will be as a people. All that is left is for us to decide if we will remain ignorant or not on the matter.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2011). Students with disabilities at degree-granting postsecondary Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. institutions: First look. NCES 2011-018,
Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., & Knokey, A. M. (2009). The post-high school outcomes of youth with disabilities up to 4 years after high school. A report of findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2009-3017). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. Retrieved from www.nlts2.org/reports/2009_04/nlts2_report_2009_04_complete.pdf
Marshak, L., Van Wieran, T., Ferrel, D. R., Swiss, L., & Dugan, C. (2010). Exploring barriers to college student use of disability services and accommodations. Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 21, 151-165.
Sharpe, M. N., Johnson, D. R., Izzo, M., & Murray, A. (2005). An analysis of instructional accommodations and assistive technologies used by postsecondary graduates with disabilities. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 22, 3-11.
Brinckerhoff, L., Shaw, S., & McQuire, J. (1992). Promoting access, accommodations, and independence for college students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 25, 417-429.
“Definition of Dyslexia.” International Dyslexia Association, https://dyslexiaida.org/definition-of-dyslexia/.
“Undergraduate Enrollment.” The Condition of Education - Postsecondary Education - Postsecondary Students - Undergraduate Enrollment - Indicator May (2019), https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cha.asp.