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Registering for college courses can be straining for even the most organized college student. Knowing which courses to take, and what order to take them in, can be more than confusing to the already over-stressed student body. This process is even more strenuous for students with learning disabilities.
Registering for classes is just the beginning for learning disabled students. Kyle Turin, a freshman with Dyslexia, at Northeastern University is dismayed at the lack of attention he feels he is getting. Turin was diagnosed at a young age. He was never officially tested for a learning disability, but he was put into a specialized reading class until he went to high school. Kyle learned how to compensate for his difficulties but felt he slipped through the cracks in the system.
“They (teachers) figured out in like sixth grade that I had missed a crucial part of my reading comprehension stuff that other kids did get. I was put into reading courses. But now that I’m in college, I’ll have a class of like 150 kids where the only basis of the class is the textbook and in-class lectures, so I don’t have the opportunity to compensate in class the way that I used to.” said Turin.
Kyle Turin transferred to Northeastern University after his first semester at Hudson Valley Community College.
“They asked me if I had Northeastern insurance, and I said no and they basically said I was out of luck. They said I had to contact my own insurance company and see if they covered the disability test that I would need in order to get extra attention through Northeastern. But my insurance company won’t cover it because I’m over 18 years old. ”
A learning disability is defined as any one of various conditions that interfere with an individual's ability to learn, resulting in impaired functioning in language, reasoning, or academic skills. The National Center for Learning Disabilities explains it as a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive process, store and respond to information. Basically, among people with learning disabilities there is a noticeable gap between their level of expected achievement and their actual achievement. Doctors and professionals agree there is no way to pin-point any specific causes for learning disabilities. The NCLD says some possible causes may include heredity, problems during pregnancy or birth, head injuries or nutritional deprivation after birth, and exposure to toxic substances.
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There are four major classified learning disabilities. Dyslexia refers to students who have trouble processing language. Students diagnosed with Dyscalculia have trouble with math skills. Students having a problem with written expression are referred to as Dysgraphic, and students who struggle with their fine motor skills are labeled Dyspraxic. Other disorders include auditory processing and visual processing disorders. Many students also suffer from a condition called Attention Deficit (Hyperactive) Disorder (ADD/ ADHD). ADD and ADHD affect the ability to pay attention, stay organized, and follow through in activities adequately.
According to The National Longitudinal Transition Study of 1994, only 13% of students with learning disabilities attended a 4-year post-secondary school program within two years of leaving high school.
In 2002, the 24th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act reported that more than 27% of children with learning disabilities drop out of high school. A similar report done by NCES in 1999 stated that two-thirds of high school graduates with learning disabilities were rated “not qualified” to enter a four year college.
Northeastern University has a full-time Disability Resource Center, (DRC) which is located on campus in the basement of Dodge Hall and offers Northeastern students with disabilities the rights and compensations they deserve by law. The DRC was established in 1978 and has since been responsible for students with all types of disabilities, both mental and physical. Their goal is stated in the DRC’s mission statement, “The DRC will work to ensure that NU is fully accessible to all members of the university community, recognizing the inherent value and diversity of people with disabilities and those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Through an active and integrated partnership with students, faculty, staff, and administrators, we work collectively to enable all members of our community to full benefit from the wide array of experiences within the university.”
“We are here to make sure everyone has equal access,” said Debbi Auerbach, Service Coordinator for the DRC. Auerbach has been working with Northeastern students for 15 years. She is aware that “learning disability” is a very broad term, and explained the DRC tries to focus its attention on each student’s individual capabilities.
“It’s geared toward the individual. If a student process’ information slowly we might give them extended time when they take exams so that they have the same access to finish the exam as another student.”
The DRC caters to issues besides learning disabilities. Students with physical handicaps and hearing deficiencies are also guided by the staff at the DRC, but the vast majority of the several hundred students they service are learning disabled (about 90%). The center currently has a very small testing unit that analyzes students for learning disabilities. Only students who have purchased NU health insurance are fully covered for testing. Those with outside insurance are charged $1,500, or they are referred elsewhere for testing. Aeurbach explained the DRC is so short staffed that they can only handle a few tests a semester and they are forced to refer the remainder of the people outside. The Neuropsychological test is a battery of IQ measurement, achievement ability, and specific area testing. The DRC requires documentation of the results of these tests before they can provide appropriate accommodations.
“Because I have a registered learning disability, Northeastern’s DRC offers me accommodations like a reduced course load, but I would still be considered a fulltime student. I am allowed extended time on tests. I can’t imagine having the same amount of time as other kids. I can do everything the other students can do, it just takes me longer,” said Northeastern middler student Danielle Brown. She was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder at a very young age and has benefited from programs like the DRC for most of her life.
Brown originally attended Arizona State University and transferred to Northeastern following her freshmen year. Brown felt the center at Arizona State was more organized when it came to working with students. “The disability resource center at Arizona State was extremely more intense than at Northeastern. They have the students meet with advisors every week. The advisors would listen to everything you had to say. If I had worries or concerns; or if I just needed to talk to someone they were always willing to sit down and talk to me one on one. I felt it was more involved and it helped me with a lot of anxiety,” she said. At Northeastern, Brown, and students like her are also given the option to purchase their text books on tape or on CD-rom. The staff works with their students participating in NU’s co-op program but they mainly advise.
Northeastern students registered with the DRC are also given the option to request note takers for their classes. Kristen Piscopiello has been the Coordinator of the note taker Services offered by the center for two years.
“Students request a note taker for their classes and I compile that information and assign note takers to all those who request them,” said Piscopiello. This past semester she has employed 83 note takes, all of whom are paid for their services.
“We either have graduate students who want to work and are willing to go to other people’s classes to take notes, or if we can’t find a note taker to go to that class, we’ll ask the professor to read an announcement sheet in class and we’ll get someone in the class to take notes for that student.”
Every semester the number of classes requiring note takers has grown dramatically. There are currently about 250 to 260 classes that need note takers, and the DRC is mandated by law to provide them.
In 1973 the United States passed section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act. This act mandates that no one with a disability can be denied access to any federally funded program or activity solely because of their disability. This includes “a college, university, or other postsecondary institution, or a public system of higher education.” This also includes any Executive agencies and the US post office.
Following the passing of this act, Colleges instituted the minimum requirements for disabled students. Not much progress was made until 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. The publicity of the act, along with increased lawsuits concerning violations, and growing numbers of students requiring accommodations were three main reasons why institutions began encouraging progress toward modifications for all disabled students.
Colleges and universities like Northeastern are accepting more students with learning disabilities every year. The February 29th issue of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an article written by Amy Hetzner which read, “According to a recent report by the National Council on Disability, the percentage of college freshmen with disabilities more than tripled between 1978 and 1998, from 3% to more than 9%. And the proportion of high school graduates with disabilities who went into post-secondary education increased from 3% in1978 to 19% in 1996.” In 1996, 35% of college freshmen with reported disabilities were suffering from learning disabilities. The numbers have only been rising since, and Northeastern University is no exception.
In the September 5th, 2004 issue of the Pittsburgh Post- Gazette Sunday region edition, Bill Schackner wrote, “About one in 25 college students is learning disabled, up sharply from the 1980’s. Nationwide, students with learning disabilities are the fastest-growing segment of all disabled students in college.”
Student disability services within colleges have had to grow with the ever increasing demand.
Northeastern student Jessica Applestein agrees that students with learning disabilities deserve a little extra help, “I think any compensation given for people with learning disabilities is a good thing because they have more difficulty learning than other non-afflicted students and shouldn't be expected to perform at the same standards in the same time limits etc as those students.”
Debbi Auerbach explained, “When it (the Disability Resource Center at NU) started we only had two people in a one room office. It’s grown a lot. We now have eight full-time employees, and a handful of other types of employees. The receptionists are full-time staff, and work study students help out at the front desk. Everyone here who works with the students is college educated. They are all professional people.”
The DRC moved to 20 Dodge Hall in the early ‘90s following the Americans with Disabilities Act. The larger facility provided more offices so it could begin catering to the growing number of students with disabilities. Auerbach also expressed the DRC’s constant goal to always provide the best technology for disabled students.
Kyle Turin still has concerns about the commitment of Northeastern’s Disability Resource Center.
“Some people would just say, ‘oh you’re not trying hard enough,’ or ‘well you’re not meant for college then cause college is supposed to be hard,’ but… It seems like because Northeastern carries their own insurance, they don’t want to support the insurance carriers of other companies, so I can’t use their facilities to even test for a disability that I might have, and without that test I can’t get the help that I would need in order to succeed under their current system.”