Some technology and tips for students with language processing disorders.

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I live with a language processing disorder. I didn’t know that as a student and for years I had to learn things the hard way- including how to learn. I found that I couldn’t pull all-nighters the way other students did because words started to loose their meaning for me as I got tired. I found I sometimes needed to go to my professors’ office hours for more explanation of complex ideas, and I needed tutors for classes that required large amounts of memorization, like biology and math.

Knowing that a student has a language processing disorder provides some basic insight for teachers and disability service providers, mainly that the student may struggle to integrate written/spoken/visual language – to put it all together and make sense out of it – which impacts how the student will learn. Fortunately, there are a few aids now available that can assist students with finding additional ways to access information.

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Electronic text can be useful for students who do better processing information they hear vs. trying to read large sections of text. I therefore suggest that students consider sources of textbooks which give them access to both the visual text and an e-text, which they can listen to but also manipulate for visual effect on their computer. Two sources of e-text are Bookshare (www.bookshare.org) and CourseSmart (www.coursesmart.com).  As long as Bookshare’s funding lasts they will be able to provide free membership to those with qualifying disabilities.

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Another technology that can be useful are the Livescribe Pens (www.livecribe.com); this is still proprietary technology (no one else can currently manufacture these – although they are sold in some national chain stores.) These pens need to be used with the notebooks also manufactured by the company. The result, however, are notes that can be downloaded to a computer. Additionally, the pens record audio; these audio notes are synced with the written notes so that the pen can be touched to any point in the notes and the audio will playback what was being said at that point. This can be particularly useful for students who need to hear what a teacher says several times, while reviewing the notes they took.

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For students who do not take much in the way of notes but who benefit from hearing lecture points several times, there are a number of reasonably priced, small digital recorders currently available. If a student is working with a disability service provider on campus, it is also possible to arrange for a note-taker if a student has a qualifying disability – someone else will write notes for the student.

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Professors are also increasingly making use of online platforms like Blackboard and Canvas to post notes, slides, and other information online for students to download and review. It can be very helpful for a student to download these notes, outlines, or slides before class, and then take class-notes directly onto these aids.

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Learning centers are also very useful for students with language processing disorders. The tutors who work in these centers can assist a student with homework, and review class lectures, readings, and ideas to make sure the student is learning the main concepts during the semester. It also helps a person process knowledge when they discuss key points and ideas with another person. Trying to explain class concepts to another person will also give a student a better idea of what they currently understand and what they still need to review and clarify.

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I’m always looking for ideas and examples of what others find useful and welcome people to share their thoughts and experiences in the comment section for this blog. I have had one student, for example, who told me she actually finds making and using her own flashcards (writing key concepts on note-cards with the answers on back) a very effective way to prepare for exams. First she’s writing the flashcards out, then she is reviewing them to see what she knows and what she’s still struggling with. The more ways we find to engage our brain, the more likely we are to remember what we’re trying to learn.

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Perhaps the most important thing for any disabled student to realize is how their disability impacts their personal learning when combined with their individual learning strengths. For example, a dyslexic student who is a visual learner is going to have to find ways to ‘see’ what a teacher is explaining – examples can be very important and it may be necessary to attend a professor’s office hours and ask the professor if there is another way to explain an idea – a way that is more visual.

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Again, learning centers can be useful because there is another person (the tutor) who will have different ideas from the professor about how to explain key ideas. Sometimes it takes trial and error to find a person who can explain challenging concepts in a way that works best with one’s own learning strengths.

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Communicating with the school disability service provider can also be a useful strategy, particularly if the student is struggling and needs additional ideas for how to tackle the situation they are in. No student does better by quietly suffering. Schools want students to learn and there are a range of supports that can assist a student with learning. The responsibility to seek out these supports though, rests with the student once they are in college. There are an increasing number of resources available and disability service providers and students can work together to find new ways of accessing information.

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Medication and College Preparation: Why students need to practice self-sufficency

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It happened again today. I met with a student who does not function well in school unless he takes the medication he ought to take. Unfortunately, he tends to forget to take his meds. This is a regularly reoccurring scenario. I’ve thought about it and realize that there is one  most common reasons this occurs; the student lacks practice being self-sufficient with taking their medication.

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When a child is young then parents must oversee their medication: getting the child to the doctor, getting the prescription filled, making sure the child takes the medicine are all responsibilities of the care giver and cannot be left to the child. At some point though, a transition needs to take place as the child grows; unfortunately most families wait for the the student’s move to college and then the child is suddenly thrust into the role of being independent. With all the other transition pieces taking place – new room, new food, new people – this is not an ideal time to adapt to the new routine of taking medication unsupervised and without reminders.

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Those families who do think to have their children start practicing being independent when it comes to taking medication have given their students one more tool in the kit that will help them to successfully make the transition to college.

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I suggest that families work on developing a routine for maintaining medication schedules before the student leaves home for college. For example, have the young adult practice filling a weekly pill holder at the same time each week; keep the pill holder in a drawer that the young person opens each day, like a sock or shirt drawer — remember that at college students cannot count on leaving their medication out in plain sight, as this increases the likelihood that someone will walk off with it. Students require a medication routine that provides daily reminders without having the medicine out in plain sight.

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Another way to create a daily reminder is to have the student program one into their mobile phone, or provide the student with a page-a-day calendar and they do not remove the day’s page until they have taken their medicine.

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There are different ways to create a routine that work for each individual – the most important point is to work on developing this routine before a student is making the already challenging transition to college life.

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Should my disability impact where I choose to study?

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Those of us who are disabled wish to have the same freedom of choice that other citizens enjoy and most people want the freedom to study where ever they would choose to. In reality though, most people do have a number of factors that weigh in their decision of where they will study including their: economics, aptitude, geographic location, desired field of study; and simply their ability to research a limited number of schools before needing to make a decision.

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Those of us who are disabled should also consider factors such as: the size of classes and how that will impact our ability to focus or necessitate being in close contact with large numbers of others; the geographic layout of campus and if this will complicate moving from class to class; the school’s familiarity with our particular disability; the available accommodations and applicable resources at each specific campus. While no one of these considerations is necessarily a deciding factor, it seems realistic to keep these points in mind as we reach a decision of where is the best fit for us to study.

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Individuals who find large numbers of people, or a great deal of noise distracting or distressing are generally poorly served by attending very large universities, where class sizes may be 500 – 2,500 students in their first year or two of study. There are a number of very good medium and small schools where potentially overwhelming numbers will not be a factor in a student’s success.

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Those with mobility issues should consider the availability of public transport or parking spaces if their intended campus is large enough to making traveling between classes a challenge. Climate is also a mitigating factor for many disabilities – snow, humidity, heat can each differently impact a person’s mobility or otherwise complicate a person’s health.

Some students like the challenge of being a trail blazer, which is usually what is required of a student when the school they plan to attend is unfamiliar with the disability the student is living with. In circumstances like this, it is best for the student to be in communication with the disability service provider months before they actually enroll — students may need to be very specific about the kind of accommodations that will be necessary and disability service providers will need to analyze a school’s capacity for being prepared.

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Students may also have a disability which requires them to be near a larger medical center, or a population center were more services are readily available than one would find in remote, rural locations — like the one where I currently work and live.

The institution where I currently work is isolated enough that obtaining sign language services usually means using a computer with camera and students with complex medical needs are required to drive three to five hours to receive services.

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Each disabled student and his or her family will have a comfort level for the kind of programs and services that will be necessary, those that will be desirable, and those that are optional. Students are best prepared for success when they weigh all these considerations before agreeing to sign up for four or five years of study with an institution…although a student can always transfer, most students prefer to find their ‘new home’ and start settling in sooner rather than later.

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Mobility Challenges and College

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One of the things I like about this constantly evolving technological age is the ability to meet and learn about people I would never have encountered otherwise. A young woman I’ve met through blogging recently reminded me about the daily challenges that those with mobility impairments face; this in turn got me thinking about the young people I work with who also live with mobility disabilities.

Whatever field of study a student is interested in, some campuses are going to be easier to navigate than others. Some people choose to weigh the physical challenges of a campus against the strength of the program the campus offers. Others decide that no matter how many obstacles a campus provides, they will find ways to overcome them to study where they choose.

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The campus where I work provides physical challenges due to our geographic and latitudinal location – we’re set in a rocky, hilly, cold, northern location, sandwiched into a valley with a highway splitting our campus in half, and the dormitory half of the campus being built into and onto a hill. Hardly ideal for most people and in the winter an absolute nightmare at times, to navigate around.

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How do students adjust and how has the campus adjusted? We’ve found that rather than wheelchairs,  three wheeled scooters are a better adaptation to the environment. The campus isn’t overly large, which means at least the classroom are all fairly close together – as an institution we can provide students with priority registration, so they can arrange class times/locations in a way that allows for the time in-between classes that makes the individual comfortable.

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I did advocate persistently until we had electronic doors installed on all buildings, and when needed we provided students with remote control openers for these doors – when you have a scooter in winter a remote door opener just works better than trying to get close enough to physically hit a big button to open a door.

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What doesn’t work so well? The highway running between the classroom side of campus and the dorm side of campus remains one of my pet peeves – students with mobility issues need to get across that road in the winter without falling or getting stuck. At least we do have a great grounds crew who tries to keep the route passable. This is hardly ideal however.

Dinning halls can also be problematic. Ask anyone in a wheelchair and they’ll tell you that most dinning halls aren’t designed with them in mind. And someone with balance and stability problems will be challenged to carry a tray through the average dinning hall – sometimes students have to use assistance even if they would prefer to be completely independent.

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My real point though is – universities can make adjustments, even if at first they don’t realize that adjustments need to be made. Sometimes it does take a disabled person speaking out and explaining why something isn’t working, in order for change to happen; once change has happened future students will benefit and the university may even become more diverse as a wider range of people begin to feel comfortable there.

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For an individual’s peace of mind and to lower personal stress, however, I would suggest that before accepting a place at a college one should take a tour of the campus. See for yourself where the challenges will be, then talk to the disability service provider to get a sense of how resistant to change the institution is. Only then are you ready to make a decision about if a particular school is the right place for you.

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Should I register with disability services at college? Will employers know?

StudentStudyingEvery year I end up working with at least some students who are concerned about registering with the office of student disability services when they start college. Some students think that since college is a new start, a new chapter in their lives, they should try to manage without any accommodations. (They usually end up in my office after at least one semester of low grades.)

Other students have been told that if they register with disability services, this will somehow show up on their permanent record and reflect negatively on their future job applications.

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I continue to encounter people who believe this — that if a potential employer finds out a job applicant is disabled they will hesitate to hire that person. In fact, with the changes in federal law and social understandings of what it means to have a diverse workplace, the opposite may be true. Some employers, including the federal government, are actively recruiting disabled employees.

First, let’s address the concern that an employer will know you registered as disabled if you use services in college.

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This is not true. Disability records, like counseling records, are kept separately from the rest of a student’s file; the information in them is not released unless a student signs a waiver that states exactly who can look at their record and what information the viewer is allowed to see.

Next, let’s consider the idea that college is a new phase in life, and therefore a student should try at least their first semester without using accommodations. I work every year with students who try this. The reality is, the way a disability impacts a person’s ability to learn is not changed just by moving to a new physical address. If a student benefited from extended test time in high school, that student will continue to benefit from extended time in college.

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Students who do not use accommodations that they need will usually have grades that suffer as a result. This can lead to a student being placed on academic probation after their first semester, or first year at college — unlike high school where the impact of a low grade might just be repeating the class — at college too many low grades will mean being dismissed, i.e. a student is eventually told to leave and may not be allowed to come back.

If a good grade point average is important to a student/their family, then I would suggest the student be positioned for success right from the beginning.

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This means not only registering with the disability service provider on campus but also finding out about other academic supports that are available on campus. Basically every campus now has some version of ‘learning centers’ where students can go to work with people on subjects they are struggling with; these centers usually include a writing center, math center, and more — or there may be one centralized center that supports a range of topics.

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Remember, the most successful students at college are not the ones who try and do everything by themselves; successful students use all the resources they need including accommodations, talking to professors, and learning centers. As a result, these students have better grades (and are learning/remembering more) and are in a better position when it is time to apply for work.

Can anyone study STEM?

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STEM studies — science, technology, engineering, and math — are often said to be the fields of study of the future. There has been and continues to be demand for people educated in these fields and these fields offer a broad range of possibilities. Students at the university where I currently work study ecology, biodiversity, chemical engineering, computer science, networking, and administration, forestry, physics, psychology, technical communication, nano-technology, packaging and marketing, pre-medicine/veterinarian, alternate fuels…the list is only as short as one’s imagination.

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What kind of students study here? All kinds! We seem to particularly attract students who self-identify as being the ‘geeks and nerds’ of their high schools. These are students who may have several invisible disabilities at once, and who prefer opportunities to work hands-on while learning. Some are very shy, some belong to half a dozen organizations, a few know everyone on campus. Just like every campus, we have a range of personality types.

Who isn’t happy here? Usually if you would rather be doing something else than learning, then a STEM school is not a good fit for you.

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If you want to kick back, sleep in, and quit listening, then a STEM education is not a good investment for you or your family. If you hate math too much to get through a calculus one class – which everyone has to take – then STEM education probably isn’t right for you, and you might not like college at all. If you can, however, work your way through one or two classes that you don’t love, in order to move on to the information that excites you, then you have the potential to be a STEM student.

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I’m always happy to answer questions when people want more information about STEM education. I also encourage readers to post their own experience with studying STEM; what fields excite you?

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What does it mean to be “invisibly” disabled?

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You may hear the term invisibly disabled and wonder, what does that really mean?

This term refers to the difference between those disabilities which a person can observe in another person, due to the accommodations a disabled person uses, and disabilities which are not visible at a quick glance. For example, we can “see” a wheelchair, a service dog, or a personal assistant which makes the fact that a person has a disability ‘visible’.

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Socially, we expect to ‘see’ when someone is disabled and it is not uncommon for people to assume that when they cannot ‘see’ a clear sign of a disability, then the person who for example, parks with a disabled placard but walks away from their car “isn’t really disabled.” Disability comes in many forms and the majority of them cannot be seen by glancing at another person.

[note: accessible parking placards are not given to everyone who is disabled; if they were then closer to 20% of all cars would have them – http://www.hhs.gov/od/about/fact_sheets/prevalenceandimpact.html  .]

Invisible disabilities which are most common among college students tend to include the following: autism spectrum/Asperger’s; attention deficit/hyper active disorder; anxiety spectrum disorder including obsessive compulsive and post traumatic stress disorder; affective disorders including depression;dyslexia; dyscalculia;  language processing disorder;  learning disability.

Additionally, universities are seeing increasing numbers of students living with Crohn’s disease, closed head injuries, diabetes, epilepsy, and multiple, sever allergies.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of all invisible disabilities – just the most common among the population of college students. There are two reasons I point this out.

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First, having any of these disabilities does not preclude a person from being successful in college. And secondly, it is helpful for students with these disabilities to realize that they are not alone on their campuses — other students live with similar disabilities and disability service providers, professors, and administrators are learning about how best to accommodate the range of learning styles in a classroom or dormitory hall that students will have.

This remains a challenging but exciting time for students with invisible disabilities. Every year new opportunities develop, new support technologies are made available, and public awareness grows a little more. College continues to become more accessible for more people.

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