Is this book for you?

Do you have an invisible disability?
Does someone in your family live with AD/HD, dyslexia, Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism Spectrum Disorder, a learning disability, or an affective disorder like depression?
Are you or an invisibly disabled person you know in college or preparing for college?
Are you the parent of an invisibly disabled child whom you would like to eventually prepare for college?
Are you an educator or support staff for disabled students?

These are the people who are the primary audience for this book.
While the title might indicate that only those who are going to study science, technology, math, or engineering might find the book useful, this is not the case. STEM fields are singled out because many of the invisibly disabled students who study in these fields are very intelligent and may not have developed study habits prior to leaving high school. Regardless of if a student has or needs to develop study habits though, this book provides guidance and information for invisibly disabled students, their families and supporters.

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This handbook can help families prepare a younger student years in advance of the child’s entering college, by giving insight into the changes in academic expectations a student will face, and changes in legal status that a family will face. It can also help teachers and aids realize the kinds of independence that a range of disabled students need to develop prior to graduation.

If a student is already in college, then the book will be helpful in knowing who students and families can talk to for different types of academic and emotional support. Families may for example, know about the disability support person on campus but are they aware of the learning centers? Do they realize the importance of the Housing staff? Do families know when is it appropriate for parents or caregivers to intercede on their student’s behalf? How can a family assist their student in obtaining the support the student does need?

For those working in higher education there are insights provided regarding the challenges different disabilities present for students. Medications wear off, brains function differently when processing the same types of information, while the majority of disabled students live with multiple disabilities.

Containing some of the ‘insider’ knowledge of how higher education works, this book is a handy reference for students and families. It also provides insight for educators who may not realize what families are facing in preparing their invisibly disabled student, or the particular challenges that invisibly disabled students face when learning and living.

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http://www.jkp.com/search/index.php?s=christy+oslund

Available now directly from Jessica Kingsely Publishers or through booksellers.

How MOOCs can assist disabled students.

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There is increasing buzz about the potential of MOOCs (massive open online courses) to making education available to everyone. As MOOCs are offered by schools like Harvard and MIT, some people have proposed that this is the future of education. Students need to keep their feet firmly planted on the ground however, and remember:  no one is yet offering, 1) MOOC degrees or 2) jobs to people educated through MOOCs.

MOOCs do offer university level instruction to people who due to distance, cost, or interest in only very specialized topics are not able/willing to enroll in full time study at a university. MOOCs have another potential value, which I am not seeing people discussing. Invisibly disabled students could potentially use MOOCs as study tools before enrolling in and paying for a class for credit.

Consider for example a student who needs one math class for their degree, but who struggles with math. Taking a MOOC class like college algebra would allow the student to prepare. There are also pre-college algebra classes offered, if a student needs more foundational work before taking their for-credit university class. The MOOC class will not count for degree purposes, however, the practice the MOOC class would give in learning and working with concepts might be the precursor to success that a student could use. MOOC classes can also be repeated without cost, so that a student could repeat a class until they are comfortable enough with the content matter to take the class for credit.

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This is an area of educational preparation where MOOCs may prove to have something valuable to offer to invisibly disabled students who are seeking degrees. Enrollment in the MOOC classroom is unlimited, just as there is no limit to how many times a student reviews an open source class. In other words, a student can repeat the same class if needed to prepare for content matter they struggle with. This obviously is not a way to prepare for an entire degree, however, it can be useful when a student struggles with a specific class.

If you are a student who struggles with certain types of learning, then consider looking into the availability of MOOC classes which would allow you to work with concepts before you take a similar class for credit. And for families who have a student who desires a college education but who still needs to practice social skills before leaving home, MOOC classes provide access to educational practices that can be used at home, before the student relocates to a university or college away from home. MOOCs real value is in continuing education and in educational preparation. Once we recognize their value for what it is, we can see how MOOCs can be another tool in preparing invisibly disabled students for college success.

I failed a class/the semester – what can I do?

Have you reached the end of the semester and found you failed one or more – even all of your classes? What can you do?

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First, ask yourself some questions:

  • Did I go to class regularly (even if it was boring, pointless, repetitive, put you to sleep)
  • Did I arrive in class on time (was I late on more than one occasion)
  • Did I hand in all assigned homework on time
  • Did I take notes
  • Did I review the notes
  • Did I participate if the class allowed for participation
  • Did I use the learning centers on campus (do I know where the campus learning centers are? Do I know if there are any?)
  • If projects/presentations were part of the class did I do my best on all of them, show up for all group work and meetings on time
  • Did I keep up with the reading for the class during the semester and review my notes after class so that I was studying all semester – or did I wait and try and cram for tests in the few days/hours before a test
  • Did I seek out the professor and/or Teaching Assistant during their office hours and ask questions about homework or classwork that I did not understand

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If you have done all of these things, consider the following:

  • Do I need to talk to the professor to find out if there is a mistake in my grade? – Grade entry is often computer automated these days, and professors can occasionally make a data entry error that needs to be corrected. This is something to bring to a professor’s attention as soon as you discover the incorrect grade.
  • Do I need to file a grade appeal? If you have handed in all your homework and been given passing grades, if you have passed all your tests and gone to class and still did not pass the class, yet you were still given a failing grade, then again, you need to immediately bring this to the professor’s attention. If the professor states that the failing grade is accurate, you can file an appeal with the department the professor teaches for – but I would recommend FIRST making an appointment to sit down with the professor and explain why you thought you were passing and listen to the professor’s explanation for why you were given the failing grade.

Now let us suppose that you failed but it was neither an error nor a misunderstanding between what the professor expected and what you thought the professor expected.

If you did all of the above – went to class, studied throughout the semester (not relying on cramming just before an exam), used the appropriate learning centers, talked to the professor when you didn’t understand something – yet you received a failing grade – it may be that the information was presented in a way that is not suited to your learning style. You may need to repeat the class to learn the information.

Some classes are very complex, plus the information is not presented in a way that suits a wide range of learners. In a case like this, it may be necessary to take a class a second time — sometimes repetition of ideas and greater familiarity with a topic will assist in learning the information. Also, some professors may be able to teach a subject in a way that engages an individual student in a way that another professor does not. Professors and students are all human; with a complex topic, sometimes the professor teaching does make a difference. Not everyone teaches or learns the exact same way and different combinations of student and teacher can impact learning.

If, you failed more than one class though, you need to consider the following:

  • You are trying to do too much at once – you’re either taking more credit hours and/or working, or have too many social activities, or are otherwise trying to fit too much activity into the time you have.
  • You are in the wrong field of study.

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It is important to consider which of these apply to your situation and comparing yourself to others will not help.

It doesn’t matter if someone else is doing the same amount of activity that you are yet not failing – we are each individuals and we each have to discover the pace we can work at, and how much we can do at once. Our brains are not all built the same way, and our brains do not all process information or stimuli the same way. Just as we all have things we can do without effort, we all have at least one thing we have to work harder than others at. Are you trying to do too much at once? Did you find yourself always running out of time, always needing to be in two places at once? Then you may need to cut down on activities and maybe cut down on the number of classes you take, in order to be successful. Talking to an academic advisor can be helpful in working out what changes you can make to be more successful.

It may be even harder to figure out if you are in the wrong field of study. Just because you really want to follow a certain career path does not mean you will be able to successfully obtain a degree in a given field. Have you ever watched a talent contest? (There are more and more of them televised these days). Have you noticed that while some people are very talented at singing or dancing or playing an instrument or at physical activities, others do not have the same talents? Everyone has talents, strengths, and things they do well – but sometimes what we want most and our strengths do not match up. If you are struggling to pass classes in a certain field of study, then you might be like the person who desperately wants to be a singer but cannot stay on key. You may need to separate your hobbies and interests from your potential to be employed.

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Look for the Career Services office on your campus, or talk to your Academic Advisor. Find out about the possible jobs that would allow you to use your strengths without requiring so much of what you struggle with. If for example, you have trouble with math it is one thing to have to survive/pass one math class as part of a degree requirement and another to try and become a mathematician…or any other career where math would be both foundational and regularly required.

And if you are a student who is struggling but who has not studied throughout the semester, has not used learning centers, has not talked to the professor, has not gone to class regularly or does not arrive on time – it may be that what you need is to consider if you really want a college education. These are the practices necessary for most people to be successful in college. If you don’t want to do these things, then you may be pursuing a job/career in the wrong way. Have you considered certification in a field that allows you to learn hands on? Journey-person training in trades can lead to very well paid jobs which remain in demand – in fact, predictions are that countries around the globe are not training enough trades people and that demand is going to continue to increase.

Consider if you are in the right field of study. Consider if you need to try a different school, different field, or different path to employment. Talk to a Career Counselor and Academic Advisor about your options. Remember, education is supposed to be challenging, not painful. If your current course of study is making you suffer, you need to reexamine either your goals or your approach to your goals.

The “real” me: with medication or without?

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I’ve been doing research for my latest book and was interested to find studies are showing that students who take medication for AD/HD are conflicted about their identity. These students seem to be absorbing larger social impressions/myths that imply that some kinds of medicine are less valid than others.

While starting medication from a young age can allow a student to suddenly focus in class, students are also being impacted from a young age by the social myth that goes something like this, “Normal means being who you are without taking medication [unless you need medicine for life and death], so when you take medication for AD/HD you aren’t behaving like your normal self; you only are your normal self if you aren’t taking medication.”

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Obviously there are a few problems with the myth that says we aren’t our normal self when we take medicine, or that medicine impacts our identity and makes us someone else; that the behavior we exhibit when taking medication is not our ‘real self.’

In order to make it clearer why I think this is problematic, let me compare this version of what it means to be ‘normal’ or authentic, with what it would mean to be Type One diabetic and to not take insulin. We understand that people who need insulin and do not take it are more likely to have serious health impairments and that they will potentially die. So as a society we do not label someone who takes insulin as more or less their true self – we say they need to take insulin to maintain their health. As a society we suspend judgement about the person’s ‘authentic’ identity and tend to think that someone who is diabetic is their regular self while taking their insulin.

Yet, when someone takes medicine because of a health issue that affects their mental state, we seem – as a society – to be quicker to make judgements about the person: about how normal they are, about who they ‘really’ are; as if a person can be separated out and  should have to choose between being authentic, or being healthy. We don’t seem to be as quick to accept that a person can be their authentic self while taking their medication to remain healthy, or to function to their potential when the medicine impacts mental states. This seems most true for AD/HD medication but applies to a lesser extent to medications given for unrelated mental health issues (depression, anxiety, etc.)

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We’re giving young people in our society a very troubling message, and studies are showing that young people are absorbing this message. As a society we’re saying that there are medicines we see as being legitimate, and medicines which we see as enabling poor study habits, unruly behavior, and medicines which enable people who should be able to just ‘pull themselves together’ to get by without the effort other people put into life.

As parents, caregivers, and educators, we need to promote the idea that a medication that assists a child in being healthy, productive, and happy is not a crutch. Nor is the child less him or herself when taking their medicine. Just as our behavior will change if we don’t sleep for several days in a row, or our behavior changes if we consume a lot of sugar at once, our behavior can change under many circumstances. We remain ourselves, even when our behavior changes. Medicine may impact our behavior however, the medicine does not make us less real or genuine. We remain our true selves when we use medicine to assist our quality of life. We are not less genuine, less normal, or less our ‘real selves’ when we are using medication.

Of course, some people will always choose to not use medication and I certainly believe that individuals have the right to make choices. An insulin dependent diabetic who chooses to stop using insulin will have dramatic consequences. Young people who choose to stop using medication as they become adults entering college will also find they face some dramatic consequences; when any person stops using a medication that their body is accustomed to, both their health and their study habits will be significantly impacted. One’s body will react to any sudden change in chemical balance.

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Whatever medication a young person is accustomed to, if they are planning to stop using the medication on even a trial basis in college, I would suggest they begin this trial stoppage before college begins. At least allow one’s body the summer in between leaving high school and beginning college as an opportunity to begin the adjustment – I would also recommend staying in contact with a health care provider during this transition as any sudden change in body chemistry can threaten a person’s health.

Parents need to understand that they cannot force a student in college to remain on medication. Again, I would suggest families allow their students the summer months to practice what it is like to function without medication, so that students have some idea of what to be prepared for in college. I also recommend that anyone stopping their medication because they feel their identity/personality is impacted by the medication, work with a counselor. Identity is complex and fluid. We all tend to reach a point in our lives when we question who we are and what makes us our genuine selves. Students who have been medicated from a young age are increasingly finding this an internal debate that needs to be worked through and families can assist a young adult by making sure he or she has the necessary counseling support to assist talking through their concerns.

To recap: medicine is a valuable advancement that allows individuals to live a quality of life that is not possible without medication. Not everyone, however, will always choose to use medication, particularly if they are concerned that the medicine they take impacts their identity – their sense of self and personality. In cases where a person is questioning their identity due to the impact medication has on them (or on their behavior) then families can be supportive of counseling which helps a person work through the issues they are encountering. As a society, we can support the idea that a doctor and patient are best able to judge the medication a person legitimately needs and as individuals/groups we can spend less time and energy second guessing medical judgements about medication. The average person is not qualified to determine if someone really needs to take medication – leave that judgment to people who are qualified; when you hear someone else second guessing a person’s need for medication, then remind them that the doctor’s opinion is more valid than their personal bias.

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Whatever our personal bias about medicating children, particularly children living with AD/HD – we need to stop voicing these opinions in front of children. We, as part of our larger social groups, are having a negative impact on how these children view themselves. We, as individuals, can be the source of improving the social climate these children grow up in.

 

Parents supporting students at college: Part Two – Housing and Independence

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Where will a student live when they go to college?

If they stay in their local area, then they may be able to stay at home. Depending on a student’s disability and how they are managing their transition, medication, and independence, a year at home that further supports the transition to independence might be a good idea.

Sometimes though, dorm life is a good idea for supporting independence, even if the student is close enough to live at home. Moving to a dorm allows a student to be responsible for getting themself up and to class on time, taking their own medication without reminders, being responsible for their own laundry etc. Even if a student remains living at home during their first year at college, families should be encouraging the kind of independence that includes these same specific skills.

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This may mean parents clenching teeth when a student is sleeping through class however, students need to learn the consequences of missing class including failing grades.

Families are not helping students in the long run if the only thing that ever gets a student out of bed is a parent. Students have to learn to be responsible for such things themselves if the final goal is for the student to live independently. Ideally, a student will have practiced getting up, doing laundry, taking medication while still in high school but life isn’t always ideal.

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When it is time for students to apply for housing at a university, some parents choose to take on the responsibility of filling out the housing application for their student. I would suggest that it is better to work with the student then to fill out the application for the student. Again, this is a step towards independence and if the student isn’t ready to fill out the application by him or herself, then they probably aren’t ready to live away from home either.

Some families tell me their student is too busy to fill out the application. A student’s life is not going to be less busy once they are a full time college student and learning to manage multiple demands on their time is something families can help students with by helping them make the time to fill out their housing application. Think about it this way – students have to learn to prioritize the most important events over lesser events – having a place to live is a priority over most other activities, including sporting events and extra curricular social events.

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While in college a student may choose to live off-campus at some point. Parents may provide emotional support and advice during this process, they may even accompany their student on visits to potential apartments. Remember however, that this is another step in gaining independence; the final decision is the student’s decision as are the final consequences. If the student chooses a building that has a great social life and as a result their grades start to suffer, the student has to learn how to re-balance their social/academic life and parents will not be able to oversee this process.

The other main thing families can remember is that with university dormitories, students are still in a supported environment – the housing staff is specifically trained to work with young people making the transition to independent living. Rather than stepping in to “fix” problems with the housing staff, families can encourage their student’s independence by discussing issues the student may run into, (perhaps a problem with a roommate) but then encourage the student to follow through on the steps that are necessary to resolve their issue without the parents becoming directly involved.

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For example, if a student has a roommate issue, they can discuss this with the housing staff person responsible for their living unit (floor, hall, building) – there are levels of such staff, whose purpose is to help students resolve conflicts: Resident Advisers, Community Advisers, Professional Staff etc. When families would like more information about such staff and related processes they can now find this information on web sties; go to the university’s web site, find the link for Housing, and then read over the related housing web pages to find out what processes your student does have available to them. You can then advise the student about the process, without having to step in and implement the process yourself.

On or off-campus, a student who is in college needs to start putting into practice the independent living skills that are part of becoming a self-sufficient adult. Families need to remind themselves that it is generally better for students to live through a few bumpy moments at college, sorting out their problems without parents jumping in to ‘fix’ things, if students are going to be well prepared to adjust to the next step of their life – living independently as a working professional.

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Parents supporting students at the college level: Part One – Transition and Classes

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Raising a disabled child is challenging. Just ask my parents (they don’t complain but they could tell you a lot about the challenges.) How children are raised has changed a lot since I was growing up but one thing hasn’t really changed – when parents have a child who faces a unique set of challenges, the level of support the parents provide in advocating for and providing auxiliary support for their child has a huge impact on how much of the child’s potential the child will realize. Parents who work outside of the classroom with their child have children who tend to do better in the classroom.

Given this, I understand it is particularly difficult for parents who are used to assisting their children achieve success when the now young adult moves to college. How much support should parents continue to provide? Parents recognize that the geographical move alone hasn’t changed who their son or daughter is, so how does a family reconcile what the student may still need with what the parents can provide from a distance?

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Transitioning to college is challenging for every student – don’t let the recruiting brouchers for colleges, with their pictures of happy students, deceive you. Everyone faces challenges when they first transition to college life; disabled students are going to encounter unique problems as well as some of the same changes their non-disabled peers face such as  new food, new smells, new rooms, new people, new schedules, new ways of doing things….

For some students – disabled or not – a move which places them at a significant distance from home is not a good first move. More students should be making a several step transition to the college they plan to eventually graduate from. At least one year, and often two, can be spent at either a community college or a regional university that is not the university the student intends to take their final degree from. What students sometimes loose sight of is that no matter where they start their college education, their diploma will still have the name of the school they eventually graduate from, not the names of the schools they studied at along the way.

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Parents, your role may be in helping students recognize when they are not yet ready to jump straight to a school that is a significant distance from home. Similarly, if your student is only comfortable in a smaller school, going directly to a very large school may not be a healthy transition for him/her – each student has an individual limit to the number of new stresses they can successfully deal with at any one time. Parents, you may be the best equipped to advise your student about their personal tipping point for too much stress.

Parents can also be helpful in making sure their students know where to access the major life essentials in a new environment. Does the student know how to catch a bus/train/subway in their new town? Are they aware of where the closest grocery store and laundry mat are?  Have they found the dining hall and laundry in their dorm housing? Does their school have a health clinic or do they know where the nearest doctor’s office is? And where and how will they be getting any needed prescriptions refilled?

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At the college level perhaps the most significant change in the parent-child relationship that is taking place comes to the parent’s involvement in their student’s study/homework/grades and teacher interactions. It is no longer appropriate – or legal – for parents to receive information directly from the professors of their sons/daughters classes. Legally, once a person becomes a full time college student, they are considered an adult and their right to privacy regarding their grades and school progress is protected.

Grades are not going to be updated daily.

Teachers are not going to respond to demands for information.

Students are not going to always have quickly updated grading information either. At the college level professors may provide very little grading feedback during the course of the semester. Combine this with the potential that a student may choose not to share grades they know a parent will not approve of and it is very possible that a family will not know until the end of a semester that their student has failed some or all of their classes. This is the adult reality of college.

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This is a further reason why some families are best served by taking a stepped transition from living at home to living away at school; community and regional schools may be less expensive than the final-destination university that a student intends to graduate from. If a student needs practice being independent then the stress of expensive classes with little room for failure may not be a good first transition step on the way to obtaining a professional degree.

In the next part of this series we will look at another area where students need to be working towards independence: their ability to make housing arrangements.Both on and off-campus housing have specific steps which parents can help with, and points at which parents will need to let their students manage on their own.