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.


Available now directly from Jessica Kingsely Publishers or through booksellers.


Failing Classes: What can I do?


Every semester I meet with students who have the same concern, “I’m failing my classes – what can I do?”

I usually respond by trying to find out what the student is already doing.

  • Do you go to class
  • Are you completing homework on time and handing it in
  • Do you read and review the assigned readings
  • Are you going to your professor’s office hours and asking specific questions when you do not understand something
  • Are you using the learning centers on campus

Usually by the time we get to the end of this list I will find one of two things: a) the student is not doing these things and offers reasons/explanations for why these activities are not possible for them,  or b) the student has tried all of these and is still failing.We’ll return to these points in a moment.

I also inquire into a student’s time spent on other activities: do you work; do you belong to a social group; are you involved in a sport; are you gaming online; do you use social media very frequently? Students do not always make a connection between all the time they spend on other activities and a lack of success in classes.


First we will consider the students who are doing everything – going to class, homework, asking  specific questions of professors, using learning centers…these students may have a disability which is interfering in learning the material or they may just have a learning style which does not work with the professor’s teaching style. I often advise these students to consider dropping the class they are failing. If a student is failing everything and doing everything – then we have a conversation about needing to change their course of study.

If as a student everything you can do is not enough to be successful in the majority of your classes, you are in the wrong area of study. Education is supposed to be challenging, not painful. Talk to the Career Services or Career Counselors on campus – you need assistance finding a field of study that works better with your strengths and doesn’t emphasize the areas of study where you struggle.


If on the other hand, as a student you are not going to class, handing in homework, asking the professor specific questions – for example, you have tried to complete a problem several times but still do not understand how to reach the correct answer – and you are not reviewing the reading or using learning centers…then I’m not surprised you may be struggling in a class. Students do not always leave high school having learned how to study; often smart students do not need to study in high school and when they are finally challenged in college they aren’t sure how to respond.

If as a student you aren’t sure how to approach studying, then learning centers and academic support will be vital life-lines for you to use. If you have a disability, then you should be talking to the campus disability service provider about academic support that will assist you. Tutors can be very useful also. Finally, look around you for fellow students who do know how to study and talk to them about what they do; some use flash cards, some read their textbooks and make margin notes or use highlighters, they recopy their notes from class – try different techniques like these to help you remember the information from class and the assigned readings.

Also consider the number of classes and the amount of homework you are attempting in the semester. Sometimes students fail because they try to fit too many classes and/or social activities/work activities into their limited number of hours each day. If the classes you are taking result in more hours needed for homework then as a student you have available, at least one class needs to be dropped.

If social activities and/or work are adding too many extra obligations to a student’s limited hours, then these other activities either need to be cut down or eliminated.


If a student needs to work to support herself then being a full time student may not be possible; it may be better to take one or two classes at a time. If on the other hand, a student is determined to be a full time student, then work may need to be cut down or eliminated during the semester if work is taking too much time from study/classes.

I often meet students who feel frustrated; they feel like they have tried everything and nothing works to help them be more successful. Often though, they have tried just what they can think of and there are actually options which they have not considered, or there are options that they have dismissed without trying. And sometimes I meet students who give up on an option too quickly, “I tried the learning center once and it didn’t help.” I’ll then remind the student that many people work in a learning center and just because the first person they met with wasn’t a good match, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go back to the learning center and try meeting with a different person.

Sometimes talking to a person in the Dean of Students or Chancellor’s office, or an academic advisor can help students think of a strategy for success that hadn’t occurred to them yet, or may even allow a student to become aware of a service on campus that they didn’t know about.


Students – do not suffer in silence. If as a student you feel like you’ve done everything you can think of and still are not being successful then reach out for some assistance. Or maybe you know there are things you need to do differently but are struggling to take the next step. Either way, you can talk to your academic advisor, or disability support person, or make an appointment with the Dean of Student’s Office or Chancellor’s Office…there is academic support available on campus if you are willing to seek it out. Make an appointment to talk to someone who can assist you!


Improving a grade in a problematic class.




Students moving from high school to college sometimes believe that because professors appear to pay less attention to who is in class – they may not take attendance, they may not learn names, they may even say, “I don’t care if you come to class” – that going to class is not necessary, or that it is a waste of their time. “The professor just lectures from the book” or “I don’t learn anything in class” are two reasons I’ve heard students say they do not go to class. What students often do not realize is that going to class can still make a difference in what they learn.

Very few people are able to remember everything they hear during a lecture or discussion. We all tend to pick up some words, ideas, or points though. If a student does the assigned reading for a day, goes to class and even half-listens to what is said, they are likely to pick up a few key terms that are repeated by the professor that were mentioned in the textbook. This is a good indicator of a foundational idea that the student will need to learn in order to be successful in the class – these are also clues to the concepts the teacher will use when writing test questions.


If a student is having trouble grasping the key concepts, then being present in class can provide opportunities to ask the professor questions. If the professor doesn’t have time to answer the questions during class, then a student who has a face the professor recognizes from class will find they have a warmer welcome going to the professor’s office and asking their question(s).

If a student needs more support than asking the professor questions, or if the professor provides answers which don’t clarify enough for the student, then a tutor or learning center appointment(s) are a useful strategy to make use of. Many learning centers allow students to sign up for reoccurring appointments or offer study sessions so that a student can have support while working on homework.


If a student isn’t sure what to try next, then it is time to make an appointment with their academic adviser, or disability support person. The longer a student struggles in a class without support, the less likely the student is to be able to catch up on the foundational ideas they need to pass the class. There are few things more frustrating than working hard on a class only to fail it or achieve a low grade because the information was not adequately understood. Schools are attempting to provide academic support for students – students have to be willing to make use of that academic support when they are struggling in a class. Do not suffer in silence, seek out the support that is available.



Should my disability impact where I choose to study?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

small class

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.

student room


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.


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.

diverse work group

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.


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.


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.


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.