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Ending the Stigma

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If you have looked closely at a course syllabus this year, you have probably noticed the fine print regarding learning disabilities, sandwiched between the attendance policy and the plagiarism statement. In an effort to encourage students to come forward who may be reluctant, or who simply may not be aware, the Disability and Learning Resource Center (DLRC) now requires that teachers inform students at the beginning of the semester that they may seek reasonable accommodations for disabilities that may impede their ability to fulfill the requirements of the course.

This is important, says Terri Thrower, Director of the DLRC, because “often we’ll have students come in at the end of the semester trying to avoid failing a course. They may not have been aware we were here, or they might have been too embarrassed to come in. Some of them intend to, but never get around to it.” By that point, there is little the DLRC can do. “These are students who really struggle with academics who don’t realize that the school is required to accommodate them.”

“We can’t ask teachers to alter the requirements of the course for a student who can’t meet them,” explains Valerie St. Germain, the DLRC’s Assistant Director. “What we can do is provide reasonable accommodations. If someone is dyslexic, we can provide audio books as MP3s. Students with reading or writing difficulties or anxiety disorders can request extra time for tests. We can help provide accommodations without unfairly altering the expectations for an individual student.”

Those accommodation efforts extend beyond the classroom. The DLRC has negotiated with the Financial Aid office to ensure that students taking reduced course loads due to disability are not penalized and denied grants, and has collaborated with the U-Pass office to help those students keep their transportation benefits. For students with physical disabilities, they have coordinated with Residence Life, Counseling Services and Health Services to provide accessible dorm rooms, and have worked with security staff to plan effective emergency assistance for students with disabilities. Even International Affairs has worked with the DLRC to find accessible accommodations for study abroad trips.

“We’ve definitely seen more new people come in since we started putting information in class syllabi,” reports Thrower. “This is important because we don’t go out into the classrooms to recruit. Students have to learn we’re here, and come to us.”

The vast majority of students served by the DLRC—about 90%—have learning or psychological disabilities rather than physical impairments. It can be difficult for students with invisible disabilities to be comfortable advocating for their needs or speaking directly to teachers. They may be ashamed of their difficulties in the classroom, or afraid that others will accuse them of making up their symptoms or of not trying hard enough to overcome them. “There is still very much a stigma against students with LDs [learning disabilities]. I don’t think it’s changed much in the last 20 years,” says St. Germain. “It wasn’t until 1975 that schools were legally required to accommodate students with special needs at all. It wasn’t very long ago. Before that, you weren’t put in a special ed class—you were just kicked out.”

“There’s a lot of shame associated with having these problems. Some students come into college convinced it will be different from high school; that they will suddenly be better and won’t need any help. They don’t want to come to us because they want to think they’ve moved beyond their LD. But you don’t just grow out of having an LD, and these students still struggle. Going through the education system feeling like you are different leaves a lasting impact—I’ve seen a grown man burst into tears because he was ‘the dumb kid’ in first grade who couldn’t read.”

Between 2004 and 2008, the number of students with disabilities registered with the DLRC increased by 66% (from 149 to 225), and this year, the numbers are even higher. Students with LDs make up approximately 10% of the student population at SAIC and, St. Germain notes, “It’s important to remember that as many students self-report LDs as those who don’t. We have no way of knowing the exact number. Some students don’t want to ask for accommodations because they see it as special treatment rather than a legal right they are entitled to, and some of them have figured out how to get by on their own, and for them ‘just getting by’ is good enough.”

Thrower believes that an art education offers a unique alternative for students who struggle in more traditional academic environments. “It’s not the studio classes these students have problems with. Art classes really accommodate different learning styles very well—they’re very tactile, they help students focus.”

And it is not just the students which benefit from an art education. Thrower believes that they have a unique perspective to offer: “Students with LDs have a different way of seeing the world. They have a different way of thinking. An arts education allows them to express that.”

The DLRC is located at 116 S. Michigan Ave, on the 13th flr. Hours: Mon.–Fri. 9a.m.–5p.m (312)499-4278.

illustrations by Aaron Hoffman

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