Dyslexia Among College Students

“When I was younger, I wanted to be a doctor,” said Jessica Rowley, a sophomore at Mount Mary University. 

Rowley’s childhood dream was crushed when she was encouraged by teachers to pursue a different career path due to her dyslexia.

“Freshman year of high school, I was in my caseworker’s classroom, and she asked me, ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’ and I said that I’d always wanted to be a doctor,” Rowley said. “She said, ‘Let’s be more realistic here. Do you know many years of school that takes?’”

Dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that may make learning to read challenging, according to DyslexiaHelp, an online curriculum and resource center housed at the University of Michigan. People with dyslexia have trouble matching the letters on a page with the sounds they make. It has no connection to intelligence – in fact, Albert Einstein was dyslexic. 

It is estimated that between 5-10 percent of the population has dyslexia, but that number might be higher because it is often undiagnosed. Contrary to popular belief, studies show that there is no connection between dyslexia and vision disorders. There is no cure for dyslexia, but detecting it early can make a dramatic difference in a person’s ability to make satisfactory academic progress. 

Rowley has known about her dyslexia since she was in kindergarten. She was held back after her first year. During her second year of kindergarten, both her teacher and mother noticed that she was different and moved toward getting her evaluated.

After Rowley’s diagnosis in kindergarten, she was put in a separate classroom for children with learning disabilities. 

“Even the word dyslexia was confusing to me,” Rowley said. “But then I was happy that I was diagnosed, because I knew it wasn’t my fault, and now we could work on it in specific ways.” 

One of the specific ways that helped Rowley learn how to read was by tracing letters in a sandbox. 

“You get a sandbox, and then she (the special education teacher) shows you a card that has a letter, and then you draw the letter in the sand, so you are seeing it, touching it, to try and remember the letter,” Rowley said. 

Rowley’s mom was her biggest advocate so most of the push to get her evaluated came from her mom. Rowley’s mother taught her lessons such as, “If your teacher forgets your accommodations then bring them up,” and “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” 

“I am lucky for my mom because she was always there with me,” Rowley said. 

Having a learning disability can be discouraging, and when peers are not accepting or don’t understand, it can create additional conflict in the individual’s life. 

“In elementary school, everybody picked me to read out loud in class because they knew I couldn’t read, and then everyone would laugh and the teacher would have to take over,” Rowley said. 

Even now, in college, Rowley receives judgement from her friends due to her disability. 

“Peers think that I should know how to spell and wonder how could I be in college without knowing how to spell,” Rowley said. “Friends have asked things like, ‘Shouldn’t you be at a technical college where you don’t have to read textbooks? How did you get past high school? How can you have a 4.0 GPA?’” 

In higher education, students often do not receive the same level of accommodations as in high school, because college students are responsible for themselves and their learning environment. 

“I had to stay in high school to make sure that I could get evaluated so that those new evaluations could transfer over to college,” Rowley said. “I was supposed to graduate in January of senior year (of high school), but I had to take random classes so I could stay as a student so I could get evaluated as a student, which sucked.” 

After high school, students need to be proactive and seek out assistance when they need it. For example, one of Rowley’s accommodations was to receive an anonymous notetaker. The notetaker would take notes for Rowley, but would not know that the notes were going to go to her. No one in the class was supposed to know who needed the notes, either. However, this was not clear to her professor.

“My professor said out loud, ‘Can someone be a notetaker for Jessica Rowley?’ while pointing at me,” Rowley said. “I was definitely embarrassed because a lot of people didn’t know why I needed it because he didn’t explain it.” 

While self-advocacy is a factor in receiving appropriate accommodations, Mount Mary University is required to provide these resources. Mount Mary’s accessibility services state that a student who needs accommodations has to provide proper documentation of the diagnosis. The documentation should meet the following requirements:

  1. A diagnostic statement identifying the disability, date the current diagnostic evaluation, and the date of the diagnosis.
  2. A description of the diagnostic criteria and/or diagnostic test used.
  3. A description of the current functional impact of the disability.  
  4. Treatments, medications, assistive devices/services currently prescribed or in use.
  5. A description of the expected progression or stability of the impact of the disability over time.
  6. The credentials of the diagnosing professional(s).

Marci Ocker, the coordinator of accessibilities services at Mount Mary, reviews the documentation and decides if the student will receive accommodations. She is in charge of providing the student with an accommodation letter that lists all of the accommodations needed for her to cope in the classroom. According to Ocker, about 5 percent of Mount Mary students are dyslexic and actively receiving accommodations. It is federal law that those accommodations be followed. 

According to the The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, “public schools are required to make available to all eligible children with disabilities a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs.” This act requires all teaching professionals to accept the student’s accommodations. 

The IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, is a written document that is developed for each public school child who is eligible for special education. The IEP does not follow the child to college; however, colleges are required to provide necessary accommodations under the Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

If the accommodations change the academic integrity of the course, then the professor is able to deny the request. This was made clear on Rowley’s accommodation letter. 

“When I read that on my accomodation letter, I felt cheated,” Rowley said. “I don’t think my accomodations are hard to meet. They just take time.” 

Rowley’s accommodations include extended time when taking quizzes and exams, semi-private space, use of tape recorder, volunteer note-taker, use of computer, and alternate textbooks. 

“Teachers need to be educated … we need more visual-based classes,” Rowley said. “Eventually, the school should look into getting technology that helps the student.”

Technology may include audio sets, smart pens that capture everything that you write and everything that is spoken, or Kindle readers. If students can not afford the appropriate technology or if it is unfunded by the school, this creates more barriers for students with dyslexia who need more assistance.  

The ease of receiving the proper care for one’s learning disability varies on where they attend school. 

“Depends on your district, school, and special education program,” said Mount Mary freshman Emily Green, who was diagnosed with dyslexia in third grade. 

Green started taking standardized tests in third grade, when both the school and her mother noticed the significant difference between her scores and other students’ scores. She was evaluated and placed in special education classes. Her success in school was because of her strong adult support inside and outside of school. 

“After sixth grade, my confidence came back because of an amazing special education teacher,” Green said. 

Rowley just wants to be treated like every other student that is working toward their degree. 

“I don’t want people to look at me and think I’m dumb and that I’m cheating by using the resources that I struggled to get,” Rowley said. “I want people to understand that I’m just trying to level out the playing field so I can succeed just like them.”

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